Admit it – at some point in your life you've fully rocked out to some song by playing a righteous "air guitar." Whether it's Hendrix or Hammett, Morello or Mustaine, you've know that thanks to some charging guitar chord, you've put yourself in the boots of a rock star on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. Of course, while there have been numerous music games up to this point, none of them have let you take over as the lead guitarist of a band. Well, my fellow gamers, now you can take your imagined rock stills to the test thanks to RedOctane's latest rhythm game, Guitar Hero.
Like other rhythm titles, Guitar Hero measures your timing against a number of colored icons inexorably scrolling towards a timing bar. Obviously you need to hit the corresponding button as it hits the bar to continue your progress on the song. However, Guitar Hero does two things right: First, they used Harmonix's extensive experience with rhythm games like Amplitude and Frequency to pick songs that would appeal to just about everyone. The Ramones, Incubus and ZZ Top are merely a few of the bands included in the 30 recognizable tunes from major groups, not counting the unlockable songs. Literally, if you're a fan of rock or the skills of a guitarist of any kind, you'll definitely be satisfied with the song selection.
The other thing that's perfect is the peripheral used to play the game. Like all other rhythm games, you can use the controller to play, but to get the full experience, why wouldn't you use the included Gibson SG guitar peripheral? The guitar controller has five colored fret buttons that correspond to the fret icons onscreen, a flipper to strum instead of strings and a whammy bar that can be adjusted to just about any position you want. The guitar feels extremely comfortable in your hands, and even novices will get used to positioning their hands on the device after a few minutes. What will appeal to a large number of actual guitar fans is that you'll be able to pull off a number of realistic guitar techniques, like pull offs, hammer ons and power chord sustains.
Don't understand what I'm talking about? Don't worry, because Guitar Hero has an extremely solid tutorial that explains the basics of the game, starting you out with only three notes and easing you into more complex techniques. The learning curve for the game is around an hour or so for beginners, but spending the time will get you set for just about any song on the Easy level. Moving up to Medium and Hard add in additional fret buttons to increase the challenge, with Expert mode really stretching even veteran guitarist's fingers. Like other rhythm games, you'll need to correctly hit the right notes at the right time in order to get points and sustain your rock meter, with successive numbers adding combos to your score. Missed notes threaten to end your performance as the gathered crowd starts to think that you suck. It's a no brainer, but you want to stay as far away from this side of the meter as long as you can, because otherwise the game will unplug your amp and the game is over.
Every now and then, you'll also run into "star notes," which, when accurately struck add to your star meter. Once it gets to a certain point, you can trigger this meter by either hitting the select button on the guitar or controller, or (more like a rock god) tilting the guitar controller vertically. This gets the digital crowd really involved in how you're playing, and significantly boosts your multipliers and points. It's also an effective way of digging your rock meter out of the gutter in case you're blowing a song badly…The crowd will forgive your butterfingers on the previous notes as long as you can accurately make up the ones that follow your triggered star meter.
The main thrust of the game comes in the career mode, where you pick a persona and play your way through a series of songs and venues, moving from garages to stadiums eventually. While you can take on any song that you've previously unlocked in the campaign mode, the real fun can be had if you find or purchase another guitar for a friend. (Currently the guitar isn't a standalone peripheral, but your friends will probably be hooked enough on the game to not mind shelling out the money for the title.) Anyway, multiplayer matches split up a song evenly, allowing you to really have dueling guitars back and forth. I know you can see the lighters waving in the air from here…
Most of the time, you're not paying attention to the visuals of the game anyway, because your attention is primarily locked on getting the notes right. There are moments however when you'll be able to get a breather and actually enjoy the background animations of the crowd and your bandmates. The band actually plays in time with the music, and you'll notice subtle touches like your "character" not mindlessly playing along if you're blowing notes left and right – they'll actually stop and wait for you to find your fingering again. The activation of your star meter also engages some interesting guitar tricks, such as spinning the guitar around or playing the instrument in very creative ways by your avatar. You're also treated to some rather detailed scrolling backgrounds on the main playing "window" that resembles a custom painted guitar neck.
Many rhythm games can live or die by how good their cover versions are; Guitar Hero skirts this with great renditions of the game's songs. Sure, some of the cover singers don't have the same timbre to their voice as the original artists, but the primary focus of the game is on the guitar, not the singers, and hence is much louder than the vocals. From the slower titles to the hard charging chords, every note when accurately hit sounds great, and using the whammy bar to manipulate notes sounds awesome (perfect for Iron Man). When you miss a note, you get the expected note feedback, which can be extremely noticeable on longer notes or extended chords.
There are a few downsides to Guitar Hero – minor issues, but ones that do hamper the game from being completely perfect. I mentioned it earlier, but it'd be great were the peripheral simply available to purchase by itself. I know plenty of people that would pay for a bundle of two axes and this title instead of having to buy the game all over again simply so they can have the multiplayer mode the way it should be. Another problem is one that continually plagues most rhythm games, which is that you'll always be able to come up with other songs that you wish were included that just haven't been made available this time around. Since the game is solely for the PS2, you're not really going to have a chance to download new songs like you might were the game on Xbox Live (all the more reason for a port over – Please???) Similarly, it would be great if you could take on guitarists online in multiplayer, but I guess we'll just have to wait for the sequel.
Damn, this is an incredibly addictive game, if for no other reason that an extremely accessible and well made peripheral and a memorable song list that just about everyone into rock and roll likes. Whether you’re a rhythm game addict, a guitarist in real life or merely curious about the game itself, you should try to get your hands on this game. Those who are about to rawk, we salute you!