Guitar Hero was something of a sleeper hit last year. Developer RedOctane delivered an excellent rhythm game that played quite unlike any other console game with its guitar controller and deep list of playable songs. Despite its pricey package, Guitar Hero sold and became a quick hit, garnering almost as much gaming media attention as 2005 classics like God Of War and Resident Evil 4. RedOctane's readied up Guitar Hero 2, and does the series continue to deliver a deep experience or is it a one-hit wonder?
Without a question, Guitar Hero 2 is better than its predecessor in most ways, though the gameplay mechanics haven't changed much at all. The guitar controller, bundled with either Guitar Hero or Guitar Hero 2, works as well as always. The notes in each song are played by holding one of five colored frets on the guitar while strumming the controller's strum bar. There's even a whammy bar for those distorted, drawn-out notes. If you've played Guitar Hero, you'll feel right at home with the controller. It's no surprise, this guitar wasn't broken and RedOctane didn't need to fix a darn thing.
There are a few new things added to the mix. Three-string notes will pop up on the Hard and Extreme difficulties and can really throw you off. Also, hammer-ons, which weren't very effective in Guitar Hero, are done much better here. The result is a perfectly improved experience, with little to no frustrations coming from the controller itself. Guitar Hero's a lot like golf; the only person you can blame for not doing well is yourself. Also like golf, the only way to get better at the game is to practice. Fortunately, Guitar Hero 2 has an extensive practice mode that actually lets you pinpoint individual sections in songs, slow them down, and practice them until you can't miss a beat. I'll quote my roommate Alan, "Practice mode actually makes you better."
The track list is something most Guitar Hero fans have become familiar with, even weeks before the game's release, but those of you in the dark will be happy to know that top rock artists like Foo Fighters ("Monkey Wrench"), Nirvana ("Heart-Shaped Box"), and Black Sabbath ("War Pigs") make an appearance. Some older groups are also there, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, with the 9+ minutes of guitar solo pain in "Free Bird." I was very happy to see some metal bands thrown into the mix, like Avenged Sevenfold, Shadows Fall, and Lamb Of God, but RedOctane earned the most bonus points in my book by including All That Remains' "Six" as an unlockable song. It's a current favorite of mine, after all, and it almost made my hands bleed when I kicked up the difficulty to Hard and tried to play it. The different levels of songs are unlocked in the familiar career mode, and it's as fun as always to earn money, unlock secret songs, outfits, and characters, and go for those difficult five-star reviews.
I have to admit that Guitar Hero 2 is noticeably harder than the original. The reason for this isn't because of the notes themselves, in fact, some of the songs are incredibly easy. Most of the difficulty comes from brutally long songs that require a lot of stamina. As I said, "Free Bird" is over 9 minutes long-that's asking a lot of your left hand for the frets and right hand for the strumming. While I'll admit I play the game on the Normal difficulty setting, I've tried a large amount of the songs on Hard and I've only beaten a few. "Free Bird" on a higher difficulty setting is just obscenely difficult.
Guitar Hero didn't really wow anyone with an explosive visual performance but it did have a wild art style and decently interesting environments to play in. This time around the background camera angles get a little closer to your player, allowing you to see him strum on his virtual guitar while you shred away on your controller. Some of the visual effects light up the screen and add a nice touch, like the fire effects that come from your player's hands as he strums on-screen. The environments deform and change in appearance during Encores, and the final shape-shifting venue was particularly interesting. The re-recordings are hit ("War Pigs", "Free Bird") and miss ("Beast And The Harlot"); but this isn't surprising to me. The same thing happened last year, and I'd be happy to see the actual recordings make it around for Guitar Hero 3. I'm very happy to report that RedOctane input an option that allows you to turn off that annoying scratching noise that occurs whenever you screw up a note-this sound effect was extremely distracting in Guitar Hero and it can be silenced once and for all in the sequel. I usually know when I screwed up a note, I don't need an annoying sound to rub it in
Guitar Hero 2 does nothing to change its predecessor's direction. It's essentially a fine-tuned update to last year's hit, and that's just fine with me. If you as much as watched someone else play the original, you simply can't miss out on the sequel. If last year's "Bark At The Moon" and "Cowboys From Hell" weren't enough for you, "Free Bird" will be. I referenced "Free Bird" five times throughout this review; if nothing else, play this game just for a hands-on experience with this classic. The only improvements I could suggest would be to include the real song recordings. Guitar Hero is one of those games that doesn't ever really need to be reinvented. That's not to say that something couldn't be done to make it even more fun, but even after all of the hand cramps, there's nothing I could think of.