Review: Guitar Hero 5

I’ve been a loyal groupie following the Guitar Hero saga since its inception. I had previously researched Guitar Freaks for years prior and I’ve never been able to get enough of rhythm games. I admit, of course, that I approached Guitar Hero 5 with more than a little trepidation. Though I am primarily concerned with new track-lists, it never hurt to update some graphics, gameplay, or presentation here and there. After all, who wants to continually buy the same product over and over for minor tweaks (I’m looking at you, Madden fans)? With the advent of Guitar Hero 5, the latest addition to what will presumably be one of the longest rhythm franchises running, I can say that my apathy with which the announcement of the latest game was met was far from warranted. It may not have completely revolutionized the series, but it sure did a number on my perception of it.

Previously I was getting more than just a little burnt out on the genre as a whole. Too many releases and not enough meat! While this one does more than a few things right, let’s first talk about what you’re undoubtedly interested in most – the music. That’s what it’s all about, brother! Guitar Hero 5 came out swinging with an impressive track list that I felt catered to a wider range of music fans than any prior entry. For example, music greats such as Johnny Cash, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Shirley Manson, and Santana? Come on. Literally something for everyone was included with the fifth full-fledged Guitar Hero, something I felt admirable coming from a company that seems concerned primarily with cashing out rather than giving the people what they want. You can go from some thrashing Megadeth to exotic Rammstein and all the way around to some trippy Peter Frampton all without getting out of your seat. They say variety is the spice of life – that’s also true for music games. You can’t attract everyone with metal and indie bands. I was particularly pleased that they went in this direction.

The production values have been upped considerably. In what previously felt like poorly-choreographed attempts at “brutal” stage shows and silly emo whine fests, I never felt as if I were truly a singer in some sort of band. It felt so much like poor karaoke and uninspired strumming to inspire any sort of real feelings of rocking out. Starting up a song now, even in a Quick Play mode, soon changes that notion. Camera angles have become much more dramatic, with improved graphics and fluid motion capture. The frenetic pace with which you view your band and your character onstage is absolutely superb and very energenic.

Regardless of what instrument you’re jamming out with, at times the whole presentation really feels as though you just charged up a crowd with some killer vocals or admirable shredding. And isn’t that what the games are all about? To put the power of music into the hands of the people who can’t live out their fantasies in real life? I felt a swell of hope that the soul has returned to music gaming with these small, but very noticeable changes.

In addition to playing as one of the familiar members of the Guitar Hero cast such as Judy Nails or Izzy Sparks, your Xbox 360 Avatar can now join in on the fun. You can even rock out on stage while dressed in any outfit your avatar is rocking, which I thought gave the game a very personal touch. It’s also hilarious to watch a diminutive, extremely cartoony person on stage rocking and making a fool of itself to some of your favorite songs. I particularly enjoyed this and played with my avatar for the better part of the game.  The Wii version also allows to use their personal Mii during Freestyle Mode, which only adds to the fun.

While the rest of the title has been tightened up for all its worth, I do take issue with the fact that the likenesses of the deceased Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain have been used so flippantly. Out of respect for the dead it would have been appreciated to keep them out of a video game that is not showcasing them as artists, but rather as puppets for you to play with. What’s more, they’re gone from this world and I found the implementation of previous legends such as Jimi Hendrix in Guitar Hero: World Tour unnecessary as well. When Johnny Cash is traipsing around on stage singing a Paramore song, something is wrong. This could have been taken out altogether. It’s just silly. It’s not a massive flaw, but one that I wish Activision would take note of when producing future Guitar Hero installments.

All the game modes popularized in Guitar Hero: World Tour (an ultimately soulless endeavor) have come back to play including GH Tunes as well as the ability to create your own Heroes and songs to submit as DLC for other players. Yep, it’s all here. Drag some friends over to create a band or just jam out solo, which I believe is the best way if you really want to enjoy the music without bickering or vocals straying off-key. Hey, maybe that’s the real reason John and Paul went solo!

In any case, Guitar Hero 5 is a massive improvement over previous endeavors. Playing it evoked the very same feelings I got from the first title back when it wasn’t good enough for licensed songs, long before the fame and fortune got to its head. I want to see more of it. And I want to see the heart return to music gaming, and with the improvements showcased here and the magical mystery of The Beatles: Rock Band, it certainly feels like positive steps in the right direction.  But can the genre take the cue and follow in their illustrious, toe-tapping footsteps?

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