Review – Guitar Hero 2

You know the feeling of excitement you got as a child trying to sleep on Christmas Eve? That’s the feeling I got waiting for Guitar Hero 2. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anticipating this game as much as the new Zelda. I don’t think I’m alone, either. With Guitar Hero 1 selling a million copies since its release, there are plenty of wannabe rockers out there who are ready to rip it up all over again. Now the wait is over. No longer do we have to settle for Youtube videos of schmucks who got access to the ten song industry demo laying it down for us. Guitar Hero 2 is here. Are you ready?

You damn well better be, because this sequel waits for no one. The word of the day here is “challenge,” as Guitar Hero 2 challenges both its players and the competition. For as much as this is a routine sequel, it’s also put together quite unlike any other game in the music/rhythm genre.

And its going to rock the shit out of you, whether you like it or not.

Since I bought the original Guitar Hero in the spring, I don’t think it has even had a chance to gather dust. But just like any music game, it was quickly picked apart by the fans, and, as usual, they came up with a list of things they’d love to see in the sequel. Ideas such as a practice mode, better hammer ons and pull offs, and more robust multiplayer have been requested by countless players since GH1’s release.

All the extra presentation is nice but unnecessary. The game could really just be a black and white scrolling fretboard.

We all know the drill when it comes to player requests; they never mean a damn thing when it comes to the finished product, and if an idea does find its way in, it is merely a coincidence (and never actually works the way fans had hoped). This is especially true in this particular genre; Konami is notorious for releasing Bemani games with a lot of junk (see DDR Eyetoy minigames) and not a lot of solid improvements.

But Harmonix has done away with such laziness in their Guitar Hero sequel. Someone in the company must have been paying attention, because everything the fans really wanted is here in great form. Practice mode allows you to tackle different sections of a song and at different speeds. Just a few sessions can make a huge difference in how well you might fare in a tough song. Hammer ons and pull offs have been tweaked to the point of actually working now. They aren’t 100% perfect, but as long as your timing isn’t atrocious you should be able to manage more than two note hammer ons (which was all I could do before).

And what about that 2nd player? This is easily the most important feature in Guitar Hero 2, the piece that separates this from the original game more than anything. The old Faceoff mode returns (along with Pro Faceoff, in which you both play the whole song), but for my money it’s all about the co-op mode. One guy on lead, the other on rhythm or bass. Both of you share the same score, multiplier, rock meter and star power, and the only way to win is to make music together. Also essential to the mode is the fact that each player chooses their own difficulty, so everyone who wants to get in on the action is welcome to.

What makes co-op so fun is the fact that it is truly cooperative. It can mean even higher scores and better ratings than if you play solo, but it can just as quickly spell doom if you both screw up. Or you could find a happy medium in which each player pulls the other one through their tough spots. As long as you make sure to mix it up (lead guitar isn’t always the harder one), you and your buddies will find an instant party classic with Guitar Hero 2. The only time we haven’t played in co-op is in order to unlock new songs. It truly is the real deal.

There are plenty of extra goodies that round out the package. Three new characters join the mix, in addition to extra outfits, even more guitars, and some impressive new venues. Save management has also been tweaked, so that unlocks from all saves are pooled together for multiplayer, saving you multiple trips to the options menu. Plus there is progressive scan mode for even cleaner visuals. All of these little goodies just add to the experience, giving players more incentive, more choice and ultimately more fun.

Aren’t riots supposed to break out when shows suck?

So Guitar Hero 2 still plays well, and has just about every addition the fans had asked for. What could possibly go wrong? For me, absolutely nothing. The only thing that stopped this game from being played in my house was the arrival of a shiny new Wii. But people have been grumbling about for one very important reason; the soundtrack has changed considerably, and not everyone will be as pleased with it this time around.

The original game was the new kid on the block, and had a much different style from anything coming out of Japan. It needed to have a general appeal in order to win over new players, thus it had a nice mix of classic rock and modern tracks, and the difficulty had a deliberate sense of progression. It had something for everyone, and aside from a few stinkers, most songs were enjoyable to go back to even after you mastered them.

It isn’t the same situation with GH2. The fans are already here, and they ripped the last game to pieces. It’s no longer an issue of even 5-starring songs for some of them; now it just boils down to getting the absolute highest score. More money is being thrown around for the sequel, and so bigger bands were expected. Guitar Hero 2 needed to rock harder and louder than ever before, and that meant changes.

For one, the songs are definitely harder, to the point where hard feels like expert, and expert keeps me from passing songs in the very first set. If the song isn’t ridiculously long and epic, then it’s just plain nasty, with tricky chords and scales that are hard to nail down perfectly. There is no “I love rock and roll” in GH2, meaning anyone who isn’t fluent in the first game may get crushed by any setting other than easy. Don’t be surprised to feel your wrists and ankles hurting when you drop into that power stance.

There’s also no real difficulty progression, as songs seem to be organized by style more than skill (I 5 starred the entire second set before doing the same on the first). From a challenge perspective, this is definitely made for the fans, who are more concerned about having a good challenge than making sure everything stacks up nicely.

And what of the song list itself? It’s more varied this time around, with a little bit of Rockabilly and some Allman Brothers to mix things up. At the same time, there is a heavy presence of metal in both the licensed and bonus tracks. This is good from a difficulty standpoint, but possibly bad from a musical standpoint, since metal fans are some of the hardest people to please. Another issue on some people’s minds is that the big name bands have rather poor song choices. Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones both showcase very obscure tracks, and no one wants to get over the choice of “Heart Shaped Box” over “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Other parts of the soundtrack are also on the obscure side, such as the songs chosen for the Pretenders and the Butthole Surfers.

Instead of just playing guitar, two player competitive mode should show the performers engaged in mortal combat.

So what’s the final verdict on the music? I can see a few choices being upsetting, but from a gameplay standpoint this soundtrack works. It provides an even greater challenge and many different styles and strategies. I also think its nice to sample some stuff I’ve never heard before, and as long as you’re not too picky with your musical tastes, you should warm up to most of the tracks.

As for disappointed Stones and Nirvana fans, the only consolation I can give you is that getting the licenses from some of these legends of rock is not easy, and for the time being we should be thankful to get anything. That means all of you Metallica fans need to bury your hope for good (though I definitely wouldn’t blame Harmonix for that one).

Soundtrack aside, I would be a fool not to recommend GH2 to any interested gamer. Even if it’s geared more towards the dedicated fans, it’s worth a buy if for no other reason than to experience the joy of co-op play. In addition, it’s amazing to see just how much Harmonix added to this one to make it the complete package. Bow down to your master, Bemani; the young prince of the Rhythm genre is now the undisputed king.

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