Another year, another Guitar Hero. The series has had its ups and downs and, while I’m not a Guitar Hero-hater, I’d have to say that Guitar Hero 5 continues the slide from Guitar Hero: World Tour. While Guitar Hero 5 rectifies several issues from World Tour, it still has some spotty gameplay problems and lacks much of the flare found in its chief competition.
Guitar Hero 5’s gameplay remains largely identical to both World Tour and its overachieving younger brother, Rock Band. You have the standard four-instrument set, a guitar, another guitar (the other guitar plays bass, though), a microphone and drums. The four instruments play the tracks from any given songs with the scrolling notes and so on and so forth. It works the same way as World Tour and Rock Band. The problem lies in a few of the series' shortcomings, rather than anything wrong with Guitar Hero 5, specifically. The game still lacks the plethora of downloadable content offered by Rock Band. Bass is needlessly and artificially differentiated from the guitar using an un-fun “neutral strum”. The entire “slide” concept remains completely untapped. The tracks, in many songs, can be difficult to read (the chief offender remains Fat-Bottomed Girls by Queen) and it is far too difficult to spot the difference between a slide note and a regular note on faster songs that transition quickly (it’s nearly impossible to do it when you’re playing for Star Power). These are all minor problems, however, and the game remains a solid party game.
What you’re probably noticing up there the most is that five for value. For a game with nearly infinite replayability (no, that isn’t a word, but it works), that’s something noteworthy. It comes from three things. Firstly, the support for the Guitar Hero Music Store remains, at best, sub-par, with only two full albums available (compared to fourteen for Rock Band) and less than half the 660+ songs available on Rock Band. Secondly, the vaunted exportability from Smash Hits and World Tour is so half-assed that I’m legitimately frustrated. Rock Band 2 allows you to import all fifty-eight songs in Rock Band 1, save two. Guitar Hero 5 allows you to bring aboard thirty-five of World Tour’s eighty-five tunes, and twenty-one of Smash Hits’ forty-five. Last but not least, not all the downloadable songs you can buy in World Tour are playable in Guitar Hero 5. The vast, vast majority are, but when you’re paying for it…“most” doesn’t count. Honestly, this alone would make me blow off Guitar Hero in favor of Rock Band. It’s a spit in the face of the series’ fans.
So what’s good about Guitar Hero 5? Several things, actually. The list of songs, in my opinion, is way out there as the strongest one since the original Guitar Hero. This game, unlike any other past Guitar Hero, actually has a lot to offer fans of any particular genre. The menu system has been refined very nicely. There are numerous ways to play multiplayer, including new competitive modes, an “all-play” mode where you can play any combination of instruments (everyone can play guitar, you can have three drummers, etc.) and plenty of other interesting tweaks on the same ol’, same ol’. The career mode returns to the olden days where you progressively unlock several songs at a time, rather than the train wreck of pre-made set lists from World Tour. Really, if Activision didn’t fail with their song importing, the game would’ve ended up with a significantly higher score. It’s a good game in itself, but Activision really did sell gamers short.
Graphically, the game takes a step beyond Guitar Hero: World Tour, in that it took the generally realistic graphical style, but made some noteworthy improvements in terms of both animation and art direction. In my opinion, it lacks the charm found in Rock Band 2, simply because RB2 embraces its cartoony style, rather than straddling the fence the way GH5 does, using a realistic style to portray its cast of caricatures. Still, it has a unique flair that is fairly enjoyable. While the game encourages you to use created characters, the process is long and tedious. As such, you’ll find yourself returning to old classics like Izzy Sparks, Axel Steel and Pandora, who simply look out of place.
Everyone is scrambling to say that Guitar Hero 5 is the best game in the series. I’m not sure that I’d go that far, but it’s up there. Unfortunately, the Guitar Hero series is now playing backup for Rock Band in terms of both value and quality. We’ve known this for a while, but it wasn’t clear how skewed the balance was towards Rock Band until now. If you’re looking to jump into instrument-based rhythm games, go get Rock Band 2 and rent a copy of Rock Band 1. If you’re a fan of Guitar Hero, you’ve probably already bought the game.