Sun Tzu wrote the following in The Art of War: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”  Sun Tzu has been accredited with being a manual for battle, business, and life, and this passage seems most relevant to the battle between the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchise.  There has been a bit of back-and-forth between the two, resulting in a battle of inches where one side introduces new features, and the other side introduces just a few more on top of that.  With no huge innovations to speak of it would be easy to write off both franchises as glorified track packs.  With Guitar Hero 5, you’d be wrong.

Guitar Hero 5 is technically the fifth title from developer Neversoft (either as primary or collaborator on Legends of Rock, Metallica, Greatest Hits, and World Tour).  While Greatest Hits and Metallica both scored well, I savaged Guitar Hero World Tour for a cumbersome interface, a weak soundtrack, uneven difficulty, and hardware issues only 2 hours into our review party.  Not the greatest start for the series under new helmsman Neversoft.  While I don’t have the new instruments to review, I did get my hands on the full version of the game in time to hold another pulse-pounding plastic instrument party.

 

Like any game you’d boot up on the Xbox 360, the first thing you’ll see is the intro screen.  Unlike any other game, you can hit yellow and immediately begin playing the ‘demo’ song that is currently running!  Hitting yellow at the main screen takes you into Party Play – the most tauted feature of the new title.  This new system ties heavily into the “Play any way you want” tagline for Guitar Hero 5.  If you want to play with four guitarists, you can.  On the odd chance that you have four folks that want to play bass or sing, you can do that too.  In the extremely unlikely scenario where you have four drum sets on premise, you can even play with four drummers.  It doesn’t matter that some of those scenarios are unlikely, it matters that you have the choice if you are so inclined.  The most likely scenario, and the most common at the party, was a drummer and three guitarists on varying difficulties banging out the tunes.  As great as that is, it isn’t the top feature in my opinion, but let me tell you what I think is the best feature.

Think of how many times (especially in World Tour where there was no indication of difficulty) you think “I can play that on Expert” only to find that your fingers are a mangled mess half way through the song.  Your only option? Interrupt everyone, change difficulty, and restart the entire song.  Guitar Hero 5 repairs this by allowing players to simply hit start, mid song, and change their difficulty at will.  The song keeps going for everyone else, uninterrupted, allowing the person changing difficulty to jump back in after a few seconds of pause.  Got a bailer in your group?  In any other game that bailer would cause your entire band to fail as they hang up their instrument.  Guitar Hero 5 recognizes the bailer and eventually says “Hmm…haven’t hit a note in a while – guess you are done” and drops them from the band.   Similarly, you always have the joiner who wants to jump in mid-song.  Well, in Guitar Hero 5 his needs are met.  Just like at the intro screen, simply hit yellow on whatever instrument and you can jump in, mid song!  If there is a new feature that makes the game worth 60 bucks, it’s this.  It isn’t all sunshine and roses though – the drop in / drop out is slightly less glossy than it initially appears.  Sure you can drop and join at will, but changing instruments proved to be a pain unless that instrument was already sitting unused.  Having a singer join as a fourth and then drop to re-add a fourth guitar required us to turn off the controller and then turn on the guitar – obviously this is more of a limitation of the Xbox 360 than the game, but it is something you should keep in mind for party play.  This really only affects the singer slot as guitars and drums can come and go at will.

 

With all that praise in mind, the next thing we encountered was just baffling. We moved on to the Career mode and found some strange hold-overs from the previous games.  First and foremost, the ability to drop in and drop out at will was simply gone.  Sure, you can still mix and match whatever instrument you’d like, but everyone needs to be on board from the word go. When in Career mode you’ll be presented with a familiar layout that we saw in Guitar Hero: Metallica.  Players are asked to earn stars on their songs to progress through various venues, unlocking new tracks and avatars along the way.  Just like in Guitar Hero: Metallica, you won’t have to 5-star every song (or even close to it) to technically complete the game, allowing you to leave out some of the less enjoyable songs.  Additionally there is a challenge associated with each track.  Most are specific to an instrument such as up-strumming the bass so many times in a song, or asking the drummer to hit 760 bass hits (I’m looking at you Sonic Youth – Incinerate!) for the top reward.  These commonly unlock new goodies that you can use on your character such as hats, glasses, jackets, and even new instruments.

 

There are a total of 85 tracks on the disc for Guitar Hero 5, highlights including Sweating Bullets from Megadeth, Judith from A Perfect Circle, a rare live version of Lithium from Nirvana, Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down, Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon, and many more.  If you head to the options menu there is an option to import tracks and DLC from Guitar Hero World Tour, but I’m sad to say that it isn’t everything we’d hoped it would be.  Paying the 280 Microsoft Points yielded me less than half of the total tracks on the previous title.  Titles like Pull Me Under, the entire Tool pack, Hotel California, and Misery Business are not included in that list!  How they didn’t secure Assassin from Muse when they were doing Matt Bellamy’s mocap sessions is beyond me.  You’ll also be able to transfer over your existing Guitar Hero World Tour downloaded tracks, but the limitations are just baffling.  There is a rather lengthy re-download process to move all of these tracks across, as they all have to be updated to take advantage of the new features and UI present in Guitar Hero 5.  The good news is that you can start this download process and then kick it to the background, continuing to play while you wait.  No more sitting and watching the progress bar.  The 85 tracks included on Guitar Hero 5 range from great to grates on your nerves.  Let’s start with the list of what is on the disc:

Guitar Hero 5 Track List

 

“2 Minutes to Midnight”

Iron Maiden

“20th Century Boy”

T.Rex

“21st Century Schizoid Man”

King Crimson

“A-Punk”

Vampire Weekend

“All Along the Watchtower”

Bob Dylan

“All the Pretty Faces”

Killers

“American Girl”

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

“Back Round”

Wolfmother

“Bleed American”

Jimmy Eat World

“Blue Day”

Darker My Love

“Blue Orchid”

White Stripes

“Brianstorm”

Arctic Monkeys

“Bring the Noise 20XX”

Public Enemy featuring Zakk Wylde

“Bullet with Butterfly Wings”

Smashing Pumpkins

“Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”

Band of Horses

“Comedown”

Bush

“Dancing with Myself”

Billy Idol

“Deadbolt”

Thrice

“Demon(s)”

Darkest Hour

“Disconnected”

Face to Face

“Done With Everything, Die for Nothing”

Children of Bodom

“Do You Feel Like We Do?” (Live)

Peter Frampton

“Du Hast”

Rammstein

“Ex-Girlfriend”

No Doubt

“Fame”

David Bowie

“Feel Good Inc.”

Gorillaz

“Gamma Ray”

Beck

“Gratitude”

Beastie Boys

“Hungry Like the Wolf”

Duran Duran

“Hurts So Good”

John Mellencamp

“In My Place”

Coldplay

“Incinerate”

Sonic Youth

“In the Meantime”

Spacehog

“Jailbreak”

Thin Lizzy

“Judith”

A Perfect Circle

“Kryptonite”

3 Doors Down

“L.A.”

Elliott Smith

“Lithium” (Live)

Nirvana

“Lonely is the Night”

Billy Squier

“Looks That Kill”

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And now let’s take a look at what transfers from Guitar Hero World Tour:

“The Kill”

30 Seconds To Mars

“Never Too Late”

The Answer

“One Armed Scissor”

At The Drive-In

“No Sleep Till Brooklyn”

Beastie Boys

“Stillborn”

Black Label Society

“Dammit”

Blink-182

“One Way or Another”

Blondie

“Hollywood Nights”

Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

“Livin

Obviously there is some level of duplication between the various flavors of Guitar Hero and Rock Band DLC, cutting the track list a little bit, as well as quite a few tracks you probably have never heard of.  Track lists are obviously a matter of great personal taste, so you’ll need to check this list and make your own judgment.  The party attendees were fairly happy with the list, with several of the songs I mentioned previously filling the air several times throughout the evening. There were also a fair number of tracks that had folks commenting that they were added simply to frustrate players.  There are a few tracks in the game that will present a very high degree difficulty, reminding you that you are playing a game rather than a real song, somewhat breaking immersion. There was one area that was universally agreed on – everyone loved the new gameplay changes.  Gone is the unified star power meter, replaced by individual pools for each member.  Additionally, members of the band can earn their own multiplier as before, but combined with star power and the new ‘band moment’ segments, you can actually get all the way up to 16X multipliers!  A new subtle feature in the star power system appears when you fill your own meter and then get additional star power.  Rather than going to waste, it is evenly distributed among your fellow band members.  This becomes increasingly important if you get the chance to see the dreaded (but all new!) Band Revival meter.   If a player failed out in Guitar Hero: World Tour, the entire band went with it.  Thankfully, in Guitar Hero 5 there is a new meter that allows the rest of the band to try to win over the crowd, bringing that person back on stage – all you have to do is play better than they did to get themselves into that position, or if Ashley Simpson has taught us anything, perhaps simply dance a goofy ho down jig.  Either way, this is a very welcome addition.

While it isn’t a new feature by any means, Guitar Hero 5 adds more legends of rock than any game previous.  The names include Matt Bellamy of Muse, Shirley Manson of Garbage, Carlos Santana, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and Johnny Cash. If I could pull in Hendrix from Guitar Hero World Tour I’d call it “Tragedy Tribute” and front the most powerful band in the world!  Muhahaha!  I digress.  The motion capture work (other than Cobain, obviously *cough*) is very well done, helping wash away the somewhat stiff animations of World Tour.  This extends nicely to the lip synch work across the game, as does movement in general.  In Guitar Hero: Metallica we saw a bit of interaction between the band members, but there is a great deal of that going on now.  Just like Hetfield in Metallica, the band seems more ‘aware’ of the crowd and plays it up.

Another complaint that we had with World Tour was addressed in a big way with Guitar Hero 5 – specifically the sorting options or lack thereof.  Now you have not only sorting options, but a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips.  By holding down the yellow button you can page up and page down with your currently selected sort option.  Hitting orange or the pedal allows you to resort that list by Title A-Z, Artist A-Z, Year, Genre, Duration, Source, Guitar Intensity, Bass Intensity, Drums Intensity, Vocals Intensity.  No longer are they separated by whether they are DLC or not, although you still have the option to turn off GHTunes if you are inclined.  Also new to the series is the Intensity meter.  The Intensity meter shows how intense (not necessarily difficult) the song is for all four instruments.  This gives you an idea of just how ‘active’ a song will be.  This, combined with difficulty, gives players a far greater of how the song will play.  Additionally, the year, genre, how many stars you’ve achieved, and length are also displayed.  For a song like Spirit of Radio from Rush, the Intensity for drums would be very high, whereas for Blue Orchid from The White Stripes, the intensity would be very low for drums.  If only there was a setting to show how awful Blue Orchid is as a song…at least I’m past it in Career mode and never have to hear it again.

A change that my wife was interested to see was the addition of new vocal modes.  In the standard mode the words scroll by with a little guide that shows how close or far you are from being on pitch.  Now there are two additional options called Static and Karaoke.  Karaoke is exactly as the name suggests, with the song lyrics pre-displayed and then ‘colored in’ as you should sing them.  Since there is no guide in this option, you’d better know the song very well as the only feedback you’ll see is the generic “Good!” “Perfect!” “Awful” type displays.  Static mode is very similar to the standard mode with your lyrics appearing as you should sing them instead of being pre-displayed.  My wife tried out the new modes and went back to the original, but it’s good to have the options.  She had also mentioned that the harmony portions of certain songs had been properly tuned – in previous harmony tracks they simply threw a dart in the middle and said “hit that note” rather than the proper tone.  Singers will be happy to hear that this has been resolved.

Occasionally there are new features offered up that weren’t requested.  In World Tour we saw the introduction of the slide notes – notes tied together with a ‘string’ on screen so you could use the tap/slide area on the guitar to do your best Van Halen impression.  While the “Skittles”, as my party-goers called them, are much more shiny, the string to tie the slide notes has been removed and replaced with a semi-transparent “Skittle”.  This makes them very hard to spot on higher difficulty, which completely broke the feature.  Players stopped trying to use the slide bar altogether.  I’m a drummer so I didn’t notice the change at first, but the guitarists of the group certainly did!

On the music creation front, GHTunes has gotten a bit of a makeover.  You can still download and rate other player songs, but the mixing aspects have been greatly smoothed, giving players a familiar but more clean interface in which to express their musical creativity.  I don’t have the creative chops with this particular medium (mine leans more towards Sonic Foundry tools), but it does let me lay down some pretty snappy tracks with my drums, and I can’t argue with that at the end of the day.

Multiplayer over Live has gotten a bit of a boost thanks to some new modes.  The newest mode is called RockFest, allowing four players locally or eight players over Live to try out the new modifiers as well as the standards introduced in Guitar Hero World Tour.  You’ll still be able to play Pro Face-Off, but now there are modes called Elimination, Do or Die, Perfectionist, Streakers, and Momentum.  In Elimination, all players play the same song, with the person doing the worst dropped out after a short period.  The song progresses until the last man standing wins.  In Do or Die players do a bit of ‘Three Strikes, you’re out!’ style work where each player can miss up to three times in a song segment before being dropped for the rest of that portion.  Folks that stay in without striking out get either 4, 3, 2, or 1 point depending on their accuracy.  Perfectionist builds on this by having players try to play as sections without missing a single note, with the top two players getting points.  Streakers has players try to play for as long as possible with the point values increasing the longer they can run flawlessly.  Momentum starts all players on Medium difficulty, but adjusts based on their accuracy.  If you do well, your difficulty level will trend upwards, but if you miss more than three notes in a row, the difficulty can fall all the way back to the beginner mode.  You can create a playlist with different modes assigned to each song, or you can use the in-game voting system to let majority rule.

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