It's hard not to have heard of Guitar Hero by now. After sweeping the nation in frenzy over the past year, Harmonix and Red Octane have returned with the sequel to what many consider to be the best game of 2005, and what a sequel it is. Fixing all the major complaints of the first and taking the amazing presentation to new heights, Harmonix and Red Octane have outdone the original in every way, delivering an absolutely incredible package in what is sure to be the best game of 2006 as well. If you liked the first game, go buy it now. If you're a fan of music/rhythm games, go buy it now. If you've never heard of Guitar Hero then get out from under that rock, go play it at the EB demo kiosk or a friend's house, and then go buy it. This is a game that simply must be experienced by
everyone. Now on to the nitty gritty...
Give The People What They Want
If you've never played Guitar Hero before, you should check out my review of the first game on this site because I detail all the basic gameplay elements there. The basic game mechanics are the same, so I won't reiterate them here. Instead, let's talk changes. You should also know that they've changed the controller that comes with the game in the bundle slightly. Besides being cherry red now, they've tightened the strum bar noticeably, which results in an almost complete elimination of the problem with the original controller where the strum bar would spring back and trigger a second strum, thus breaking your combo.
The first major change to the gameplay is the addition of three note chords. This is a welcome new challenge to the core gameplay, but don't worry if you're just starting out. They don't throw these at you until hard mode, and even then not very much. It's not until expert that you really see them. They give a little extra "oomph" to certain chords in the song and really add to the song experience as much as the gameplay. Plus, they can really shoot your score up if you hit your star power in a section with a bunch of them.
The other major change to the core gameplay is the way hammer-ons and pull-offs work. The system has been completely revamped and plays entirely different from the first game, but in a very good way. Previously, you were required to hold "pulled off," the higher fret button. This requirement has been completely removed. Now, you can actually release the fret buttons after strumming the first note and simply press the corresponding buttons at the right time to hit the hammer-on notes. This is an incredibly welcome change and easily one of the best things about the sequel. The new system makes hammer-ons very easy to pull off (no pun intended) and I can say from experience that you will find yourself nailing some tricky moving passages with relative ease in no time. It really makes playing those fast solos much more enjoyable, and I have no doubt that the expert players who strummed every note in the original will be using the new hammer-ons in many places. However, if you miss a note, you must still strum again to get the chain going. The old method still works as well, if you prefer to do it that way. It sounds crazy, but it is actually easier for certain passages. And believe me; you'll need all the help you can get (more on this in a minute) because Guitar Hero II is most definitely more difficult than the original. Even as you begin the easiest songs on expert, you'll see note and chord patterns and movements that you just did not have to do in the first game. Easy mode is actually more like normal on the original (but still very easy), and expert mode on the hardest songs here makes the expert mode of the original look like a walk in the park.
In the multiplayer department, the original mode of trading licks back and forth returns (officially called "Face Off" mode) along with two new ones. The first is "Pro Face Off" which is unlocked in career mode. In this mode, both players play all the notes exactly the same as each other, and whoever gets the higher score wins. This is great for direct competitions. The other new mode is co-operative mode. Here, players select from the guitar part or either a bass or rhythm guitar part depending on the song, one player on either part, and jam together. The best part here is that each player can select a different difficulty, something that wasn't possible in the original. In this mode, players share score, rock meter, combo multiplier, star power meter, everything. Additionally, in order to activate star power both players must raise their guitars simultaneously, which happens to be pretty fun regardless. Co-op mode is incredibly fun and easily one of the best things about the sequel, however the fun value of the secondary part does vary from song to song. Some songs feature somewhat bland bass tracks (not the fault of the developers really), but others feature bass or rhythm tracks that are just as hard (or harder in some cases) as the main guitar part and just as fun. Rush's "YYZ" comes to mind as this is a fantastic jam song between the guitar and bass parts, and Geddy Lee's bass licks are a blast to play, resulting in easily one of the best co-op songs in the game. Another slight downside is that you need two guitar controllers to really enjoy co-op mode, but if you bought the bundle for the first game, you can simply get the bundle for the sequel as well.
Back in the main menu, you'll notice that they've added one of the most requested features for the original game, an actual practice mode. Here you can select any song you have unlocked via career mode and pick either the guitar or rhythm/bass part depending on the song. The songs are divided into predefined sections such as "Chorus 1," "Bridge," "Verse 2," "Solo A," etc. You can select either the entire song or a block of 1 or more adjacent sections to practice. Then you select either full speed, 3/4, 1/2 or 1/4 speed to practice at. When practicing at full speed, the full accompaniment plays along. When practicing on the slower speeds, a drum machine track accompanies the guitar track to help you get the rhythms of those tough passages. The impact that practice mode has on the game is enormous. Previously, you could play 3/4 of the way through a song only to fail on a tough solo and have to replay the entire song to work on it. Now, you can single out the tough sections that are giving you headaches (or finger-aches), slow them down and practice them over and over until you figure them out.
These Go To Eleven!
But of course, the gameplay could be the best in the world and it wouldn't matter if you didn't have songs to play. Fortunately, Harmonix has outdone themselves with another fantastic lineup of old and new rock songs, actually providing an even more diverse set list than before. The number of licensed tracks has been bumped up to 40 this time around (8 sets of 5 in all) and there are 24 unlockable bonus tracks. Two big name bands in particular make a return from the original with Black Sabbath's classic "War Pigs" and Megadeth's major league guitar shredfest "Hangar 18," the latter of which features no less than 11 guitar solos. You'll also jam with classics like Guns n' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine," Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" and KISS's "Strutter," as well as modern offerings with songs such as Motley Crue's "Shout at the Devil" and Avenged Sevenfold's "The Beast and the Harlot." You'll also notice an increase in the heavy metal content over the first game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing even if you don't like metal. There is some pretty wicked guitar work going on here regardless. Some of the more offbeat offerings include Heart's classic "Crazy On You" complete with that great acoustic intro (it's harder than you might think to play), The Police's "Message in a Bottle" and Dick Dale's surfer rock classic "Misirlou" (most people know it from the movie Pulp Fiction). That last one is likely to make your arms fall off. Several Boston area indie bands make a return for the bonus tracks, but there are some more well-known bands this time around with DethKlok's "Thunderhorse" and a new Buckethead song called "Jordan" which was made exclusively for Guitar Hero II and is far and away
the hardest song in the game. Overall, the bonus track listing is better than the original, and the main track list is just as good, if not better, and even more diverse. You'll be guaranteed to find something you love here.
The fantastic Wavegroup Studio returns to provide most excellent covers of almost all of the licensed tracks (there are actually a few original masters in there). A similar complaint from the first game remains, that is, some of the vocal covers aren't quite up to par with the incredibly high standards of the musical covers. Even so, none of them sound bad and these are still some of the most impressive covers you're likely to hear. Combined with even better and more accurate note charts than the first game, and you have a winning combination. The soundtrack isn't the only thing to get an upgrade, however. The graphics are also improved with the addition of widescreen and progressive scan support. They also included a lag adjustment feature to compensate for any video/audio lag you might experience with your particular setup. And unlike other music/rhythm games where you simply adjust a number, this feature actually walks you through the process and has you play some test runs to adjust the timing automatically for you. It's extremely intuitive, takes all of 30 seconds, and works like a charm. Kudos to you Harmonix!
If the original game cranked the volume up to ten, Guitar Hero II most definitely takes it up to eleven. If you thought the presentation in the first game was great, the sequel just takes it through the roof. The career mode has been expanded to include sponsorships from various big name amplifier and speaker companies, and as you gain sponsors by completing sets you'll actually see the labels onstage with your band. The venues have also undergone an overhaul as you now travel to different cities for each new venue. This is accompanied by a cardboard cutout van moving across the map with hilarious low-tech sound effects. It's all very stylized and humorous. The venues themselves have received a graphical upgrade, as they now feature a much improved lighting system that can actually be coordinated by the programmers creating the note charts. This makes for an actual choreographed rock show when performing the songs, with coloured lighting and particle effects, smoke, and strobe lights. In addition, the crowd now does things like holding up lighters during a slow section of a song.
The organization of the sets is also slightly changed. Now, you only haveaccess to the first four songs of a five-song set. When you clear all four songs, you unlock the final "encore" song in that set. This is accompanied by an extended scene after clearing the final song where the crows cheers and calls for an encore. You are then presented with a screen asking you if you would like to perform an encore for them, which takes you straight into the encore track. There are certain special antics that occur during some of the encore tracks that really take the game above and beyond the usual music game. For example, after completing the encore song for the first set (Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight"), the camera zooms in on the drummer who promptly explodes in a parody of the "mockumentary" movie "This is Spinal Tap." The encore scene for the final set is something which I will not spoil here, but suffice it to say it is absolutely epic and must be experienced. It's scenes like these that push Guitar Hero II beyond the status of cool.
All in all, Guitar Hero II stands as one of the best games I have ever played, on any system, period. They have taken everything that was great about the original and upped the ante, and they have taken all the major complaints from the players of the first game and fixed them. This game stands as an example of the absolute definition of a great sequel. It is so much improved that I cannot even fathom going back to play the original now, and if they re-released the original somehow with the new gameplay mechanics, it would be worth the second purchase. If you are a fan of music/rhythm games, I cannot recommend this game enough. And if you still haven't seen what all the fuss is about, I implore you to find a friend who has this game and give it a try. I'm willing to bet you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Guitar Hero 2ESRB:
Platform: PlayStation 2