The latest iteration of the Guitar Hero franchise, Smash Hits is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of the best songs from previous Guitar Hero games. One one hand, the entire idea of a greatest hits game reeks of "easy cash grab", especially given Activision's reputation for milking franchises dry. On the other hand, these songs are indeed great, and they are fun to play, even the second time around. The true value of GH Smash Hits lies somewhere between these two extremes.
So what has changed, gameplay wise, about Smash Hits? I was unable to find any difference, no matter how minor, between this game and its immediate predecessor, GH Metallica. The Expert+ setting on drums is the most obvious returning feature. Additional tweaks like an in-song star gauge, individual rock meters, and Metallica's other minor improvements remain, as well. Beyond this, there's not much else new to speak of, as far as gameplay is concerned.
There is a loose story in Smash Hits, for what it's worth. (Does anyone really play these games for the story?) Four favorite rockers, including Axel Steel, my personal favorite choice, are recruited by the God of Rock to reunite as a band. The band plays at some admittedly spectacular venues, such as the Grand Canyon, the Sphinx, and the Great Wall of China. The God of Rock is acting oddly though, and in a totally predictable twist, is discovered to be Lou, the Devil. If this sounds more like Scooby Doo than a video game about rock and roll, well, it is. I find these cut scenes a bit disjointed from the rest of the game. While I don't care much either way, I think the games would be better off without the cheesy, tacked on storyline.
On to the meat of the game, the songs. There is not a single song in the game that hasn't already appeared in one of the previous Guitar Hero games. Ranging from the original Guitar Hero all the way through to the Aerosmith-centric game, that covers a period of releases from late 2005 to just over a year ago, in June of 2008. When it comes down to it, that's not very long. To the developer's credit, the tracks are weighted heavily to the first two Guitar Hero games. Each of these games has over a dozen songs duplicated in Smash Hits. GH3 and 80s have considerably fewer, and there is only one single song from Aerosmith. Including more older GH tunes was a wise move, especially for Wii and PS3 owners, who never had access to GH1 and GH2. The inclusion of a few songs from GH Rocks the 80s, a PS2 only title, was good for me personally, as I had already moved to the Xbox 360 when that game was released.
These songs are more than just rereleases, however. For each, the original master recordings are used. It's difficult to remember, but the first two GH games were almost entirely composed of cover versions. Now that everyone has jumped on the music game bandwagon, original tracks are no longer a novelty; they are expected. Hearing the original artists on these songs is excellent. Some sound quite different than the covers did, which was a bit jarring when playing, as we were used to the cover versions. Of course, all of these songs now support the full band. You can sing and drum to your heart's content, adding two more players to the co-op. For most of these songs, this is the first time they have been available in full band form. This too adds value, or at least, the perception of it, to the "greatest hits" nature of the game. The co-op feel in similar games has always been strong, and Smash Hits is no exception. You still cannot use star power to save another player, though; it's one and done once again. I see no reason why this feature isn't included.
Make no mistake, though: the setlist is, truly, great. Cherry picking the best, most enjoyable songs from four different games must have been a challenge, but the list is extremely solid. Rush, Pantera, Incubus, Alice in Chains, Foo Fighters, White Zombie... these are just a handful of the artists with songs represented. Of course, Dragonforce's legendary "Through the Fire and the Flames" makes a return, and so does "Freebird", as one would expect. Everyone, I am sure, will have some song or band left out, and for me, that band was Megadeth. "Hangar 18" is one of the best playing songs in any music game, in my opinion. I can't really say enough about the songlist; if you have the slightest interest in the previous games, you will love these songs, period.
One issue about the game that I didn't enjoy were the new note tracks. I realize that the recordings are different, and thus the same exact tracks couldn't be used. However, in many cases, they are completely different, and so far from the original that you have to learn it all over again. In general, I found the new tracks to be less closely tied to the actual music, which has been the case for several iterations of the Guitar Hero franchise now. I suppose complaining about note tracks is nitpicking, but it's still worth mentioning.
Still, there is that naggling feeling while you are playing: we've done this before. The initial thrill of playing a song in Guitar Hero for the first time is gone. Sure, they are the master recordings, there are drums, and all that, but there is an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Clearly, nostalgia is powerful, but it feels a bit early to be playing these songs once again. Compounding this problem is the fact that Smash Hits is not compatible with previous GH games, or their DLC. You would think at some point that they would learn from Rock Band's success, both with integration between games and deploying to save your co-op partners. There have been three Guitar Hero games since Rock Band 2 now, and it seems like Activision should at least attempt to duplicate these features, but unfortunately, this has not been the case so far.
While I cannot deny the fact that Smash Hits is a good time, I still feel a bit disappointed by it. The master recordings and additional instruments are a big plus, but are balanced out by the full price and lack of any innovation whatsoever to the gameplay. The songs would probably have been better off released as DLC, but Activision seems committed to the regular disc based release scheme. Speaking in terms of DLC cost, there is value here, as four dozen songs would cost far more than $60 at current prices. But for many GH enthusiasts, you already own these songs, and can play them anytime. How strongly you feel about playing these songs again is going to be the deal breaker when it comes to your own enjoyment of Guitar Hero Smash Hits.