I'll admit it: I have been pretty tough on Activision ever since they took over the Guitar Hero series. Cranking out sequel after sequel has filled shelves to the point of saturation. Activision's stance on importing songs and compatibility of DLC is hardly user-friendly. For some time, the entire series has become derivative, not innovative. However, there are many things about Guitar Hero 5 that lead me to believe that Activision is changing their ways for the better, at least in a few of these areas. Guitar Hero 5 is a solid title, with some notable additions that make for a truly great co-op experience.
The biggest changes to Guitar Hero 5 are all related to accessibility. The whole interface has been streamlined and is incredibly easy to use. No longer will you be switching back and forth awkwardly between different screens. Things like picking an instrument and choosing a difficulty were a bit unwieldy in previous games, but it's a snap in Guitar Hero 5. Adding to the ease of use is the fact that you can mix and match instruments, in all modes. Want three drummers? If you have the instruments for it, no problem. Sick of playing boring bass parts? Switch to two guitars instead. You can go "Barbershop style" with four singers, and there's even an achievement for it! We find ourselves swapping instruments often, and in Guitar Hero 5, it's easier than ever. You don't have to waste time backing out all the way anytime you want to add or drop a player, either. These features were sorely needed, and add considerably to Guitar Hero 5's appeal.
The art style of the game has changed considerably. When you usually think of Guitar Hero's style, the over the top characters and crazy venues all come to mind. In Guitar Hero 5, the "extreme" elements have been toned down. The new characters models are more realistic, and far more detailed than ever before. The different locations for your band to rock out in are a bit more grounded in reality, too. One nice touch was the fact that the venues are less static. From song to song, different fireworks or other effects change things up a bit, whereas before, any changes were left to the encore. Even the menus are more subdued; the album art-like scribbles are noticeably scarce, with a few exceptions when the game starts up. I won't speculate as to the cause of this change in style, but Guitar Hero 5 certainly looks different, and more like Rock Band now.
Other major changes include the game types. When Guitar Hero 5 first begins, a random song starts up. There are two options: Play Now and Main Menu. Play Now puts you right into a new mode called Party Play. While the song plays, you can select your instrument, difficulty, and other options. This all happens in real time, without pausing. When you're ready, your notes start scrolling by. Want to add in another player? Just turn on a controller and join. There's no stopping, backing out, or anything; it's all going on at the same time. At the end of a song, you are rated on your percentage and note streak, then another song fires up immediately. If you want a different song, you can skip and get a new random song, or go to the menu to choose a favorite. You can even leave the game going without players, in a jukebox mode of sorts. Party Play is the best new addition to the game. Dropping in and out, without pausing, is the most co-op friendly addition to the music game genre in a long time.
It's worth noting that all of the songs are available from the get go in Party Play and Quick Play. The only difference between the two, really, is that high scores and such are saved in Quick Play mode. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of the on-the-fly drop in and out feature. Quick Play seems to be a middle ground of sorts between Party Play and Career Mode. I really don't see much reason to even have a Quick Play mode; if you are interested in scoring, why not choose the more robust Career Mode?
Speaking of Career Mode, it has been revamped significantly as well. No longer are there Solo Careers and Band Careers, it's just one shared career. If you are playing by yourself, and want to add in another player, all you have to do is back out a screen add them in. I'd rather have seen the seamless drop in and out of Party Play here, but it's still far easier to mix and match players in Career mode than it has ever been. As with the latest GH games, venues unlock with the accumulation of stars, which means you don't have to beat every song to continue. In fact, there's quite a bit of choice. Each venue has a handful of songs available to begin, and as you play, more new songs unlock for you to choose from. This is a nice touch and allows you to skip songs that are too hard, or you just don't care for.
Another major addition to Career Mode are challenges. Each song has a specific challenge associated with it. There are challenges for individual instruments as well as for the entire band. The challenges are typically related to score, or note streaks, but some are more exacting. One example is a bass challenge that asks you to play as many upstrum notes as possible. There are three levels of achievement: gold, platinum, and diamond. These challenges are fun, and add replayability similar to that of achievements and trophies in other games. There's a nice boost to the co-op feel during full band challenges, too.
My single biggest gripe with the Guitar Hero games has been fixed in GH 5. When one person fails out, the rest of the band keeps playing! No more feeling bad if you let your friends down. You can "revive" a failed player, but the method is a bit different than Rock Band, where you use Star Power to do so. In GH 5, a player comes back automatically if the rest of the band keeps playing well. After just a few seconds, everyone's right back in the mix, having a great time. There's not even a limit to the number of revivals possible. By far, this was the biggest flaw to the co-op in previous titles, and now it has been fixed, in a way that is, if anything, more cooperative than Rock Band's. Kudos for the developers for fixing this issue!
A couple other little tweaks add to the feeling of teamwork. One is the changes to Star Power, which everyone now earns individually. If your Star Power meter is full, and you earn a bit more, the excess fills up a bandmate's meter! Very, very nice. Band Moments are another addition, similar to the unison bonus in Rock Band. Notes all turn orange, and if everyone hits them perfectly, a multiplier is earned and there are some fancy screen effects, similar to those of Star Power. These changes are minor, for sure, but they all add up to a far better co-op game.
Another welcome change is in importing songs. Previously, only a few tracks were compatible between Guitar Hero games. All of the downloaded songs from World Tour are usable in GH 5 by downloading a small, free patch. Even better is the fact that you can now import songs from the World Tour disc to play in the new engine, albeit for a small fee. Soon, songs from Smash Hits will be able to be imported. This is a major change for the series, as this feature previously was found only in Rock Band games. It's great to be able to import your favorites from previous discs; however, at this time, only about a third of the tracks from World tour are importable. Activision says more songs will be available to import soon. If they indeed follow through with this promise, I don't have a problem with it. The fact is, Activision must allow the import of most of the disc songs in order to keep up with Harmonix.
So far, I have been overwhelmingly positive in this review, but this is not to say that Guitar Hero 5 is flawless. For one thing, there's the setlist. I can't think of a more diverse set of songs in any music game previously. It feels like Activision was trying to include something for everyone, from Johnny Cash to Blink-182 to Megadeth. In the end, the whole list feels less appealing as a result. There is a large portion of more modern songs, many of which I didn't even recognize. I'd have preferred more of the head banging, guitar-heavy classics that are the mark of the series. After all, isn't Band Hero intended for the more modern, pop-loving crowd? Why not keep Guitar Hero more, well, guitar-driven?
Another issue I have with the game is the note tracking. It feels a bit muddy, for lack of a better term. I felt the same way about Smash Hits, and it seems the trend is unfortunately continuing. Often, notes are left out, or added in at strange times. This is a minor issue, and highly subjective, but every moment spent thinking of the strange note tracks is one less spent enjoying the game.
This review is already fairly long, but there is much more that could be covered. GHTunes makes a return, and the editor is supposedly better than ever, for those who are into that. The arcade-style competitive multiplayer battles are gone, and there are some fresh new replacements. A new and improved guitar controller and drum kit ship with the full versions of Guitar Hero 5, but I have no experience with them, as I just picked up the standalone version.
It's pretty fashionable in the gaming community to bash Activision, and for good reason. The Guitar Hero series in particular has been heading in the wrong direction. Guitar Hero 5, though, deserves praise. It is far more user friendly than any other music game, especially with the addition of party mode. There are some rough patches, notably the track list, but all in all, it's a great game. The additional co-op friendly features make Guitar Hero 5 the music game to beat when you're looking for some head banging fun with a group of friends.