Review: Guitar Hero 5 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Guitar Hero 5
Developer: Neversoft
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Rhythm
Release Date: 09/01/2009


Just shy of a full four years since the birth of the Guitar Hero franchise, Activision has touched down with its newest in-house effort in its attempt to craft gamers’ quintessential music game entry on the Xbox 360 (along with the Playstation 2/3 and Nintendo Wii , of course). After a string of installments that brought us little more than alternate gimmicks based on the foundation of October 2008’s World Tour, the company now bares a new fruit to rock gamers that aims to take the series one step further, donning the series entry number 5 instead of a subtitle. Obviously, with the recent milking of the series, players no doubt have a serious question on their hands: Does this numerical increment mean players are in for a suitably updated experience or has Neversoft just tacked a different set of songs on top of the abused World Tour engine? Thankfully, there are a handful of features that come into the scene as a welcome addition, however, some aspects of the product feel a tad rushed and devoid of innovation and polish.

That’s not at all to say the game doesn’t have its moments of brilliance or that one cannot derive any satisfaction from the title, though. However, the end product ends up feeling like a World Tour version 1.5, or, in my mind, the product last year’s World Tour should have been in the first place. Some interesting new ideas are injected into the franchise’s stale bloodstream, but let’s take a step back and look at the product as a whole.

Let’s just say I’m not going to waste my time explaining the game’s premise. Since you are reading this review online, you have the Internet and have some interest in games, so I’m inclined to believe you aren’t an anti-social hermit that has never heard of Guitar Hero – even so, this is the third Guitar Hero I’ve reviewed for Diehard GameFAN, so go take a whiff of Guitar Hero: Metallica or Guitar Hero: Smash Hits if you need to. Every staple mechanic found in World Tour returns, meaning you have selections between quickplay and career modes (albeit these are now fully fleshed out with online features), the band, character and instrument creation tools, GHMix makes a return with a few more options and the competitive modes make a return with a bit more emphasis and twists. For the most part, the “new” modes are just twists on ones already given to us in previous entries but the sequel does pack on some dandy features.

Hands-down, the biggest feature lies in the fact that Guitar Hero 5 allows players to play whatever instrument they please, regardless of whether or not someone is already on that instrument. No longer do the expert guitar players have to fight amongst themselves to see who gets “demoted” to bass, as bands can consist of five lead guitars if that is the players’ desire. The mixing and matching is by far the game’s greatest accomplishment and puts its flexibility beyond what is even found in Rock Band’s entries. Guitar Hero 5 also dumps World Tour’s long-winded and painful career mode and cash earnings to provide players with challenges per each song. This is a most welcome change as not only are players able to tackle the career in a bite-sized, per-song fashion, but each song has an instrument specific challenge (such as using only upstrums on bass guitar, holding on to a 4x multiplier as long as you can, whammying sustains for specified timeframes, etc.) that will have players coming back to songs with different instruments and full bands for those high-scoring band achievements (which is strengthened by the smart decision to finally allow the career to go online). These challenges are now what unlocks the hidden characters, cheats and customization goods and all 85 tracks are available from the getgo, meaning players won’t have to slave away for cash to enjoy certain songs. These two features are certainly well-played on Neversoft’s part.

On the other hand, you have a handful of features that are just kind of “there.” The band moments do nothing of huge benefit to anyone that doesn’t care about getting high scores and just seem like a ploy at imitating Rock Band’s unison bonuses. While the jump-in feature that allows other players to join or drop out of a song at any time seems like a nifty feature, in the two weeks I’ve played this title, I haven’t used it once, but I suppose I have a little ease of mind knowing it is there just in case. The new competitive setup just adds in one new mode to the already existing pro face-offs and band vs. band and, really, it just takes the place of the battle mode while adding in new twists to expand it to five different modes. Granted, these additions do add something to the overall value of the game, they just don’t leave the same impact as the band structure and challenges do.

Looking at the title, however, it is evident that Neversoft did put a little effort into pumping up the game’s bicep to flex its graphical muscle. The animations and character models are as great as ever and the development team still works in some crazy environments with subtle quirks. The environments aren’t nearly as crazy as those seen in World Tour, but the environments seen in Guitar Hero 5 are very believable and the unlockable visual effects environment gives the performance a “music-video” vibe that the series has always lacked outside of mind-ripping Tool venues. Even the avatars meld into the game very well and it’s a kick to see that they even animate just like on the dashboard – this leads to very amusing results when the avatars sing and go a little crazy onstage. Lastly, while it might not matter to most people, the note gems have a really noticeable pop to them in this installment. With brighter color and a bit of animation inside of them, the notes stream down the highway very noticeably and with the highways themselves being a bit less busy in design, the highways are as clear as they have ever been.

There are a few minor setbacks to the graphics, however, most notably in the jaggies and lack of detail of the created characters when compared to the on-disc characters. Also, even though the notes have gone through an overhaul, the tap notes seemed to have lost a bit of their transparency, which makes them stick out even less when you consider the purple connectors have been dumped in this installment. It’s a minor detail as if you can’t tell whether or not the note is of the tap variety, you can just strum it without penalty, but it is a slight step back for the game’s intuitive visuals. Finally, even though the menus and HUD are now as streamlined and accessible as ever, they just seem to lack in graphical punch – they get the job done, but nothing really pops out for players to feast their eyes on. Regardless, with how easy the game makes navigating these menus, it’s a small price to pay.

When you take a look at the game’s sound, there’s not really much you can say. I’ve always stood on the firm ground that song content is entirely subjective, so you can check out our onsite song listing and decide whether or not Guitar Hero 5 wets your musical appetite. However, you can’t deny that the title has a wide variety of acts and rock genres, so there should be some sort of appeal for nearly anyone to enjoy. One could potentially argue that being so far into the rock game cycle, that this entry doesn’t have as many classically-notable tunes, but there are some jams such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Ring of Fire” that would beg to differ. Even so, the title gives some more recent bands a chance to shine, so regardless of familiarity or personal taste, Guitar Hero 5 provides a very balanced song offering.

As always, these songs ring through in album quality and the master tracks will ensure that all of the songs are presented in the way everyone remembers them. Unfortunately, every single sound effect in the game from what I could gather has been recycled yet again. It’s a minor annoyance, but most players will probably never even think about it and, of course, the music prominently takes center stage. Perhaps what annoyed me the most, though, is the crowd clapping effect during the execution of star power, which just seemed off for some of my guitar rhythms and proved somewhat distracting. Very minor setbacks aside, though, the presentation is about as top-notch as I’ve ever seen in a Guitar Hero title.

With most music games changing so little in its presentation, we finally get to the meat of the title, its gameplay, which, still, admittedly, hasn’t changed all that much. Players strum the guitar, bang on the drums or belt out vocals and the star power works 100% the same as it has since the original entry – that is to be expected. What Guitar Hero 5 does, however, is update a handful of mechanics to make the game a bit more serviceable. The most obvious of these changes for a band lies within the fact each separate band member finally, finally, finally has their own star power meter. To take things a step further, players that score star power with a full meter will have that juice overflow into other players’ meters. Finally, bands can step away from the star power hogs and stolen star power that has plagued the title for quite some time and the cooperative elements of the star power and band moments, coupled with the revival of failed instruments, should pull bands into a more cohesive unit as opposed to being a think-for-yourselfer.

I’ve touched on it a few times already, but, perhaps the game’s greatest achievement for the series is its ease of use. Guitar Hero 5 has finally done away with sticking players to a single difficulty for the career and a few of the other changes just make the game wholly accessible. The party mode allows players to jump straight into a song currently playing from the main menu with the press of a button and the party mode allows players to switch instruments and difficulties and drop out/jump in on the fly, creating a process that anyone can understand and catering to the party aspect of the series. On the opposite side of the spectrum, diehard expert players have some enticing new gameplay modes in the competitive set, such as the Do or Die mode that boots players from the song for a bit. When you throw in some relatively nicely-done notecharts (although, I do have to say the amount of keyboard/organ fillers are getting a bit ridiculous on the guitar) that also have a nice spread from beginner to expert, Guitar Hero 5 is an adequately balanced game.

That being said, even though I would say Guitar Hero 5 is easily the best entry for the series since Guitar Hero II and it seems Neversoft has somewhat found its groove with the series, let’s be honest – I just can’t shake the feeling the series is playing catch up to Rock Band and even on some of these facets, it fails to match that game even with nearly two years of development progress on top of the said series’ debut. The band moments, trying to get previous games’ songs into the mix (and not even being able to offer even half of the content from previous discs), trying to freeform the career a little, finally balancing the star power out a bit more, taking the career online and so on – while these implementations, along with brilliant accessibility, have crafted the title into a dandy Guitar Hero experience, it is just now taking the series on par with what the Rock Band series has offered players for some time now. It is debatable whether or not the game was thrown out with gimmicks to steal some thunder from The Beatles: Rock Band the week before its release, but a few more months of polish and subtle additions to the game could have went a long way. I’m just hoping Neversoft can adequately build upon this foundation as if the team can take the game forward even more, the next Guitar Hero should be a unique experience.

Still, Guitar Hero 5 is a fun outing that shows the series’ potential. With the new challenges, better party functionality and expanse in online content, there is a good bit of replayability to be found in the title if what it has to offer keeps your attention. The content is nothing to sneeze at either, as 85 songs come on the disc and if players download a free patch to carry over their World Tour downloadable tracks, with the free World Tour DLC, you’re looking at around 100 songs from the get go – much more serviceable than the pathetic 40 or so songs Konami thinks it can get away with on a full-priced disc. While the import ability to bring tracks from World Tour and Smash Hits isn’t panning out like everyone had hoped, it’s still an earnest effort and gives players a means to add even more content to the title.



The Scores
Story/Modes: VERY GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: INCREDIBLE
Control/Gameplay: INCREDIBLE
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: PRETTY POOR
Addictiveness: VERY GOOD
Appeal Factor: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD
The Final Rating: VERY GOOD GAME



Short Attention Span Summary

If the rehashing of Smash Hits left a bad taste in your mouth, Guitar Hero 5 is like a fresh blast of mint that breathes a little bit of life and some much needed originality into the series. It’s not without a few issues and the mix of new features might seem like the series is still trying to catch up to Rock Band, but the positives far outweigh the negatives in this new rock entry. A great presentation is wrapped around the familiar, yet fun gameplay and the ability to feature multiples of the same instrument and the ease of use of the title combine to be the greatest innovations the series has provided in quite some time. The game is suitably balanced to allow anyone to jump in while giving expert players some new content to go to town on and the mix of rock genres should have everyone finding something to enjoy. It’s not a perfect game, but Neversoft is seemingly finally getting into the knack of the series and Guitar Hero 5 is a great step in taking the series to where it should be.

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