When Guitar Hero for the PS2 finally arrived in New Zealand last year the general consensus from gamers was that it rocked… big time. The game’s original concept, novelty controller and excellent track list proved a winning combination for developer RedOctane, as wannabe rock stars played for hours on end as they strived for superstardom, unlocking new tracks, venues, characters and guitars along the way. The news that Guitar Hero II (PS2) would be released in Q1 2007 was greeted with much excitement by fans hungry for more, and it didn’t disappoint. Bristling with new tracks, features and improvements the sequel was even better than its predecessor; quite an achievement in this day and age. With such a stellar performance on the PS2, expectations were understandably high for the Xbox 360 version.
The overview for Guitar Hero II is pretty much the same as the original: in the game’s main (Career) mode you are the lead guitarist with a fledgling band, as they try to claw their way up from musical insignificance to the elusive realm of rock immortality. You must perform a required number of songs in each set by following a sequence of notes onscreen, holding down the correct fret buttons and simultaneously strumming at just the right moment to earn points and hopefully last the distance. Initiating Star Power by tilting the guitar upwards will temporarily kick up the action a notch or three. Your onstage persona’s flashy, crowd-pleasing moves whip the crowd into a cheering frenzy, doubling your score multiplier into the bargain.
Timing and co-ordination are critical to success; a poor performance will see you booed off the stage while a good one will have the newspaper critics raving. Initially you can only score gigs at grungy, half-empty dives, but as you successfully complete each set of songs you accumulate fame and fortune. This equates to sell-out gigs at increasingly classy venues plus cash to buy better gear and unlock new material, such as songs, guitarists and stylish kit.
The game ships with a mini guitar controller with coloured fret buttons, a strum bar instead of strings, and a whammy bar to bend and distort those sustained notes. The guitar controller is the star attraction of Guitar Hero and was a significant factor in its success. You can also play with a standard PS2 controller but it’s not nearly as entertaining for players and spectators as the purpose built peripheral. This time around the guitar is a striking black and white X-plorer, which you can customise with self-adhesive decals. Surprisingly – and somewhat disappointingly, the X-plorer is not wireless. You could argue that a real electric guitar is wired and therefore the controller’s umbilical only adds to the realism, but in my opinion authenticity is secondary to having the freedom of movement a good wireless controller can offer. Imagine the fun you could have leaping around the lounge, working your axe like there’s no tomorrow! A wireless guitar is currently available for the PS2 version, so hopefully there’s also one in the works for 360 owners.
While we’re talking guitar peripherals, I found the whammy bar on the review model to be very temperamental. It seemed to work infrequently and when it was working required more force to operate than the PS2 versions. Apparently this is a common fault with some of the earlier batches, so if you do happen to have a defective whammy bar on your X-plorer, simply exercise your rights as a consumer and return it to the retailer. Also, even though the lefty flip feature makes a welcome return for Guitar Hero II, the X-plorer’s asymmetrical shape makes it slightly less comfortable for left-handers than the SG guitar.
The basic content and onscreen layout remains unchanged, although as you might expect the graphics on the Xbox 360 are a vast improvement over the PS2 version. With extra character detail, realistic stage lighting and spectacular pyrotechnics, Guitar Hero II on the 360 possesses a palpable atmosphere that is lacking on the PS2. This is something you would really only notice if you were to compare the two side by side (which I did).
Guitar Hero II is all about flexibility, with some expanded options available in the multiplayer modes, such as independently setting the difficulty to suit your individual skill level. Cooperative mode also offers a choice of rhythm or bass to accompany the lead guitarist, with both players working as a team to earn the highest score possible. Face-Off sees both guitarist playing alternating sections of the same note chart, each at a difficult level of their own choosing. The Pro Face-Off is an old school head-to-head, with both players thrashing it out on the same note chart, and at the same difficulty level.
Like Guitar Hero, songs are divided into increasingly challenging categories. The addition of an unlockable encore track for each set makes for a more realistic, satisfying experience. As well as selecting your difficulty level you can now practice songs – either in sections or their entirety – at varying speeds to suit your skill level. This is excellent for nailing those tricky passages or chords that may give you grief at full speed.
With the exception of some bonus and unlockable content, the tracks are covers of rock classics from all eras, but in most cases the level of talent is so good you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to original recordings. Unlike that other popular party game, SingStar, the Guitar Hero discs are not interchangeable, which means you can’t enjoy the benefits of the new features with the tracks from the original title. With the Xbox 360 version however, these tracks will be available for download via Xbox Live, so it’s safe to say Guitar Hero II for the 360 is a wonderful investment that’s sure to find favour with gamers of all ages.