[14 October 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
You know that scene in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel explains how his amps “go up to 11”? When faux documentarian Marti DiBergi asks why Nigel doesn’t just increase the sound of the amplifier overall, so that 10 is louder, Nigel just continues to insist on the important fact that “these go to 11.”
From aesthetics to narrative to new mechanics, everything in Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock has been cranked to 11. However, unlike the clueless Nigel, the game is in on the joke.
This year’s iteration of the Guitar Hero series, Warriors of Rock has taken a decidedly metal turn. Taking an even bigger cue from other partial homages and partial parodies of rock popularized by groups like Tenacious D or The Darkness (or, perhaps, the approach of Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend) than this series has ever done before, Warriors of Rock spoons up a very large dollop of rock kitsch, adding it to an already heaping, helping pile of more rock kitsch.
The most obvious form that this kitsch takes (though, frankly, everything is obvious to the point of blatant absurdity in Warriors of Rock) is a very thick layer of hyperbolic rock narrative that has been added in the form of the game’s Quest mode. In Quest mode, familiar Guitar Hero avatars, like Johnny Napalm, Judy Nails, Pandora, and the like (along with a few new characters), are transformed into heroes (each with some new powers that allow them greater potential for higher scores—more on that in a moment) that must complete a few minor quests before ultimately freeing the “Demigod of Rock” in order to take on “The Beast.” This is all very delightfully overblown and very “metal” as each character goes through a demonic or monstrous transformation as the players work through their individual venues. Each transformation grants each character even greater powers to rock.
The characters’ initial powers and later enhanced powers follow this same aesthetic of exaggeration, since now some characters are granted the ability to build a x5 multiplier on guitar (rather than the standard x4) or are able to fill the rock meter fully after only completing one row of power stars successfully. When Pandora kicks in Star Power, her multiplier increases in increments of three instead of the typical doubled multiplier, etc., etc. These “improvements” generally really only function much like Nigel’s amps with their “capability” of being cranked to 11. They are a facade of power given that the game has changed to allow performances to be evaluated on a 10-point, rather than a five-point scale, and the amount of points needed to increase your final score along that scale seems to have been adjusted with these powers in mind. Sure, you’re scoring a seven or an eight for a performance, but that’s really just the equivalent of a four-point performance in another Guitar Hero. Nevertheless, that’s kind of the point of the whole thing—these performances “go up to 11.” This seems a fair enough way of allowing the mechanics to mimic the hyperbole of the subculture that the game wants to vibe on and to increase that hyper-exaggerated sense of a belief in “the power of rock.”
Where things might get thornier in terms of its “metal” presentation is in the song list itself. While clearly Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Megadeath make the cut as far as legitimacy in a game built ostensibly on the foundations of “real rock,” other inclusions may cause folks that expect a thoroughly “metal” Guitar Hero experience some degree of consternation. Rush’s deliciously campy, seven part sci-fi/fantasy rock odyssey, “2112” seems right at home to me in the game’s kitsch approach to metal’s embrace of the occult, the supernatural, the demonic, and the bizarre, as does the inclusion of Muse (a band that seems desperately aware of the pretentious and overblown qualities of its own sound—witness what may be my favorite music video of all time, Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia”). However, true metal fans may be less amused.
They are also likely to do more than frown over the addition of tunes like R.E.M.‘s “Losing My Religion,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” or Aerosmith’s “Crying.” For me though, I happen to think that the addition of a group of classic punk tunes, some classic hard rock, and even some country rock seems like a smart move. While clearly the game wants to ape a metal aesthetic, the variety of song selections makes what would otherwise remain a very niche title into something that a broader audience can enjoy. Frankly, I was a little uncertain that I personally was going to derive any pleasure from a metal-inspired Guitar Hero, as this really isn’t my genre of choice. However, I found that I enjoyed the aesthetics, appreciated the eclectic mixture of more and less intense rock, allowing me to ultimately come to enjoy the whole package and the overall experience as a result. My only fear is that the aesthetic is so overwhelming that some folks might feel, as I did before actually getting my hands on the game, that this is a game really intended only for guys in black t-shirts, jeans with the knees torn out, and hair falling to the middle of their backs. It isn’t. Rockers of all stripes are probably going to find something to enjoy here.
All that being said, there are some mixed results in allowing all of these overblown “powers of rock” to slip into the gameplay in Quest mode. Once The Beast is ultimately brought to bay, the player is granted all of the powers of every character in the game at once. Older venues once again are rescaled to adjust for this shift towards ultimate power with the top scores in those venues now being evaluated on a 40-point scale. This might sound difficult, but once you have all of your powers running, it becomes difficult to not play a song with a x36 multiplier running all the way through it. From the perspective of the game’s narrative and tone, this is a pretty empowering feeling. You are truly a rock god that can do no wrong. From a gameplay perspective, though, it really causes the purpose of replay in this “god mode” to feel really, really cheap. There isn’t much challenge at this point, and the players may simply be best served by returning to Freeplay mode and forgetting about all of these illusory amplifications of the power of rock. It may be time to return to shredding like other mere mortals do. Sometimes, one can be happy with simply cranking it to 10.