The year that Guitar Hero finally succumbs to Rock Band in terms of publicity (and perhaps sales) is also the year that Guitar Hero may well be the better game.
Guitar Hero 5Publisher: Activision
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii, PlayStation 2
Price: $59.99 standalone, $99.99 with guitar
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 2009-09-01
The ongoing battle between Activision/Neversoft's Guitar Hero series and MTV/EA/Harmonix's Rock Band series has become one of reputation and sales with Rock Band coming out on top in the former, and Guitar Hero using its name to continue dominating the latter. While Guitar Hero's near-constant release schedule and clumsy use of licensed property (see: Kurt Cobain) almost guarantees that it will be making no headway in the reputation department, this may be the year that the tables are turned in the sales department -- Guitar Hero 5 was released to the sound of crickets chirping, while The Beatles: Rock Band released an all-too-short week later, was released to near-universal chatter, good vibes, and the full support of The New York Times.
An informal poll on Destructoid tells you all you need to know about the two franchises' balance of power in the battle for public opinion; that poll was even from before the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, and one can imagine an even more lopsided result now. Oddly, for perhaps the first time since this genre competition started, this may actually be the year that Guitar Hero actually deserves a far more even split than it's getting.
Look at The Beatles: Rock Band for a second. It is exactly what you would expect. It's Rock Band with 45 Beatles songs, a whole lot of Beatles imagery, and a healthy helping of hero worship. There is no booing, there are downloadable tracks but they are only Beatles tracks, and you cannot play these songs in the other Rock Band games.
It is in this last aspect that we see the seeds of the most troublesome element of the recent wave of Rock Band worship. Specifically, The Beatles: Rock Band is, if anything, a step back for the franchise. It's true, any backward movement in the direction of the franchise was most certainly a product of the concessions that Harmonix had to make in order to land the most popular band on the planet -- a band so difficult about licensing out its music that it's not even available on iTunes -- and by any account, every concession Harmonix granted has been worth it. Still, aside from three-part harmony (a feature that could potentially be a great addition in all future Rock Band titles), there is nothing new about The Beatles: Rock Band other than the music and the personalities. If it weren't for the presence of digital versions of the Fab ones themselves, you'd almost be hard pressed to tell The Beatles: Rock Band from, say, the AC/DC live song pack.
Neversoft, on the other hand, put millions of dollars into updating the Guitar Hero series, adding so many new game modes, such a tremendous setlist, and even a new graphics engine that truly sets Guitar Hero 5 apart not only from all of the Guitar Hero games that came before it, but from any rhythm game yet released.
And yet...crickets. That's all it gets. When the ad geniuses working on this franchise can't do anything but trot out censored naked people and Hugh fucking Hefner (playing insultingly to the lowest common denominator of stereotypical gamer culture), you know that they're not even trying. Really? You had to use Risky Business for inspiration again? When the last time you used it was for the sake of promoting what is unarguably the worst game in the series? That's hack, that's what that is.
Here we are, 600 words into what is ostensibly a review of Guitar Hero 5, and hardly two words have been mentioned about the game itself, likely because the game itself hardly matters anymore. The momentum caused by the court of public opinion has put the Guitar Hero franchise in something of the same boat as the Madden franchise, a franchise for which EA could replace all the players with flying penguins and the playbook with pages from Ulysses and the basic assumption of 95% of those who see it on the shelf would be "oh, look, they updated the rosters again". It's not a bit fair, but market saturation and poor PR invite the mess, and once the mess is made, it's awfully hard to clean up.
Guitar Hero 5 is everything you should expect in a current-generation rhythm game. Right from the outset, you see a difference in the presentation, in that the visuals have gone through a massive overhaul -- the character models, particularly, no longer look like the cartoony, uncanny valley-baiting character models from the last couple of games; these characters -- that is, the fictional ones -- look appropriately larger than life, and their mannerisms and attitudes throughout the game complement the over-the-top look that Neversoft is apparently going for. The narrative has been pretty much entirely ditched, save for a quick intro scene and an equally quick ending; this, finally, is about the music more than it's about saving rock 'n roll or some other such nonsense.
The engine used for vocals has finally caught up to Rock Band with a phrase-centered play style over a note-centered one to boot. The guitar parts, where they are actually guitars (and not, say, trumpets or pianos), are well-charted and appropriate, and the difficulty level ramps up in a gradual, welcoming way. The added challenges tacked on to career mode don't feel as though they took much work to implement, but their inclusion adds a new level of "achievement" to the mode, encouraging a multi-instrumental approach like never before, not to mention the near-necessity of playing every song. Sure, you can get away with playing less than half of the songs here to "beat" career mode, but that's not going to cut it if you're going after some of the more challenging achievements or trophies.
The multiplayer approach that Neversoft has taken is a mixed bag -- on the plus side, it's fantastic that any combination of instruments is allowed. No more fighting for the guitar, no more "but I don't wanna sing" when you pull it out at a party, and going to town Slipknot-style with multiple drum sets is as chaotic and hilarious as it sounds. "Party Play" is also perfect for those cases in which spectators don't even want to commit to a whole song, because let's face it, the buzz starts to wear off on "Do You Feel Like We Do?" at about the seven-minute (of almost 14) mark. On the other hand, there are so many competitive multiplayer modes -- Pro Face-Off, Band vs. Band, Battle, and a whole host of "RockFest" modes, which allow for a number of parameters to be set (or not) as to how the competition will play out -- that it can be nearly impossible to find someone online who wants to play the exact same way that you do.
All of this is to say that if you presented someone who has neither played a rhythm game nor tracked the recent trajectory of the two dominant series to date with those two series' latest entries, there's a very good chance that Guitar Hero 5's content-heavy, feature-heavy approach would win out over the artist-baiting of Rock Band. Unfortunately, you cannot erase context, and Rock Band clearly has the momentum right now; how unfortunate that the tide seems finally to have turned so drastically the year that Guitar Hero has the better game.