Do you think RedOctane and Harmonix knew they had a mega hit on their hands when they released Guitar Hero almost a year ago to the day? With its innovative SG guitar controller and wildly addictive gameplay, it quickly garnered accolades and support from millions of gamers. Now, a year later, RedOctane and Harmonix are ready for their encore performance, Guitar Hero II, with new tracks, new venues, new characters and new multiplayer modes. So I pose this question: are you ready to rock?
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown of Guitar Hero II. Like other rhythm games, Guitar Hero II measures your timing against a number of colored icons that scroll towards a timing bar. You need to hit the corresponding button as it hits the bar to continue your progress on the song. You can do this with a regular PS2 controller but you’d be a fool not to use the included Gibson SG guitar peripheral (now in cherry red). The guitar controller has five colored fret buttons that correspond to the fret icons onscreen, a flipper to strum instead of strings, and a whammy bar that can be adjusted to any position you desire. But enough about the basics of the game, that’s what the solid tutorial is for. Let’s get right down to business and talk about some of the new additions to Guitar Hero II.
The Career Mode is essentially the same with a few minor tweaks. You choose a persona and play your way through a series of songs and venues, beginning at a high school in the Midwest and finishing with an out-of-this-world performance at Stonehenge. There are four songs to choose from per venue and when you successfully rock out three of the four songs (or four out of four at the later venues), the fans will ask for an encore, unlocking the fifth and often most memorable/challenging song of the group. When you finish playing a song, you can view a stats page that charts how well you did in each section of the song. These stats will give you an indication of what section(s) of the song you need to work on. That’s where practicing comes into play.
One of the few complaints fans had with the original Guitar Hero was that it was too difficult to play songs on Hard or Expert levels because there was no way to practice a particularly challenging section of a song without playing through the entire song. That problem has been resolved with the new Practice Mode. Now you can practice any section of any song: intro, verse, chorus, guitar solos, ending; you name it. Better yet, you can slow down the tempo as much as 1/8th the speed in order to obtain the muscle memory and speed necessary to complete the track at the normal tempo.
Guitar Hero II’s soundtrack is just as good if not better than the original. With 5 songs per venue, 8 venues total, you’ll have 40 well-known songs to choose from. Just to name a few, you’ll get to rock out with Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, The Police’s “Message in a Bottle”, Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me”, the Foo Fighters’ “Monkey Wrench”, "Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’" by the Rolling Stones, the insanely frantic Hawaiian rock song “Misirlou” by Dick Dale, and even an old school rock tune with the Stray Cat’s “Rock This Town”. Encore performances include such classics as Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son”, Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, Canada’s own Rush with “YYZ” and the song to end all songs (or at least Guitar Hero II), Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird”, a seemingly simple rock ballad followed by a alphabet’s worth of guitar solos. With just one or two exceptions, the songs have been brilliantly re-recorded.
In addition to the 40 mainstream songs, there are 15 unlockable songs including the “Be a Guitar Hero” contest winning entry, “Cheat on a Church” by Graveyard BBQ, and the insanely random “Jordan” by Buckethead. Each time you complete a song in the Career Mode, you’ll earn cash that can be used to unlock these additional songs, as well as unlock new characters, unlock new guitar skins and purchase new guitars.
Aside from Practice Mode, the other significant improvement to Guitar Hero II comes in the form of new multiplayer modes. First up is Face-off, which is your classic versus mode where players battle against each other while trading off sections of the lead guitar track. Pro Face-Off, a new competitive mode, sees players competing head-to-head with both guitarists playing through the lead guitar tracks. There’s also a new co-op mode. For the first time guitarists can team up to play the lead and rhythm/bass guitars. Each player can select their own difficulty and together the pair will share the multipliers, rock meter and total score. In an interesting co-op twist, if you want to activate Star Power, both guitarists will have to lift their guitars in sync to unleash to power of rock. Each of these multiplayer modes is available in split screen. Unfortunately there is no online play.
Guitar Hero was a difficult game to master, especially on Expert level, and Guitar Hero II is no different. Luckily hammer-ons and pull-offs have been tweaked slightly to be more responsive. If you don’t know what either is don’t worry, the game will explain them in the tutorial. Basically they’re little tricks to help navigate some of the more insane guitar solos.
That’s basically Guitar Hero II is a nutshell. Visually the game has received a bit of an upgrade in terms of the textures for characters, venues and instruments. The personas will also exhibit new moves on stage. Whether you notice it or not is another question, the graphics play a secondary role in a game like Guitar Hero II.
Before I wrap this up, I should mention one more point. If you own the original Guitar Hero, you don’t need to re-invest in the new cherry red SG guitar controller unless you want to, of course, whether for multiplayer purposes or because you just like the color. The original controller will work just fine with Guitar Hero II. With that said, there have been some improvements to the new guitar controller, including better button placement and a sturdier overall feel to the instrument.
Let me sum up Guitar Hero II with an anecdote. I was in the grocery store this past weekend when I heard a song playing over the P.A. I don’t remember the name of it, just that it was an old 80s rock tune. As I stood there in the dairy section, all I could think of at that moment was how cool it would be to play that song in Guitar Hero II. That’s the kind of effect this game has, you’ll never listen to another rock song the same way again. So what are you still doing reading this review? Get out there, buy Guitar Hero II and join the craze.