Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Xbox 360 owners have come to learn what millions of PlayStation 2 gamers have known for quite some time now: the Guitar Hero franchise rocks!
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 strike the corresponding button as the icon hits the bar to continue your progress on the song. You do so using the Gibson X-Plorer guitar controller that comes packaged with the game. The guitar controller has five colored fret buttons that correspond to the icons onscreen, a flipper to strum instead of strings, and an adjustable whammy bar for that added personal touch.
Save for its angular design, the Gibson X-Plorer is roughly the same length as the Gibson SG controller featured in the PS2 version of the game. The base of the guitar is the same coat of off-white as the Xbox 360 console, with a brighter white plate adorning a small portion of its surface. The neck and head of the guitar are black. The fret buttons are placed a littler closer together on the neck of the guitar, and swiveling the whammy bar into position is decidedly smoother on the X-Plorer, but otherwise the button layout is identical to the Gibson SG. New additions to the Gibson X-Plorer include a directional pad, an Xbox Guide button and a couple of ports along the base of the guitar that as of today don’t do a thing, though rumor has it an effects pedal accessory could become available in the future.
The Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II is essentially the same as the PS2 version. The game sports Quick Play and Career Mode. The Career Mode allows you to choose a persona and play your way through a series of songs and venues, beginning at a high school in the Midwest and culminating with an intergalactic performance at Stonehenge. At each venue, you’ll have to successfully rock out a series of songs before the audience demands an encore, unlocking another, often more memorable and challenging song in 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 sections of the song you need to practice on which is where the Practice Mode comes into play. In this mode, you can practice any section of any song: intro, verse, chorus, guitar solos, ending; you name it. You can even slow down the tempo as much as 1/8th the speed in order to obtain the muscle memory and speed necessary to complete some of the more difficult tracks at a normal tempo.
The soundtrack for the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II has been expanded and reshuffled. There are now 6 songs per venue, 8 venues, for a total of 48 well-known tracks to choose from. Some of the Xbox 360 exclusives include Pearl Jam’s “Life Wasted,” “Possum Kingdom” by Toadies, Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies,” and “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” by Rick Derringer, just to name a few. The order of the songs has also changed slightly, with some of the easier songs moving up to the earlier venues, and even some of the encore songs replaced by others. The songs have been brilliant re-recorded with a few exceptions, such as Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, which sounds really flat.
In addition to the 48 mainstream songs, there are 26 unlockable songs including the insanely random “Jordan” by Buckethead. Each time you complete a song in the Career Mode, you’ll earn cash that you can use at the store to unlock these additional songs, as well as new characters, guitar skins and new guitars.
The Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II features the same multiplayer modes as its PS2 brethren. Face-Off, which is your classic versus mode, sees players battle each other while trading off sections of the lead guitar track. Pro Face-Off, another competitive mode, will have players competing head-to-head with both guitarists playing through the entire lead guitar tracks. There’s also a co-op mode where guitarists can team up to play the lead and rhythm/bass guitars. Each player can select their own level of difficulty and together will share the multipliers, rock meter and total score. In a co-op twist, in order to activate Star Power, both guitarists have to lift their guitars in sync to unleash the power of rock.
So, other than the exclusive songs, what do Xbox 360 gamers have to look forward to that PS2 owners of Guitar Hero II can only dream of? For starters, Xbox Live members have access to downloadable tracks. So far there are three Tracks Packs available, each offering three songs from the original Guitar Hero game. Each Track Pack costs 500 Microsoft Points, which is a little high in my opinion, but I won’t rant too much about that here. The fact remains downloadable content in the form of new songs is certainly one of the highlights of the Xbox 360 version.
Another highlight of the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II is online leaderboards that keep track of high scores on every song, as well as a career score that adds the scores of all of the songs you’ve played put together. It would have been even nicer had the leaderboards been further broken down into difficulty levels so you could compare your scores with guitarists of the same skill level. As it stands, the top residents on the leaderboard are all expert players. Still, it’s nice to see where you rank amongst the tens of thousands of virtual rockers around the world.
Surprisingly absent from Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360 is online play. The multiplayer modes touched on earlier are only available via split-screen so if you want to shred with a friend, you’ll have to purchase a second guitar and invite them over to your place. The developer, Red Octane, has mentioned that online gameplay is a possible future addition, as evidenced by the disabled “multiplayer” option at the main menu, but as of yet there’s no way to challenge or play along with other guitarists online. I was also surprised that they didn’t make the Gibson X-Plorer guitar controller wireless, considering that’s one of the main selling points of next-generation consoles. I presume it was an issue of cost. The game already retails for $89.99 USD, a figure that surely would have reached the three-digit mark with a wireless device. If you were hoping for a wireless guitar controller, you’ll have to order one special from Red Octane or wait for a third-party accessory.
Ok, so the Gibson X-Plorer guitar controller isn’t wireless, there’s currently no online play, and the downloadable Track Packs are a little pricey. Big deal. Xbox 360 gamers are still in for a real treat. If this is your first exposure to the Guitar Hero franchise, prepare yourself for one of the most rewarding, addictive and ultimately satisfying gaming experiences you’re likely to have this year. Simply put, Guitar Hero II rocks!