Even though the series had been resurrected with GH Live (which I haven't played yet), I can't deny that the series was part of my first years as a young adult, and that half-decade was a good time to be a nerdy fan of rock, even as we realized Activision was running that sucker into the ground fast. I compare the trajectory of GH to that of Nirvana - a band that started small with no pretensions of making it big, but once discovered by a major label, became media darlings and started appearing everywhere, only to fade out in just a few years by dying a swift death (except that said death wasn't because of a leader who couldn't cope with fame). And since the bulk of the series is contained in this 2005-2010 period, I thought, "why not give it a rundown?" So here I'm compiling my impressions on the games in the series (except the DS games and spin-offs), which I thought I would share with you guys so you can opine and agree or disagree, after all without GH we wouldn't even have this game. Maybe.
So, here goes:
1. Guitar Hero (2005): The game that started it all. I found it through a review on EGM (the version that ran here anyway) and immediately I ran to the Internet to check out more about the game. I got hooked. I have to say, I didn't know many of the songs there at first (and I'm not talking about the bonus setlist), and that was the beauty of GH, to introduce us to good music that for any reason had passed us by. When I got to play it, my perception had already been colored by GH2 (which I actually played first), and so I felt the game was ever-so-slightly lacking in some areas, such as the character design not being as polished (though I do admit this game's version of Pandora is my favorite), no Hyperspeed, no practice space and no Pro Face-Off. But I totally get it, it started out as something of an indie game, and it still does hold up rather well. The lack of the patented HO/PO mechanic didn't bother me because I only played the game with a DualShock - faster riffs were murder, but then I've always been a persistent a-hole. Anyway, even with its faults, the setlist is great despite not even having 50 songs, the art direction is pretty cool (I just love the basement and skate park stages), and the game in general reeks of that charm of a developer finding its feet trying something novel (for Western audiences at least). 8.5/10
2. Guitar Hero II (2006): Ah, this one. The best in the series, hands down. The first one I ever played and beat. The charm that the first game had was turned up to eleven with this entry, with Harmonix now knowing what to do and doing it right. The song selection is very enjoyable (and even more so in the Xbox 360 version, which had exclusive tunes and some tracks from the first game as DLC - now THAT would be a killer soundtrack, too bad I wouldn't get one until much later on), the characters look more polished and charismatic this time around (seriously, if I were to be reborn as a girl, I'd want to come back like GH2 Judy Nails), there's a wider variety of extras to unlock, and it's a game that rewards your persistence in taking its learning curve (like the fact that you have to play on Medium in order to really see the end of the game, or the new Practice mode. The entire art direction, as well, is overhauled from the first game - while many of the ideas remain (such as the menus being represented by these weird-ass posters, the setlist being annotated on a long notebook sheet and so on), they are changed around just enough to make it feel revamped. I love, for example, the practice space background, which is essentially the bedroom of an aspiring rockstar, full of Rolling Stones memorabilia. The reworked mechanic makes the game feel easier, sure (with a greater timing window, easier HO/POs and Hyperspeed), but it still manages to be a huge blast to play. If there's any game in the series that follows up on the promise of making you feel like a rockstar, this is it. 10/10
3. Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007): Over the years I've had the feeling that Activision just wanted Harmonix to rush this out to get them out of the way so they could do what they pleased with the series, because by this time they realized they had struck gold by offering to publish the sequel of the sleeper hit of 2005 and saw it become a huge hit in late 2006. And it shows with the lackluster job Harmonix did in this one: change the setlist, give the cast new clothes, axe the extras and call it a day. Mind, it's not a bad game per se, but the fact that it's largely the same thing as GH2 with much less content (the game store is next to useless) speaks against it. 6/10
4. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007): To me, this is where things started going downhill, with Neversoft taking over development and Activision fully in control. Rather than the fun and feel-good sensation the first two games evoked, this one feels more like Neversoft deliberately tried to evoke "badass". Showing how badass rock is, giving us badass characters, badass songs, badass guitar battles integrated to career mode, badass concert venues up to and including Hell, and so on and so forth. The developers went so hard for the edgy aspect, they completely forgot the eclectic factor that made the first two games so endearing (for one, Pandora had transitioned from alt-rocker to a more artsy style in the first two games, but here she was summarily axed, as were Eddie Knox and Clive Winston, who were good characters in their own right). Take Judy Nails for example: I liked her in the first two games because she was a teenage girl who liked to rock with the big boys. Here they turned her into this sexy badass (here's the word again) punk chick and completely change the essence of the character. Sure one may argue they gave the role of "teenage guitar starlet" to Midori, but she doesn't quite have the same vibe. She feels more like an attempt to cater to the kiddy crowd than a character. And to top it off, the charts are much more ****. No offense to the people here, but it seems to me Neversoft hired the trolls that usually lurk around FoF communities and only make Amazing-difficulty charts because of the challenge. Even in Medium, Raining Blood is a goddamn pain in the ass (and I love Slayer). And here's the key difference between Harmonix's and Neversoft's way of handling the game: Harmonix has always treated the games it works on (including Rock Band) as music games, in which you can enjoy the song as you play, while with Neversoft you're always more worried about beating the song. I guess they were negatively influenced by so many people talking about Jordan in GH2, so they decided to license Through the Fire and Flames just to top that. But all of this is not to say that GH3 is a bad game, not in the slightest. In spite of its faults, it is still a game that you can enjoy, if only because you know the songs better than you did those in the Harmonix entries (that, or you feel like you have more of a license to go "f-k yeah!" on them), or because of the Co-Op Career Mode which raises the replay value quite a lot. The fact that Neversoft played it fairly safe by keeping the core mechanics unchanged helps. 8/10
5. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (2008): At first glance, this is to GH3 what Rocks the 80s was to GH2. But at least here Neversoft did make more of an effort. The game does a good service to Aerosmith's legacy, rescuing some great songs from the 70s and some of their later hits (although looking back, I wish they remembered to include Lightning Strikes, but since people don't usually remember Rock and a Hard Place - the one album without Joe and Brad - I guess they thought no one would miss it), and the other half of the soundtrack is pretty good too. It's still GH3 with an Aerosmith coating, but it's a rather good game. 7/10
6. Guitar Hero World Tour (2008): If things had started going downhill in GH3, GHWT was where the fecal matter well and truly impacted against the rotating device. The game was subdued in comparison with GH3, but still reeked of the badass look that Neversoft established the year before. The new features were clearly made to take a bite out of the success of Rock Band the year before. Again, this does not necessarily make it a bad game, but all the in-your-face aesthetics actually end up having the opposite effect of making it blander than RB which, while not having any trademark character (unless you count the ones the game auto-generates, and even then they're all just placeholders), did make a better band experience. Not to mention they actually made the characters look WORSE. Izzy Sparks and Midori are good examples: in GH3, Izzy looked like Vince Neil and Shawn Michaels' long-lost love child, and Midori's Asian features were quite noticeable to the point of making her an unique character. Here, since the regular characters were made with the character creation engine, they don't look any distinct from others - in fact, thanks to that weird male jaw Neversoft drew, Izzy looks like a friggin' geezer now. Even Mick Mars is a looker next to him, and I'm not talking Mick Mars in the 80s, I mean the old, AS-wracked Mick Mars. As for the rest of the game, I feel Activision wanted some big Star Power to have an edge, hence the plethora of guest musicians this time around. In fact, his is the point that it became clear that, if GH were a band, Activision wanted it to be like KISS: grandiose and, while still delivering music, thriving more on media presence than on musical prowess. Which led them to start squeezing every last drop of blood from the franchise. The soundtrack is only good for the exclusive tracks - the amount of songs present both here in RB2 cannot really be a coincidence. The slider mechanic is an unnecessary addition to set itself apart from RB, and GHTunes could have been a potentially good mode to let us experiment with the game if the idea weren't so badly executed (mainly for the crappy MIDI sounds used for guitar and the 3-minute cap). It's not good fun as RB2, but it's serviceable. Besides, I'm always willing to try games that let you create your character (although I only create female characters in this one, since the men always look horrible no matter what you do). 6/10
7. Guitar Hero: Metallica (2009): A redressing of World Tour with Metallica. Unlike Smash Hits, this does feel like a different game and, although not different enough, it is the definitive version of World Tour, with an excellent soundtrack, true respect to the band, good guest characters (seriously, who wouldn't want to be Lemmy?) and the Expert+ difficulty offering a while new ballpark for the braggarts out there. While this game can't hide the fact it's helping drive the World Tour engine to obsolescence, it still seems like it's what Neversoft should have done in the first place. The only thing that bugs the hell out of me is the game apparently forgetting Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted existed. 8/10
8. Guitar Hero Smash Hits (2009): While I support the idea of reformatting old GH songs for the full band experience, it doesn't disguise the fact that this game is pretty much GHWT with different songs. Activision would've done much better releasing them on DLC instead of straight-up clogging the market like hairballs on a drain and demonstrating a serious lack of long-term business vision. That, and the fact they left out some real fun tracks, like I Wanna Be Sedated, Iron Man, Surrender and Search and Destroy. 4.5/10 if only because of the total lack of innovation.
9. Guitar Hero 5 (2009): More aesthetically pleasing, with slightly better character design (especially for custom characters - now you can make male characters that don't look like old farts even if you set their age to Teen), a more eclectic soundtrack, venue design that is more subdued and yet more realistic, all of which makes an overall more enjoyable experience. The Quickplay+ mode and the ability to customize your band are welcome additions, and while GHTunes is better structured this time around, it still doesn't solve the problem of making the guitar sound like a guitar (not to mention I had heard it supports vocals too, but I never saw anyone recording them, and I never tried either because I didn't have a mic). However, there was the whole Kurt Cobain debacle, that just showed how Activision kept shooting themselves in the foot without realizing it: I used to think Courtney Love was exaggerating when this was first brought up, but looking back, I can see she had a point - playing with Kurt anywhere other than he should be played is VERY out of character for him (also, I tried using Shirley Manson to sing on other songs - considering that I see her as a muse of rock, results were horrifying), the point being just having star power to back your game up doesn't always work. The sad part is, the game is good enough without having to rely on celebrities. 7.5/10
10. Guitar Hero: Van Halen (2010): More of the same. Take the last game, give it a band makeover, rinse and repeat. Now Van Halen is a fun band, there's no denying that, but they overwhelm the game to the point it could as well be Activision's response to the Beatles and Green Day versions of RB. It's not their fault though; the setlist built around them is short and pretty unremarkable despite having some good tracks, like Painkiller and Space Truckin'. And for a game that had gotten to a point where it could be filled to the brim with content, this feels empty and uninspired. Also, much like GH Metallica apparently forgot about Cliff, GH Van Halen seems intent to make sure you don't know Michael Anthony was the four-string man long before Wolf was even born - plus, I'm not too much of a fan of the Sammy Hagar era, but they could've given him some respect considering that the band had quite a couple of hits and good songs in the decade that followed Dave's departure, and A Different Kind of Truth wouldn't be out for another two years. 5/10
11. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (2010): The gravestone of the series. I think Activision thought "hey, we're not gonna make much more money out of this, so let's kill this game! But we don't want the public to feel sad, so let's make sure we go out with a bang!" and so they invented all this Warrior nonsense. Well, what should be a bang feels more like an (admittedly rather loud) pop to me. The idea of structuring each part of career mode around a different character is admittedly novel, but some songs just don't fit the characters they're given (I mean, in what world would you envision a guy like Lars Umlaut playing AFI?). The base setlist isn't too bad and the final block of songs is made up of killers (people talk about Black Widow of La Porte, and that breakdown near the end is a doozy, but there's been bigger clusterf**ks in the series), but it's still all in the Neversoft tradition of more show than substance. I feel Neversoft could have done World Tour like this from the start (actually, the engine of this one with everything else from Metallica), and just keep supporting it with DLC like Harmonix did with RB to keep the game durable, but no, they had to make it story-driven. At least the male characters look more like humans now, no matter how bizarre you make them (which actually speaks favorably of the character creation engine). Either way, it's not too bad for a final effort. 7/10
So, here are my impressions on the main GH series, not counting the On Tour and Mobile subseries, or Band Hero, or DJ Hero, or GH Live, none of which I ever played and all of which just compound to how Activision bastardized what once was an endearing game for music-lovers. Feel free to agree or disagree.
Discussion specific to other music games, like: RB, GH, GZ, JamLegend, SoS, etc.
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