Things We Like
Getting Better: Activision definitely learned a lot from last year's mediocre Guitar Hero World Tour (and, for that matter, from Rock Band 2). The interface for Guitar Hero 5 is much simpler and more logical. The whole game received a graphical facelift and the over-the-top venues take plenty of playful inspiration from Iron Maiden album covers.
Pay to Play: It's great that Activision is finally getting on the bandwagon and letting you import songs from previous games. For a small fee - about $5 - you can import a selection of songs from Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero Smash Hits. Unfortunately, the list of importable songs is short (fewer than half of each game), but if you own both games, importing the older songs really helps beef up the GH5 track list. Add that with the decent list of downloadable songs (which are also transferrable from World Tour to 5), and there's a lot of material here to play for some time.
Complicated: The difficulty curve, which, in some previous Guitar Hero games, has been frustratingly precipitous, seems about right here. The window you have to hit a note when it's crossing the strum area is generous, so mistakes are usually your fault, not the game's, although there is a significant jump in difficulty on the last four career venues. That said, singing is harder than it should be because the pitch indicator is too small.
Bang a Gong: Drumming on the Guitar Hero drums is amazingly satisfying and completely immersive. The Guitar Hero hardware is the best in the industry. Very little was added on the hardware front this year, so your old GH3 Les Paul will work just fine.
Start Me Up: The game does everything possible to get you started playing immediately. You're given the opportunity to hop into a randomly chosen song before you even see the main menu. Better yet, all songs are unlocked in quickplay mode from the beginning, so if you're having a party, there are no hoops to jump through to unlock all the songs.
Dancing on the Ceiling: It's great that the game lets multiple players choose any instrument and difficulty, even if someone else is already playing it. No one wants to play bass on Smells Like Teen Spirit or Dancing with Myself, and, for once, you don't have to.
Studio Luv: GH5 brings an upgraded version of GH Studio the in-game studio software that lets you sequence and upload custom tracks for free download. It's complex, but if you're into that kind of thing, Studio is an endless sandbox and the ability to download an endless supply of free, homegrown songs is a nice bonus if you can weed through the mediocrity.
Check out Guitar Hero 5 in action:
Things We'd Change
The Ugly Truth: The character designs range from the amusing to the completely grotesque. I know that the usual cast of characters (Axel Steel, Judy Nails, etc.) are a long-standing part of the Guitar Hero experience, but it's time to retire them. In fact, the whole "heavy metal" aesthetic of Guitar Hero is wearing thin, and a few skulls go a long way.
Thriller: The game comes stocked with several celebrity avatars, including Garbage's Shirley Manson, Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. This, gently put, is a horrible idea. The game's weird-looking character models don't lend themselves to depicting real people, and the choice of reanimating deceased music icons wasn't wise. I don't pretend to know what motivated Kurt Cobain in life, but I feel some assurance that he is spinning in his grave about being an unlockable character in a video game.
East Bound and Down: The downside to having all of the songs unlocked from the beginning is the career mode is barebones almost to the point of being nonexistent. You play through a succession of humorously themed, but basically identical, stadiums. You can play the songs in the venue in any order, and -- for better or worse -- you don't need to complete all of the songs to continue. It's nice that the game is made less hardcore, but there are really few rewards for going through the career mode, unlike Rock Band with its fans and earnings spread across multiple cities around the globe.
All the Small Things: The in-game interface is pretty standard, but the status indicators are so miniscule that it's not always immediately evident how you're doing or how much star power you have. And when will one of these games show you visually how much of the song is left?
Turn It Up, Man: Song list is always a subjective thing, but there are a bunch of songs here that are just bland alt-rock. Activision brags that much of the music is recent, but that's missing the point of a game like this. Fire up a music game at a party and most people will get excited about the big rock bands of the 70s and 80s: Journey, Boston, Bon Jovi.
Islands in the Stream: Even though you can import songs from previous games and download them from the Guitar Hero online store, added songs aren't merged into the career gigs (except for sets where you get to choose a song yourself). It's disappointing to have a much bigger song library than the career mode implies and makes the mode feel that much more limited.
Money, Get Back: How many GH titles can Activision release in a year, anyway? Within 12 months, we've had World Tour, Smash Hits, Metallica, GH5 and, soon, Van Halen. These games basically print money, but too much of a good thing will kill the golden goose.
What Do You Want?: Where's the Def Leppard? The first music game to host Pour Some Sugar on Me gets my MS Points and my eternal admiration.
Guitar Hero 5 does a lot right, and it's easiest the best Guitar Hero since II. Unfortunately, it still doesn't quite live up to the standard set by last year's reigning Rock Band 2. It would be nice if you could actually import the entire set lists of Guitar Hero World Tour and Smash Hits, but the partial import suggests that Activision will hopefully make that a standard feature in the inevitable sequels. Bottom line, if you enjoy these arthritis simulators and you find the track list to your liking, you'll want to pick up GH5.
-- Review By Lee Clontz