Unimproved and unimpressive
Here we are in the early fall of 2009; a season geared up with a ton of eagerly anticipated releases. But of course, can the fall go by without another main entry in the Guitar Hero franchise? By the mere fact that Guitar Hero 5 (GH5) is out the answer is clearly an "Absolutely not!" from Activision, and apparently they don't care much about how the game turns out as long as they gain oodles of money from it. Now don't take me wrong, because that's not to say that GH5 is a bad game. Actually it retains a lot of what makes the franchise so much fun and adds some solid new modes to the mix, but in the end the game quite simply fails to impress.
Since most gamers by now are aware of how Guitar Hero/Rock Band gameplay works, I will skip that explanation. GH5 really doesn't add anything notable to the mix: every element of the gameplay is exactly the same as last year's World Tour game (GHWT) except that chord hammer-ons/pull-offs have been added for guitar gameplay, and much more successfully than Rock Band has done them. If you've played Rock Band 2 and have tried to hammer-on chords, you may notice that most of the time they don't really work. GH5 has made them easy and workable now, though, which is nice but not a drastic change. Overall GH5 is just plain fun to play because the gameplay setup simply can't be boring.
Well, the gameplay setup certainly can't be boring, but the songs can be. GH5 has an overall unimpressive setlist in my opinion, containing few tracks that are really worth going back to. The songs I especially enjoyed were 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' 'Back Round,' 'Medicate,' and 'You Give Love a Bad Name.' Most of the rest of the songs I played were either too easy or just not all that enjoyable. At the end of most of the songs I played I simply said to myself, "Ok, that was kind of fun… I guess." GH5's setlist is pretty weak overall, and lacks the solid number of awesome songs GHWT had.
GH5's Career mode is leaps and bounds ahead of GHWT's, but still not satisfactory in the least. There is only one career per band now, rather than one career per instrument per band, which was a huge pain in the previous game. The Career mode is even more linear than it was in GHWT, though, as you have to play through each set in order. You usually only have to play three or four songs to advance, though, as moving on in the career is based on how many stars you get. Stars are now easier to earn too as a sixth star is awarded for getting 100% on a song and up to three bonus stars can be earned for completing an instrument-specific mission for the particular song. These missions are nice additions but they really don't contribute much to the game as a whole, because the objectives quickly become repetitive and are usually based on how you try to perform anyways. GH5's career mode is ultimately two steps forward and one step back from GHWT's career, and it's kind of sad because this is really what GHWT's career should have been like in the first place.
The Career mode won't last you long; in fact I can almost guarantee it. After (or possibly before) you finish it you can move on to Quick Play, where you can freely select any song you want to play. All the songs are unlocked from the star too, which is really convenient. Aside from what has been in all GH games before, there are plenty of new modes to try out. The first is Party Mode, where you can simply start a song with the press of a button and have anyone jump in or out whenever they want on whatever instrument they want (even if it means you have four drummers!). This is a nice addition for, well, parties, and it offers a quick and easy way to set up a game. Another noteworthy addition is Roadie Battle mode, where you can link one or two DS consoles to play as backstage roadies who try to mess up the opposing guitarist. The roadie's abilities are very similar to the weapons from GH3's Battle mode, and while it's a pain for the guitarist it's a lot of fun for whoever is playing as the roadie. The online play also has a new mode called Rockfest, which features several different types of competitions and can be played with a large number of players. Overall GH5's new modes are great, but still don't make the game anything amazing.
Remember how dreadful the presentation was in GHWT? How the menus were kind of hard to follow, the fonts were really hard to read (and I have 20/20 vision!), and the graphics were flat-out terrible? Well, GH5 has drastically improved just about all of that. For one, I can actually read the fonts, which is definitely a good thing. The menus look much nicer and are much easier to follow, which also really helps the presentation. But not all of the presentation changes are good. It has now been made extremely difficult to read all the scores and gauges during gameplay. They're SO small that when you try and decipher them, you will probably miss a note in the process. Seeing as most us like to know how we're doing in a song but also hate missing notes, this is a very bad thing. As far as performances go, they really don't look great but are about ten times as good looking as World Tour's. The graphics are basically World Tour's with a bit of noticeable improvement, and there are even a few lighting effects! What a concept! However the graphics are still very unimpressive, and when compared with the Xbox 360 and PS3 they ultimately look very lazily constructed. Like the Career mode, GH5's presentation is ultimately two steps forward and one step back.
By now you, dear reader, may have noticed that I have made very little mention of other instruments in this review. Why is that? Well, you see, this is GUITAR Hero. BAND Hero is coming out in November, and according to an interview I saw for GH5, the BAND focus was supposed to make the shift to BAND Hero, while GUITAR Hero was going to focus on GUITAR from now on. Well, that makes sense, right? My major gripe, though, is that GH5 does not put any particular focus on the guitar. In fact it retains the full band focus I thought was leaving this franchise and moving to Band Hero. The game's Career mode is the greatest example of this, because there are a ton of missions for vocals and drums! If GH5 truly focused on Guitar, the missions for other instruments would have been cut. Well that's what seems logical to me, anyways.
GH5's final flaw is not in something it has, but in something is does not have, and that is a true 'wow factor.' With each passing year I think it's fair for us to expect some great new feature to come around in the franchise, right? GH5 does add some solid new modes, but really that's all it does. Sure they're very good modes, but they don't define a truly great sequel because the rest of the game has remained essentially unchanged. There is no incredible setlist to serve as the game's backbone, either, like all the songs in GH3 and about half the songs in GHWT. The gameplay is still great fun but it hasn't changed a bit, and the presentation is still not at the quality level it should be at. So what has GH5 accomplished? Giving us yet another Guitar Hero game that is certainly not bad, but ultimately fails to impress and improve.
+ gameplay is still fun
+ jumping in and starting a game is a breeze
+ Roadie Battle mode is a great addition
+ great additions to the online mode
- setlist lacks a solid number of awesome songs
- graphics still look lazily constructed
- not enough focus on guitar
- lacks a real 'wow factor'
LAST WORD: Guitar Hero 5 is a good game that just ultimately fails to impress and improve. The new modes are certainly noteworthy and there are a few fun songs, but otherwise GH5 has no lasting appeal or 'wow factor.' Give it a rent if you love music games, otherwise just go back to World Tour and play 'Crazy Train' again.