It's good that there's a practice mode this time around, then. Since you aren't able to play through songs in quickplay or the career mode without being tied to the rock meter (and potentially failing before you get to the end), the new practice mode lets you play through any of the songs without fear of failure. What's more, you can play any specific section of a song you want, at the speed you want. Songs are broken down piece by piece, and you can pick any starting and stopping section you please. When you complete songs in the quickplay or career modes, you can access detailed stats that depict exactly how well you did on each individual section, so it's not tough to figure out where you need to improve. Three slower speeds are included, letting you slow a solo to a crawl so you can identify just how crazy that solo is. It's an incredibly useful tool for figuring out ways to best some of the game's peskier parts, and it's very easy to use. There's even an option to jump right into practice mode from the options menu that pops up when you fail a song in one of the other modes. Unfortunately, this mode doesn't show star-power sections, nor does it give any indication of how close you might be to failing a song. Not letting you fail is good, but some kind of indication to see just how badly you're screwing up would have been nice. And being able to figure out where best to use star power would also have been good, since often you can only survive some of these crazy solos with well-placed star-power usage. The mode also lacks any sort of loop feature, meaning each time you complete a section, you'll have to reload it to play again.
The basic play options are largely the same this time around. Career mode is where you'll spend much of your time initially as you work to unlock the game's many songs. The career progression works much the same as last year, with four sections broken up by difficulty. As you play, you'll unlock a bunch of new songs, as well as earn cash to spend in the game's store. New characters, costumes, guitars, guitar finishes, and yes, even songs can be purchased here. There are some truly fantastic axes to be unlocked, most of which are licensed Gibson guitars, but a few of which are so comically bizarre that you can't help but love them. Viking guitar, anyone?
The multiplayer section of the game has seen the biggest overhaul, though it still lacks online play. Regardless, the offline multiplayer options have tripled. On top of the same competitive mode from last year, where you and a friend would trade off playing sections of a song, there's a new version of that same mode that lets you both play through the entire song together. If you're one of those people that got tired of hearing your friends whine about how you got to play all the easier parts and they got stuck with the impossible sections, this should be a welcome addition.
The other option is cooperative play, and in this mode, only one of you can play lead guitar. The other player gets to pick up the rhythm guitar, or bass, depending on the song. When playing lead and rhythm guitar together, the game splits up the guitar parts you've been playing in the single-player in such a way that you realize you've often been playing two guitar pieces mashed into one all along. There are times when rhythm sections are actually more challenging than the lead sections, though they're also decidedly lacking in solo action, for the most part. The split between guitar and bass is more pronounced. Bass is, after all, a more repetitive instrument, and some of the bass parts in the game are flat-out boring. But a good number of them are also extremely fun, especially in any song where the bass is a more pronounced instrument within a band, such as Primus or Rush. Perhaps the scattered level of quality of the secondary parts is why these aren't available for play anywhere else in the game besides here and practice mode. Still, you could easily argue that in a band like Primus, the bass is practically the lead instrument, and not being able to play the bass in even quickplay is a bit disappointing.
What's weird about the cooperative mode itself is that you don't always get the sense that you're playing with someone, so much as playing next to another person. Obviously, the different instruments play into each other within the song, but there's something slightly mechanical about the way the two instruments play together in this mode. This is less a problem with rhythm guitar tracks and mostly an issue in bass songs that aren't crazy in the way that the Rush or Primus songs are. Basically, it's frequently hard to hear the bass guitar, even with the bass audio cranked up as much as it is, so it's tough to gauge how much effect you're really having on the song when playing bass. Seemingly, the developers realized this and tried to give the mode a bit more oomph by tying both players into a single rock meter and combo multiplier. So if your friend is really tanking on their part, you'll both lose your combo buildup and potentially fail the song. You even engage star power by both tilting your guitars. While that could be potentially disastrous if you're playing with a less-experienced player, the game mercifully lets you select individual difficulty levels for each part in this mode.
It may not contain the same sort of mind blowing soundtrack the first game did, but Guitar Hero II still delivers as a great sequel.
Though Guitar Hero's graphics weren't exactly the most impressive out there, the game had an explicitly goofy and decidedly rock-and-roll in-joke visual style to it that just worked. Guitar Hero II improves the technical visuals a bit, but upgrades the style even further to make another great-looking game. A few new guitarist characters join most of the main troupe of metal heads, punkers, and classic rockers from the last game, the most memorable of which is Lars Umlaut, a hulking Norwegian death metal guitarist with a fancy for elaborate costumes and breathing fire. Onstage, the sets have gotten much more elaborate, with more flashing lights, more pyrotechnics, and big cutouts of the grim ripper fighting a giant octopus monster, among other things. Granted, most times your eyes will be squarely focused on the fret board and the notes flying at you, but even if you're just catching stuff like this in the periphery, it's great to see.
Without a doubt, Guitar Hero II brings to the table an impressive package. The new multiplayer modes are plenty of fun, the song list is gigantic, and the practice mode is going to very much come in handy as you navigate the trials and tribulations of metal songs with 11 guitar solos and nine-minute rock epics. The only thing that makes GH II inherently less impressive than the first game is simply that its track list doesn't make the same incredible impression that the first game's did, even with these songs' greater level of challenge. Of course, even without the ultimate rock-and-roll mix tape of a soundtrack, Guitar Hero II is bound to provide hours of fun to any fan of the original, and perhaps it will even win over a few converts that missed out the first time around.