Go ahead, use the practice mode all you want. Five stars on 'Jordan' will forever escape you.
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.
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 it always has, with four sections broken up by difficulty. One thing that has changed in the 360 version is the track order. While having a different order to the set list might not sound like a huge deal, it improves the flow of the career mode significantly, as the difficulty balance is much, much better. In the PS2 version, there were some songs that felt totally out of whack where they were, and here the tweaks pretty much eliminate that feeling, save for a few rare instances ("YYZ" is still way too easy to come as late as it does). As you play through the career, 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?
Multiplayer includes two forms of competitive play. One has you and a friend trading off sections of a song, and the other has the two of you playing through a whole song the whole time. 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.
As you would expect from any 360 game, Guitar Hero II on the 360 tosses achievements into the mix. There are 50 achievements, and the difficulty of them covers both ends of the spectrum. There are some jokingly easy achievements, such as the points you earn for failing a song on easy or refusing to do an encore in the career mode. Then there are such gems as the "Yngwie Malmsteen" achievement for getting a 1,000-note streak on a single song (if you don't know who that is, look him up, and you'll get the association), or the achievement for getting 500,000 points in a single song. You'll get a bunch of achievements quickly and then have to work hard to get the rest. It's a nicely balanced list. The only bummer is that the game still doesn't support online multiplayer, meaning you'll need to drag another expert-player friend over to get all the cooperative multiplayer achievements.
If your buddy starts screwing up your note streaks, punch them in the face until they get it right. It worked for the Brian Jonestown Massacre!
Guitar Hero II's graphics aren't exactly the most impressive out there, but the game has an explicitly goofy and decidedly rock-and-roll in-joke visual style to it that just works. From guitarists like Lars Umlaut, a hulking Norwegian death metal guitarist with a fancy for elaborate costumes and breathing fire, to the insanely elaborate stage sets, with tons of flashing lights, pyrotechnics, and big cutouts of the grim ripper fighting a giant octopus monster, among other things, you can't be a rock fan and not chuckle at how totally bananas the game's look is. 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 it in the periphery, it's great to see. The 360 version of Guitar Hero II doesn't do a ton to improve the overall look of the game. It runs in HD now, so some of the details of the guitarists and sets are more discernable. Everything also looks crisper and brighter than it ever did on the PS2, even if you're running in SD. You can't quite call it a great-looking 360 game, but the graphics more than get the job done.
That 360 owners can now see what PS2 owners have been enjoying so much over the last couple of years with the Guitar Hero series, and do it with even more added content, is a fantastic thing. The track list is gigantic, the multiplayer is a great deal of fun, the practice mode is a godsend, and the downloadable content is sure to give this game a long shelf life. If you've never had the opportunity to try Guitar Hero before, this is the definitive way to do it. PS2 owners might be reluctant to drop nearly another $100 on a game they've already played a bunch, but there's an investment-like quality to this game. Guitar Hero isn't going to be coming to the PS2 forever, and with the series starting off with such a bang on the Xbox 360, it might just make investing in Guitar Hero II again worth your while.