If you're an Xbox 360 owner, a lover of rock music, and someone with close to $100 burning a hole in your pocket, your day has finally come. RedOctane's once PlayStation 2-exclusive Guitar Hero series has come to the 360 in Guitar Hero II. As you would expect, this is primarily a port of the PS2 version released last year, with all the same hard-rocking tracks and play modes. But the 360 version adds a significant chunk of content, with additional songs, online leaderboards, and the promise of downloadable content. Longtime Guitar Hero fans might be a bit wary of spending another big chunk of change for a new guitar and an updated version of a game they probably already own, and that's fully understandable. But for 360 owners that haven't already invested heavily in this series and have the unquenchable desire to get their rock on, Guitar Hero II is absolutely a must-own.
Xbox 360 owners get their first shot at guitar heroism in Guitar Hero II.
For those who aren't intimately familiar with the Guitar Hero series, here's a quick primer on how it plays. The guitar controller features a strumming button, as well as five color-coded fret buttons on the neck of the guitar. Onscreen, notes color coded the same way as the fret buttons travel down the screen, and you need get your fingers on the correct fret buttons while strumming in time with the notes. Each hit note scores you points, and creating lengthy combos ups a score multiplier. Your progress is tracked by a "rock meter," and if you miss too many notes, you'll eventually hit the red and fail the song. Furthermore, every now and again you'll gain "star power" by perfectly hitting a section of notes. This star power feeds into a meter, and by tilting the guitar at an opportune time, star power will deploy, giving you twice as many points per note as you'd normally get. Oh, and there's a whammy bar.
That's a fairly technical explanation of what basically boils down to hitting the notes and making with the rock. In the case of the Xbox 360 version, you'll be doing this using a different tool than the PS2 version. The guitar controller is fashioned after the Gibson X-Plorer brand of guitar, which features a more striking body design than the standard SG model the PS2 game used. Longtime Guitar Hero fans might not love the change to the way the guitar strap sits. It hooks into the back of the neck, as opposed to the body of the guitar, which occasionally leads to the strap getting twisted, making it uncomfortable to play. This one quibble aside, the X-Plorer is a much more solid-feeling controller than the SG model. The buttons are raised slightly higher off the neck, and they, as well as the strummer, don't clack as much or as loudly as the PS2-model controller. You might also run into some awkwardness if you like to hit the select button to deploy star power. But frankly, you should be tilting the guitar anyway. It's all about showmanship, after all.
As mechanically excellent as the Guitar Hero series has been up to this point, the truth is that much of its appeal comes from the song selection. The first Guitar Hero nailed the song list almost perfectly, primarily focusing on memorable rock riffs that any armchair shredder would be stoked to play. Guitar Hero II went a bit more obscure with its soundtrack, changing the focus from classic riffs to insane solos and reckless acts of guitar wankery. Not a bad choice, mind you--just a different one. Of course, there are plenty of major artists to be found in this game. Just to name a few, songs by Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Guns 'N Roses, Rage Against the Machine, The Police, Megadeth, and Lynyrd Skynyrd all make an appearance. But wait, there's more! The 360 version adds 10 new songs to the mix, including tracks like Iron Maiden's "The Trooper," Rancid's "Salvation," Pearl Jam's "Life Wasted," and, in the most inspired of selections, Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo." This brings the overall song total to 74, with 48 of those being licensed tracks from major artists and the remainder coming from smaller independent bands.
While the song list might be bigger, there are definitely a number of included tracks that aren't necessarily stand-outs. There are some legitimate classics here to be sure, like every metal head's favorite love song, "Sweet Child O' Mine," or the Southern rock anthem "Free Bird." But if you're going to get Aerosmith in your game, why would you pick a song like "Last Child" over any of their numerous bigger, just as solo-heavy hits? And is "You Really Got Me" really the best Van Halen song that could be dug up? Of course, even the oddball choices are usually still quite fun to play, and there are a number of fantastically fun songs that you probably never would have thought of on your own, like The Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys" or The Police's "Message in a Bottle." You also probably won't be able to shake the feeling that you'd rather be playing just about any other Van Halen song, though.
Weird as it is to say, online leaderboards totally make the 360 version of Guitar Hero II the best one. Downloadable songs don't hurt, either.
Save for a couple of original master tracks (Primus' "John the Fisherman" and Jane's Addiction's "Stop" from the original crop, as well as My Chemical Romance's "Dead!" and Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" of the 360-exclusive tracks), all the major licensed tracks are covers, played by studio musicians. Some of the covers in the game are legitimately tough to pick out, such as the fantastically produced "Carry on Wayward Son" by Kansas and "Woman" by Wolfmother. Others are a bit more scattershot in quality. Some of the vocalists in particular don't come off much like the real-life singers. The fake Ozzy Osbourne and Dave Mustaine in GH II aren't quite spot-on (which is odd, since the first Guitar Hero game had near-perfect soundalikes for both vocalists), and the guy portraying Zach De La Rocha in Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" comes off like an awful rap-rock karaoke performance. Still, these less-than-stellar examples are more aberrations than the norm, and the vast bulk of the songs are excellent renditions, especially in the guitar parts; and in a game about playing the guitar, ultimately that matters most.
Apart from the added songs and new controller, other 360-exclusive additions to the game include online leaderboards and downloadable content. The leaderboards are pretty self-explanatory, and they track your high scores across every single song in the game, and there's also an overall career score that combines all your scores into one gigantic number. You can filter the career score to include only the career mode or factor in high scores from other modes as well. Considering that Guitar Hero is, by nature, a highly competitive game, the addition of leaderboards is a huge boon to the game. Now you can finally show all your online buddies just how much you stink at "Psychobilly Freakout." The downloadable content isn't currently up for download, but we do know that the bulk of the new content is going to be added songs. Pricing isn't set at this moment, so things could potentially get expensive. Still, having the option to add even more songs over time is pretty awesome.
The holdover modes from Guitar Hero II have gone mostly unchanged, but are still excellent in their own right. The PS2 version of Guitar Hero II saw the debut of the practice mode, which was a highly welcome addition, especially considering the occasionally overwrought difficulty level of the harder tracks. 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.