- Review Price: £40.00
Some time ago, I remember talking with another journo about what made games so great. One thing we came up with was that a really good game can get close enough to replicating an experience you’ll never have that your imagination can fill in the blanks and you can get just a little bit of the buzz that you might get from the real thing. I’m never going to drive a Ford Mustang at high speeds down the Vegas strip, command Roman legions or (thankfully) battle for survival against plague-ridden yokels in some weirdo Spanish village, but thanks to games I can get an inkling of what that might feel like.
Clearly, this formula doesn’t work for every game (Lumines, Final Fantasy or Fahrenheit for example), but it definitely works for Guitar Hero. It’s a game that appeals to that little bit of adolescent brain that always wishes we were the axe-slinging wild-man, scorching the fretboard at the front of the stage with a searing solo, then effortlessly dropping down into a grungy, syncopated riff. If you’ve ever been a wannabe Hendrix, Steve Vai, Van Halen or Page – even (though let’s hope not) a Malmsteen – then you really need to find a copy. Now.
OK, so it is a rhythm action game, but like Sambo di Amigo or Donkey Konga, it’s one that works because it’s been partnered with a brilliantly designed chunk of hardware. The Guitar Hero controller is a cut-down plastic copy of a Gibson SG – the mighty axe played by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and AC-DC’s Angus Young – equipped with five coloured buttons on the neck, a strum trigger and a whammy bar. While playing the game, you get a stylised version of a fretboard scrolling down towards you with notes – mapped to the five coloured buttons – highlighted on it. When the note hits the spot, you strum the trigger and press the appropriate button. Sometimes you have to hold the note for a required time, at other times you might even have to play two at a time for a chord. And if you’re feeling fancy, you can use the whammy bar to add vibrato or bend the pitch upwards or downwards.
It sounds simple, and in easy mode it is. You can choose a guitar hero to play, a six-string to wield, and before long you’ll be moving from small-time gigs in seedy basement bars to larger venues, theatres and finally the festival stage. The game starts off with relatively simple songs full of basic meaty riffs – Joan Jett’s I Love Rock and Roll – then takes you through slightly fiddlier numbers – Black Sabbath’s Iron Man – to widdly epics – Hendrix’s Spanish Castle Magic. On Easy mode the game only uses three buttons and keeps the notes to a minimum, yet it still captures that feeling of strapping on a guitar and blasting riffs from a hefty Marshall stack.
It certainly helps that the game’s ambiance is so perfect. Whether it’s down to The Osbournes, The Darkness, School of Rock, Bill and Ted, Waynes World, Rock School or a combination of all six plus a host of other factors, we’ve seen perceptions of heavy metal and hard rock transform over the last few years. It’s not the devil’s music anymore, it’s everyone’s: frequently stupid, over-extravagant and dumb, but pulsing with energy and irony-free bluster. Guitar Hero has got this vibe down. The heroes are brilliantly drawn versions of classic rock stereotypes, the venues are full of screaming fans throwing crazy salutes, the band members are straight from the Spinal Tap school of rock-gods, and even the menus convey the appropriate rock look and feel. The visuals may be cartoony, but the animation is superb and the onstage theatrics are spot-on. The only way Guitar Hero could be more rock was if Gene Simmons and Lemmy from Motorhead delivered it by hand with a crate of Jack Daniels thrown in. It’s that good.
Of course, none of this would matter if the song line-up didn’t measure up, but Guitar Hero covers most of the rock bases extremely well. We get classics like Killer Queen, Ziggy Stardust and More Than a Feeling, thrash classics like Megadeth’s Symphony of Destruction, bluesy anthems like Crossroads and Spanish Castle Magic, and such hard-rock monoliths as Smoke on the Water and the omnipotent Ace of Spades. We even get a scattering of more modern hits from Incubus, Sum 41, Queens of the Stone Age and Audioslave, plus – oddly – Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out. You, I and everyone else could probably think of twenty other definitive songs we’d like to see included – Van Halen’s Running With The Devil, AC-DC’s Hell’s Bells, Soundgarden’s Loud Love and anything by Led Zeppelin would be on my list – but, hey, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed for the sequel. Admittedly, not all the tracks are played by the original band, but the covers sound authentic and you’ll be too busy stretching for that next note to spot the difference too many times.
Now for the really cool part. Most rhythm action games don’t really develop that much. The notes and beats come faster, the patterns grow more frantic, but usually that’s it. Guitar Hero is different. Start a new career in medium mode and the fourth button comes into play, and you’ll need to start using hammer-ons and pull-offs to get by. Guess what? It feels even more like you’re a proper rock warrior, blasting out riff after riff until the cat-callers have been stunned into submission. The sequences are more intricate and – cleverly – seem to do a better job of matching the kind of movements your right and left hands would be making if you were actually playing the guitar. Flick up to Hard mode and you’ll need the fifth button as well, and the game becomes ludicrously challenging, only in that nice ‘I can, must and will crack this’ sort of way. Expert, meanwhile, is best left to genuine guitar heroes. Joe Satriani might be able to move his fingers that fast and that accurately, but it might be a while before I can do the same.
Still, it’s when you’re really in a hole that you’ll see the purpose of the guitar’s secret weapon. In a moment of sheer genius, the developers have made it so that – once your star power gauge has filled up – a rapid tilt of the headstock skyways triggers your star power. The notes glow and crackle with blue electricity, and the crowd are blown away by your fluid playing and intense performance. Damn it, Harmonix, you deserve that rock salute! And the unlockable guitars, songs, characters and custom finishes? You haven’t just iced the cake, you’ve iced the icing too!
Obviously, Guitar Hero is a game best savoured with a group of friends – preferably drunk ones – so you can warp back to the days when a studded denim jacket seemed like sensible attire or you lived in a biker’s jacket, worn jeans and band T-shirts. You can even plug in a second controller for axe-slinging duels (though as controllers are scarce I haven’t been able to try this). However, Guitar Hero is actually brilliant fun just on your own, which makes it not just a rarity in its genre, but practically unique. What more can I say? If you’ve ever played that air-guitar in a mirror, head-banged to the loud bit at the end of Stairway to Heaven or just wished you could rock the faithful in the pit, then this is an essential buy. In short, Guitar Hero rocks, and rocks hard!
Listen up Harmonix – From those about to rock, we salute you! A masterful exercise in heavy metal madness, with more legs than we had any right to expect.
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