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Guitar Hero 2

The most rockin' game in the world is now the coolest game in the universe.
The Game:
Developer Red Octane hit a home run with Guitar Hero, a rhythm game that you played with a guitar-shaped controller. The game, while sounding silly in concept, turned out to be a blast when fully executed. After all, who doesn't dream of being a rock star, playing music to a mass of screaming fans? However, Guitar Hero was a bit of a tough sell to the very people whose cooperation could make it a success: the artists whose songs Red Octane used. However upon the success of the first Guitar Hero, getting the rights to higher profile songs were a cinch for the second.

And so armed with a better set of tunes, and tighter play mechanics (such as improved hammer-ons and pull-offs), Red Octane struck again with Guitar Hero II. And if the first was a home run, then the second was a grand slam. Getting to play songs by Nirvana, Spinal Tap, Primus, The Police, The Pretenders, and more is a rock fan's wet dream. And the entire scope of the game had been expanded, with bigger venues, funnier jokes and gags (including several promptings of "Are you sure you REALLY want to play Freebird?" when the song pops up), more characters, and a life-saving practice mode. In short, it was everything that made Guitar Hero great, but bigger, flashier, more assured, and just more fun.

And now, Red Octane has knocked the ball entirely out of the park with their decision to port the game to the Xbox 360. In fact, more than just a simple port, the game has been re-imagined once again. The first difference you'll notice between this and the PS2 version are the inclusion of several new songs, including Alice Cooper's "Billion Dollar Babies," Pearl Jam's "Life Wasted," and Iron Maiden's "The Trooper." These songs do more than just extend the length of the game. They become integral portions of the gaming experience. Going back to the PS2 version, their exclusion is sorely missed.

The next thing you'll notice is the guitar. Both PS2 Guitar Hero games used a Gibson SG for the shape of the controller, with a variation for their wireless edition. The 360 controller is based on the Gibson X-Plorer, and looks sort of like a mutated Flying V. It fits nicely in your hand and the odd shape doesn't detract from one's ability to play it. The fret buttons are completely square instead of curved, and are also smaller, making it easier to stretch and reach that fifth orange fret. The whammy bar doesn't have as much give as the PS2 controller, nor does it really seem as sensitive. The controller comes equipped with a port for your headset so you can chat on Xbox Live as you play. It has an additional port that Red Octane has said will support peripherals in the future, but for now does nothing. The only major problem with the controller is that Red Octane had to include both a D-pad for navigating the Xbox 360 blades, as well as the Xbox logo button for getting back to the menu. I understand the reasons for their inclusion, but the additions have necessitated making the start and select buttons minuscule. If it was hard to pause the PS2 version and pick up again without losing a streak, then on the 360 is it virtually impossible. People will almost surely complain that the controller is wired, but this is a limitation imposed by Microsoft, so don't come down on Red Octane too hard.

And of course, what kind of Xbox 360 game would Guitar Hero II be without achievements? Rest easy, they are here and they are often hilarious. Sure, there are the standard achievements for beating the game in easy, medium, hard, and expert mode (and no, you don't get the achievement for easy if you beat medium, so you'll actually have to play through the game on each level), but there's so much more. If you fail a song on easy, you get the "Long Road Ahead" achievement, or if you beat "Trogdor" and "Thunderhorse" you get the "Saturday Morning" award. Guitar Hero is known as much for its humor as its gameplay, and the achievements are right in the spirit of the amps that go to 11 or the drummer exploding when you beat "Tonight I'm Going To Rock You Tonight."

There's so much to love about Guitar Hero II that even at the hefty price of $89.99 for the game with controller, it's entirely worth it. Even if you own the PS2 version, there's enough new content here to warrant a purchase, especially when you factor in the option for downloadable content. Red Octane has said that within a week of the game's release, they will being to offer songs for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace, including redone versions of Guitar Hero I titles, such as "Bark At The Moon" with the superior hammer-ons and pull-offs.

The Graphics:
As fun as GHII was on the PS2, its graphics could be a major annoyance to people with big-screen TVs in general and people with HDTVs in particular. Instead of seeing round multi-colored notes zip down the screen, we got an eyesore of pixelation. The characters also looked pretty bad when held up to such close scrutiny. So it's a relief to see that the 360 version has gotten more than just a set of touch-ups. Just about every graphical aspect of the game looks like it's been redone to take advantage of high definition. The notes finally look rounded and smooth, and it's easier to tell which is a normal note and which is a hammer-on. Similarly, the characters have much more detail and, combined with some dynamic lighting, look very impressive. And as a bonus, you can't see through the back of Judy Nails' head anymore! It's clear Red Octane took a lot of care with these graphics, and it shows.

What would a Guitar Hero game be without some truly ass-kicking sound? Well, 360 owners, prepare to have your eardrums blown, because this version offers remixed versions of the songs that have greater separation between the guitar, the vocals, and the rest of the band, as well as a greater sense of the audience (whose reactions tell you how you're doing if you're not inclined to look at the rock meter). The sound is truly immersing and makes you want to revisit your favorite songs again and again.

The Conclusion:
Guitar Hero II is a truly remarkable game, and any system on which it appears is a system worth owning. With the exception of one or two minor controller issues, everything about the game has been improved for the Xbox 360. So what are you waiting for? Grab your X-Plorer and let your inner rock god wail! Videogame Talk Collector Series.