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Guitar Hero 5

Shout it out loud!
The Game:
I'm sure by now you know my unabashed hatred of Neversoft. Ever since they've taken over the Guitar Hero franchise from Harmonix, they've done nothing but add gimmicks and generally fumble the once-excellent gameplay, pumping out more sequels and spin-offs than you could shake a plastic guitar at. Guitar Hero: Metallica showed some signs of life, with both improved timing and some excellent charts. Turns out that game was a dry-run for Guitar Hero 5, which features improvements in virtually every area of the game.

Where to start? Well, for one thing, Guitar Hero 5 has abandoned the cumbersome and annoying method of playing every song in a gig to get to the next gig. Like in Metallica and Smash Hits, you now only have to accrue a certain amount of stars to open the next venue. This is aided by the fact that instead of getting gold stars for full combos, you now get a sixth star, and can get up to three more stars on each song by completing challenges for select instruments. So, in total, it's possible to get 9 stars per song (not easy, but possible), meaning you'd only have to complete one or two songs per venue at the minimum to unlock following venues. This is great, because the tracklist for Guitar Hero 5 is wildly uneven, with stone cold classics ("Under Pressure," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Sympathy For The Devil") brushing up alongside total crap (Sublime) and stuff I've never even heard of (???). So the ability to skip the junk in favor of the jewels is greatly appreciated.

Another bonus that really improves the gaming experience is that you can complete the career mode with any mix of instruments you like. In all the previous Guitar Hero titles with multiple instruments, you'd have to do separate careers for each individual instrument, and then another separate career for any bands you might have. Guitar Hero 5 fixes this, allowing you to switch instruments and add/subtract players as you please. On top of that, if you've got two (or three, or four) people who all want to play guitar, no worries! You can now have multiple players on the same instrument. Personally, I can't wait to try out three drummers and a vocalist, or vice versa.

Guitar Hero 5 also takes its first tentative steps towards matching Rock Band's impressive and intimidating catalog of downloadable tracks. Sure, World Tour had tracks you could download. I even grabbed a few Wings songs myself. But up until now, none of these songs would carry over to any other Guitar Hero titles. Now, not only will Guitar Hero 5 automatically read the songs you've already downloaded, it will also allow you to import songs from World Tour and Smash Hits, for a fee. Whether or not that fee is worth it will be up to the individual player, as not all the songs are available to import. In fact, at the time of writing, only about 35 out of 85 or so tracks are available for World Tour, and less for Smash Hits. Still, it's a nice concession to players who have plunked down cash for previous titles.

Party mode has been made much more user friendly and robust. For one thing, there's no more shared star power. Secondly, you don't even have to expend star power to save failing bandmates. Just continue to do well after a fellow player has failed, and they'll automatically be brought back. This can be done as many times as needed, no more fail limits. The online multiplayer has been similarly retooled, with boss battle attack style matches going the way of the dinosaur in favor of new competitive (and cooperative) modes that actually reward good playing as opposed to blind luck.

Of course, this being Neversoft, there are still some problems with Guitar Hero 5. For one thing, the timing windows are still way too loose. How difficult is this to get it right? Even after calibrating as closely as I can, the timing windows are wide open. And just like in previous titles, you can unlock certain real musicians to play with you, such as Shirley Manson, Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana, and even Kurt Cobain. Not only that, but you can now make these real people part of your fake band once you've unlocked them. If you've ever wanted to see Johnny Cash sing Bon Jovi, or Santana play drums for Peter Frampton, well, now you can. And I will admit, it was a little fun seeing Shirley Manson kicking around as my bassist, but it seems disrespectful to dead musicians like Cash and Cobain to put their likeness in a game, regardless of whether or not they would have agreed to it in real life.

The Graphics:
Neversoft has really gone the distance, polishing Guitar Hero 5 to such a fine sheen that it manages to compete with Rock Band 2 (but not Beatles: Rock Band). The character models are highly detailed and no longer quite so cartoonish. The venues have also been greatly expanded, each with its own crazy theme and fun encore event. The crowd also looks a lot more like individual people, as opposed to large groups of the same person. The fretboard is finally free of any distracting design. In fact, Neversoft has gotten rid of virtually all distractions, including the stupid "X Note Streak" messages and the like. The interface hasn't been this easy to read since Guitar Hero II. Bravo on that score. Two small issues, though. When you activate star power, you can't tell tap sections from regular sections, which is fine if you plan to strum every note, but not cool if you're attempting to tap the tap sections, because you can't tell when they start or finish. And while I do love the countdown from when you unpause, there's now a large graphic that obscures the fretboard, making the countdown useless, since you can't see where you were in the song. Other than those minor issues, Guitar Hero 5 is a graphics powerhouse.

The Audio:
I only wish I could be so complimentary about the sound. You'd think a music game would be concerned with the best acoustics possible, but that is sadly not the case with Guitar Hero 5. A lot of the mixes sound off, sometimes tinny, sometimes too low, and sometimes just lacking dynamics. You can adjust the sound levels in the options, but that doesn't rectify the basic problems. Not only that, but there are some problems with the songs themselves. The most notable ones to me are "Shout It Out Loud" by KISS, "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, and "Two Minutes to Midnight" by Iron Maiden. "Shout It Out Loud" is not the original version, but a re-recording KISS did in 2007 that sounds like someone trying to cover the band but at the same time not wake their grandmother who's sleeping the next room. Completely toothless. "Ring of Fire" is an alternate, inferior version. And finally, "Two Minutes to Midnight" is censored. The lyric "To kill the unborn in the womb" is removed from the song. The song appears in Rock Band 2 without any censoring, so I don't know why Guitar Hero feels the need to do this, but it flat out ruins the song. To be fair, Rock Band has censored a song or two, but mostly for references to drug use that would garner an M rating from the ESRB. Since the song appears uncut in Rock Band, clearly the ESRB rating is not what prompted Guitar Hero to make this drastic change. What's even more strange is that the far more suggestive "Number of the Beast" appears in Guitar Hero III without any cuts or edits of any kind. Poor show, Neversoft.

The Conclusion:
While I've been critical of Neversoft's handling of the Guitar Hero franchise, I must give credit where credit is due. Guitar Hero 5 has fixed 70%-80% of the problems I've had since III, and is easily the most fun I've had playing Guitar Hero since Guitar Hero II. While some of Neversoft's decisions do still leave a bad taste in my mouth, it's safe to say that they have brought Guitar Hero back from the brink. Highly Recommended.