Note:
Guitar Hero has been released in the US for six months, but is a new release in Europe. This review uses the European version of the game.

Once, I dreamed of being on stage, lights in my eyes and music in my ears. Yesterday, for five glorious, rock-filled minutes, I was living my dream. Sliding my fingers up and down the fretboard in power chords, using fingers which haven't borne callouses for years, I was creating music… and what music it was! Songs I remembered tentatively picking out came to life, finally, with consummate skill.

The fact I was pressing five brightly coloured buttons on a reduced-size guitar that looks like a child's toy is irrelevant. I was engrossed in the music, concentrating hard, picking out notes and chords with a frown when I missed and a smile when I did well, the audience's cheers and boos echoing my success.

Welcome to Guitar Hero.



It's an interesting concept, as games go. Adding a guitar peripheral boosts the price but also allows a simple rhythm-action game to become a thing of beauty. With previous PS2 outings involving karaoke and track mixing, Massachusetts-based developer Harmonix is slowly turning gamers into amateur musicians.

Guitar Hero appeals to a wide audience. Anyone can pick up a guitar, especially the easy-looking Guitar Hero controller, and play a few notes -- but few can do it well. Many of us might have dabbled in the past, attempting Stairway to Heaven a thousand times until our fingers bled or we got bored and sold the damn thing. I'm among this crowd; I've been playing, on and off, for ten years, one teenage flirtation among many.


Meet the Players

Playing Guitar Hero, like real guitar playing, is far more rewarding in public than in private. Non-gamers can relate to its concept, especially those with buried dreams of musical greatness. Here's my supporting cast: Rich, who doesn't play guitar or video games; and his opposite Jon, an avid gamer who's a guitarist in a metal band.

Rich was sceptical. However, I put the controller down for a few minutes and returned to find him storming his way through Smoke on the Water -- and doing better at it than I had. After a double take, I let him get on with it, mentally rubbing my hands together in glee. Perhaps this game will turn the non-gamer around, thanks to the appeal of its well-known track selection.

Jon, on the other hand, immediately started roaring his way through several hard songs. Having played many of them on a real guitar, he found parts disappointing (where the game's button-based fretting didn't match the real guitar part). He also found some of the interpretations harder in the game than on an actual guitar, thanks to the lack of open strings. By concentrating on the rhythm-action side of the game, he quickly started beating all our scores.

On the Disc

The game is reasonably straightforward -- you choose a difficulty level and play a song, then repeat. There are some unlockables -- obscure indie tracks and clichéd avatars -- if you must divert yourself from the music.

Visually, Guitar Hero screams "rock". Using in-jokes, it helps get you in the mood; the blandness of SingStar would stand incongruous with the fast-paced music on show here. The impressive track list ranges from classics like Smoke on the Water to popular songs like More than a Feeling, all strong covers with well-mimicked vocals. The line-up, identical to the US release, includes some less familiar names -- White Zombie, The Exies, and The Donnas are all bands few Brits have heard of.

Playing the tracks is fun, and it's easy to forget that it's simply a matter of pressing five buttons and flicking a "strum" bar. The easy-mode songs are manageable, using just three notes; medium introduces a fourth, while hard and expert use all five notes with increasing complexity. Sauntering comfortably through a difficult song on 'easy' and then trying it on 'expert' is sobering -- parts which were merely tricky become impossible.

Even point-scoring tricks stay within the rock theme -- tilting the guitar vertically activates your 'Star Power', and whacking the whammy bar gives extra points on long notes, though it sounds horrible.


These technicalities fade into insignificance when faced with a song to play. Guitar Hero becomes a rhythm-action matching game with a weird controller. Playing with a standard controller is certainly possible, but a lot less fun -- the Gibson SG is the focus of much of the "guitar hero" illusion created while playing.

When notes are missed, they don't sound, which makes it hard to pick up the rhythm of new tracks but is absolutely necessary to maintain the fantasy of actually creating music. Solos are especially hard to pick up and get right, as there's no rhythm to stick to. One of the most embarrassing things that can happen is to miss the final note of a track.

Multiplayer mode works best with two guitar controllers, although either can be replaced with a normal PS2 gamepad. The guitar part switches between both players; having completely different parts would be a nice addition. On-screen, the virtual guitarist and backing band are watchable, mimicking the music surprisingly well despite their cartoony, dated graphics.



This is a game you keep behind the TV for when your friends come over. It's also a game you play alone, immersing yourself in the life of a rock god for a few fantastic hours at a time, learning the sequences and songs.

Sadly, it doesn't come with friends who can admire your new "rock legend" status and gasp at the array of unlockables you've, er, unlocked. If you've got a selection of mates who frequently come around for karaoke and dance mat fun, however, Guitar Hero performs admirably. It's got all the ingredients of a great party game: songs to hum along to, a wicked-looking controller and a concept that anyone can grasp immediately.

Summary

With a price tag of £50 ($90) in the UK, Guitar Hero doesn't come cheap. It's worth it if you've ever wanted to be a rock star, if you're a rhythm-action fan, or if you need a boost for your party game shelf. The controller holds much of the novelty, but its sheer awesomeness (and hackability) outweighs the price. With sequels to come that will boost its appeal further, Guitar Hero is simply pure, unadulterated fun -- with added rock.

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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