Between its newfound focus on storytelling and its status as (gasp) the only Guitar Hero game out this calendar year, Warriors of Rock carried major promise to evolve the stubborn music franchise. Maybe you balked at the concept of a story-focused game featuring a cast of characters who have never spoken before, but at least storytelling represents a fairly unbeaten path in the increasingly beaten rhythm genre. (Well, fictional storytelling, anyway.)

However, you don't have to spend much time with Warriors of Rock to realize that what sounded like evolutions are actually ancient gameplay mechanics -- only shrouded in a campy heavy metal veneer.
Though this, the 14th installment in the Guitar Hero franchise, has all the standard gameplay modes introduced by its predecessors -- quickplay, competitive, Party Mode, etc. -- much of the player's progression will take place during the Quest mode. This crusade puts you in the shoes of eight characters (all but two of which return from past iterations of the series) who must unlock their true Warrior potential, recover a mysterious, powerful axe-guitar, revive the Demi-God of Rock (the narrator of the story voiced by Gene Simmons) and defeat "The Beast," who is responsible for the aforementioned Demi-God's entombment.

In order to accomplish these lofty goals, you'll have to play your instrument of choice in a series of venues, most of which correspond to a certain character and appropriate genre of music. For instance, liberty-spiked rapscallion Johnny Napalm plays his all-punk set at CBGB & OMFUG. After playing a handful (but not all) of the songs on their setlist, the player unlocks enough stars to transform the character into their ghoulish Warrior form, and plays a final encore to close out the chapter.

If that formula sounds familiar, it's because it's the same path players have followed in the Career mode of just about every installment of the series since Guitar Hero 2. The only variation comes in the form of the final boss battle, a two-song finale in which the player divides the eight characters into two super bands. Also, at the game's halfway point, the Warriors play through all of Rush's "2112," a seven-part series with its very own storyline (as narrated by Rush itself), which seemed hamfistedly jammed into the Quest mode's overarching plot.

Each character possesses a special ability (which is strengthened once they transform), granting various score-boosting bonuses. Newcomer Echo Tesla, for example, earns extra Star Power for playing a perfect 10-note streak, while Lars Umlaut has a maximum score multiplier of 5x (or, in his Warrior form, 6x). These powers ultimately help the player unlock the stars needed to reach the Quest's next chapter, but don't do anything to alter the player's strategy. Your winning plan of action is the same as it ever was: Hitting notes is good, while missing notes is bad.

If it weren't for the game's Brutal Legendary motif and uglified characters, it would be nigh-indistinguishable from the franchise's previous installments.

Matching the game's heavy metal aesthetic is the new guitar peripheral, which remains as solid and satisfyingly clicky as past Guitar Hero axes. This time, though, the sides of the guitar can be swapped out to make it look like a literal axe -- a move I wholly support for all future entries into the genre, or any genre, for that matter. Perplexingly, though, the guitar doesn't have the touch pad introduced on Guitar Hero 5's guitar -- though many songs contain long synth solos designed to be played using said touch pad.

The game's setlist is just all over the place. The majority of Warriors of Rock's soundtrack is both modern (around 60 percent of the game's 93 songs were recorded in the 2000s) and shredding-centric. The Quest's compartmentalization of genres will almost ensure that you'll have no taste for entire chapters of the game, be it Lars Umlaut's Death Metal tracks, Pandora's Goth Rock selections or Echo's all-Industrial chapter.

Even the highlights of the game's soundtrack are far outweighed by inclusions that are simply mystifying. For instance, straight-up terrible live versions of ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" and Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" (as performed by Metallica and Ozzy Osborne) somehow made their way into the proceedings, despite their studio recordings having already appeared in Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 3, respectively.

The strength of the soundtrack is something the player ultimately has to determine for themselves -- but the changes intimated by the pre-launch buzz around Warriors of Rock are just patently untrue. The Quest mode's story is far too insubstantial to constitute a major sea change for the series. If it weren't for the game's Brutal Legendary motif and uglified characters, it would be nigh-indistinguishable from the franchise's previous installments.

It's futile to pretend that entries into the music genre operate in a vacuum. That particular sliver of the industry has seen its once abundant revenue stream dry up over the past two years, leading the next iteration in the genre's other blockbuster IP, Rock Band 3, to introduce some intriguing concepts like a keyboard peripheral and support for actual guitars. Activision's clearly no stranger to taking risks on innovation in the music space -- why not bring some of that cavalier spirit to the long-stagnant Guitar Hero franchise?

Warriors of Rock adamantly refuses to evolve the series in any discernible way, and, as a result, the Guitar Hero formula's gone stale. When playing the franchise's very first outing, I was consumed by a feeling that I was using a video game controller to interact with music in a meaningful way. While playing Warriors of Rock, I got the distinct impression that I was just pushing buttons for points.


This review is based on a retail version of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock for Xbox 360 provided by Activision.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.