maanantai 31. lokakuuta 2011

REVIEW - Guitar Hero (2005)

GENRE(S): Rhythm
RELEASED: November 2005
DEVELOPER(S): Harmonix Music Systems
PUBLISHER(S): RedOctane, MTV Games

What was originally a one-off, low-budget experiment, became the most widely popular mainstream video game franchise of the 21st century. Guitar Hero was born in a time the popularity of adult-oriented video games was at its all-time peak; it was a moderately rare example of a game suitable for all ages by an absolute. The game inspired kids and teenagers to exploit their previously unrealized musical aptitude in real life, and gave older players a chance to relive the dream of being a rock star, which I guess just about everyone has had at some point. Guitar Hero was one of a kind, the most unique and revolutionary game of its time. The franchise, as well as the whole rhythm game genre, may have faded, but it will never be forgotten. It's time to go back to the roots with the game that started it all.

The spirit lives on

I began playing guitar at the age of 13, as inspired by a classmate of mine. I joined a band a year later, and in just a few weeks I had to admit to myself that my skills weren't nearly enough to play the thing full time, so I settled with being a lead vocalist as long as the whole band thing lasted. I had to sell my guitar and related equipment when I moved out on my own several years later, but I never really quit playing, or at least trying to play. I still have a semi-acoustic piece of shit I like to take every advantage of every once in a while. I can't count the times our band rocked through Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". At the time, none of us would've believed if someone had said that one day, both of these songs could be rocked out to in a single video game.

I began playing Guitar Hero in 2007. It had been a long time coming, I didn't know what to expect out of the game at all. All I knew about the game is what my friend and neighbour had told me about it. I had just read a review of the third game in the main series, and everything I had heard about the Guitar Hero standard sounded like a rocker wannabe's dream come true. Well, my first game was Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s, the first spin-off game in the series, and at first, I sucked at it - I mean, I SUCKED at it, royally. However, the game's nature, soundtrack, and unforgiving ways of making one an addict guaranteed I would learn how to play the game in record time. And I did. Back in the day, I would've been lucky to beat "Bark at the Moon" on Medium. Not only did I finally beat the song on Expert a few days ago, I five-starred it. I'm beside myself. This is exactly what makes the old Guitar Hero games so good, and somewhat better than the more recent outings; it poses true challenge, conquering which creates some amazing spirit. Nowadays, you can switch the difficulty level on the go and suffer no penalty for it, or switch instruments. Also, the game tolerates a hefty amount of mistakes. The first game doesn't have any of these traits. Sure, it's got stiff mechanics - but they're also more real.

The graphics are awful. Also, totally irrelevant, yes, but they've got to be mentioned in accordance to my own standards. The band animations during the songs - I guess Harmonix thought no-one has time to watch them in the slightest (and they were mostly right!) - are very generic, I guess by far the only detail is the switch to a female lead vocalist each time there's a song sung by a woman. A vocalist's there even during instrumentals, doing the exact same moves he would do during his actual performance. Oh, and his mouth does not move. At all. In recent years, Guitar Hero has become a more visual game, especially with the release of Guitar Hero: Metallica (go figure...). In these times of "classic rock", I guess the only important thing was that there was _something_ happening back there while you were hacking through the impressive list of songs. In a more practical tone, the note highway looks confusing. Regardless of the size and definition of your monitor, the notes are flat and kind of colourless, hard to make out against the background.

Before I'm stormed by varying opinions on the issue, let me elaborate that the "impressive" part in "impressive track list" only applies to the artificial quality of the songs; none of the songs on the main tracklist are originals, and there are only 30 of them. Some of WaveGroup Sound's covers sound extremely real and original, as close to the originals as they can possibly get, while in some songs the difference is spotted immediately, sometimes even if you're not a fan of the original artist. In addition, there are 17 "bonus tracks", unlockable via the Store. Black Label Society - one of my favourite bands - contributes with "Fire It Up". Apparently Zakk Wylde was so taken by the game's concept that he personally requested Harmonix to include this song on the tracklist. Well, since the main tracklist was already done and the game was scheduled for completion in just a few weeks, Harmonix threw the song in as a bonus track. It's fine, but the rest of the songs suck and I think it's quite preposterous to classify BLS' song as a bonus track in this company. All of the other bonus tracks are songs by the developers' bands, included for promotion and, simply, extra fun for people who can't get enough of playing the game. They don't really affect the game's quality in any way, and you certainly do not have to beat these awful songs in order to beat the game.

I bet there's not a person alive who hasn't seen
something like this before.
At the time, Guitar Hero was a whole new, weird concept, by an indie company, so what it needed to succeed was not a good, but an AMAZING list of songs - songs that have rock stardom written all over them, at least one song that makes a fan of rock music of all ages go "OMGWTF ROOOOOOOOCCCCKKK!!!" at every most important breakpoint of the game. So, here we go: "Thunder Kiss '65". "I Wanna Be Sedated". "Smoke on the Water". "You've Got Another Thing Comin'". "Killer Queen". "Symphony of Destruction". "Ziggy Stardust". "Spanish Castle Magic". "No One Knows". "Higher Ground". "Godzilla". "Frankenstein". As the cherry on top, versions of Pantera's "Cowboys from Hell" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon" that will smash your daydream of owning at this game to little pieces... but beating which will also bring this game to a complete halt. Yes, it certainly feels like the game ends a bit too early, but if you're a beginner, you're guaranteed some long time fun with it. Nothing prevents you from going at it at a higher difficulty level, or going for better scores. The 30-song tracklist, as short as it is, is a magnificent example of Harmonix Music Systems' great judgement of acknowledging various tastes in rock. There's punk, metal, classic rock, modern rock, grunge, even blues, in a tasteful balance I am very grateful for. There's nothing that really stands out as a song that simply doesn't belong, unlike in the more recent games.

Those of you who might still not have a clue of what Guitar Hero is about, let me enlighten you. In Guitar Hero, you start a virtual band, name it and choose a character that matches your taste in music. Your mission is to make it from a lowly garage rocker into the one great rock god of the rock universe. You start off at a Battle of the Bands, from which you slowly make your way to the grandest stage of them all, The Garden, by playing six sets of five songs each, at different venues; the difficulty level of the songs gradually increases, from simple, straightforward chord-based tunes, into total facemelters that not only require a sharp sense of rhythm, but also, some extremely physical finger work. Like it says in the golden rulebook of rock 'n' roll: mistakes are allowed. Totally sucking is not. So, you're having trouble with a single song? You have two options: you either find some way to nail it, even if takes up hours of practice, or forget about rock stardom. It's as simple as that.

People who criticize Guitar Hero say it's got nothing to do with real guitar playing. That only applies to how the songs are played. What Guitar Hero does, especially on Expert, is teach rhythm and efficient finger work everyone needs whenever they take up playing guitar or bass. And, besides, in the end, it's such an easy, accessible and fun game - an essential party title - that it brings joy regardless of whether the player ever even wanted to play a real instrument or not. Don't mock it 'til you've tried it.

The guitar controller is your tool of destruction. The original one's not perfect, it's not very ergonomic, nor does playing it for prolonged periods of time do wonders to your physical health, but it is one of the greatest innovations in video game history. It is the only way to go at this game - people who can't afford it can always buy the game and play it with a regular PS2 controller, but personally, I don't see any reason why someone would even consider something like that. The guitar controller has Select and Start buttons standing in for knobs, and a whammy bar which is used as an optional tool for boosting scores and simply having fun. The most important buttons on the controller are the five fret buttons, and the strum.

All you need to do to actually survive Guitar Hero, is be able to BEAT the songs. Even if you absolutely suck at the game and can't play any of the songs good enough to make them sound tolerable to the human ear, having just a few lucky streaks or a good eye of when to use Star Power to your advantage might carry you through a less demanding song, or even a challenging one, as long as its got a reasonable tempo. Each note you play correctly makes your Rock Meter twitch one step closer to the highest level of green. When the Rock Meter hits the deepest depths of red, you're toast.

Riffs that take advantage of the whole
fretboard are usually the most fun to play.
The easiest difficulty setting only requires you to use the first three fret buttons. There are a whole lot fewer notes, and they come at you at a slow pace. Medium adds in the fourth one, and it is a recommendable difficulty level to begin playing on, 'cause it already shows some signs of what the game is truly all about. The game is not fun to play on Easy - it's boring, and it's mockery towards the songs themselves. It's like you're not even playing the songs, you're just jamming along to them, with some random filler notes, like you did whenever you tried to learn to play a song on real guitar and completely froze whenever a solo turned up. At least this happened to me back in the day, numerous times.

To me, on a personal level, Expert is the only way to go. It took me a long time to be able to make the decisive move from Hard to Expert, because Hard was already giving me a lot of hell, and Expert was simply intimidating. All of the frets are used just like in Hard, but Expert throws every single note of the song at you, at a realistic - read: fast - pace, and requires you to learn some extremely difficult fret and chord shifts in even the easiest songs, if you wish to go for the highest possible scores.

How to go for the highest possible scores? Well, in the most non-brainer fashion, I could say: by not sucking at songs. Against common misconception, getting the full five stars from a single song is dependent on one single thing: the score. A star is rewarded each time you pass a certain score limit, which is unique to each song - of course it is, since the songs vary in length and structure. Chords are worth more points than regular notes. A song that has only a few random streaks of notes here and there - for example, "Killer Queen" - has a five-star score limit of about 90,000, while in a monster mix of chords, rapid notes and solos of life and death like "Bark at the Moon", the five-star score limit is around 233,000.

Nailing 100% of the notes in a single song pretty much guarantees a five-star outcome 'cause if you do that, you'll very likely have a 4x score multiplier for the most of its duration; if you play extra notes, or as some avid players call them, phantom notes, your note and score streak are broken just as they would be broken if you made an actual mistake, so in that case the guaranteed five-star outcome does not stand.

Introducing Star Power - something you just can't live without. Star Power is gained by hitting notes with a star icon on them. Also, you can boost up your Star Power meter by flipping the whammy bar through sustained Star Power notes. To rockers, Star Power means higher scores - the multiplier is doubled, the best-case scenario being an 8x score multiplier; even if you make a mistake, the multiplier remains at 2x as long as the Star Power meter has juice. For suckers, Star Power is, as the game itself proclaims, a life saver - playing just one note correctly while Star Power is active keeps the Rock Meter in check and practically prevents you from failing a song. A good strategy to use Star Power varies between players' skill levels.

Learning the basics, as well as the efficient use of the whammy bar and Star Power, is just the beginning. Before long, you might want to go and take a shot at advanced techniques. The slide board did not show up for three more years, but the first game already had hammer-ons and pull-offs. Hammer-on means that you can play some notes on a higher fret by simply landing your finger on the fret button at the exact right time after playing a note on a lower fret. Pull-off is the opposite of that. Neither of them doesn't work nearly as well as in later games, and the bad mechanics make some late-career Expert solos wholly based on the art of the HO/PO almost impossible to play, but on paper, they were a great idea to make the game seem one step more realistic.

This is where I usually say "thank God".
Once you're done with the Career Mode, you're free to take on any unlocked song in Quickplay and go for high scores and those only - the Quickplay has no other meaning, but for once, going for high scores is fun in a game released well after the golden era of arcade. You can also play any song against a friend in a still very limited and generic multiplayer mode; there's not a trace of how addictive and diverse the game was to become as a multiplayer title sooner than anyone expected.

Beating songs during the Career naturally results in money. The better scores you get, the more money you get. This money is meant to be spent - at any time - at the Store. The Store sells new guitars, guitar finishes - including Zakk Wylde's extremely cool, signature finish for the Les Paul - new songs, videos on the making of the game, and finally, two extra characters are available. It takes a lot of money and time to unlock everything - unfortunately, you'll have to be more than a die-hard fan of the game to be able to enjoy it after scrounging up all the money the unlockables require. There are just so few songs, and only a small handful of ones that never grow old; since we got to the subject, "Crossroads" (as made famous) by Cream might not be my favourite song to listen to, but it just might be my favourite song to play in this game.

Guitar Hero is a true classic when it comes to simply being an innovation, a totally fresh and unique concept, but there's simply no way around the simple fact that the game itself has seen better days. First of all, it lacks options in every sense. There are very few tracks, and the main tracklist consists of covers of varying quality, some of which will surely upset fans of the respective original artists. The promising gameplay mechanics are far from being honed to perfection. The bright side of that is that the game demands high precision and pushes players to their limits, unlike the current-gen sequels that have consistently provided the players with more and more ways to ease the game up on the go and still end up with the same rewards as more skilled rockers.

SOUND : 8.8


GameRankings: 92.01%

The game was supposed to be released on the Xbox as well, but developers Mad Catz had to pull out at an early phase. The sequel Guitar Hero II wasn't only released on the Xbox, but the Xbox version also got exclusive songs.

The guitar amps in the game go up to 11 instead of 10, as a tribute to Spinal Tap.

Zakk Wylde has remained a loyal contributor to the series. His likeness was used in Guitar Hero World Tour in 2008, for which he also contributed a Black Label Society song ("Stillborn"), and appeared as a boss, meaning he also made an exclusive "boss track" for the game. He played lead guitar in the 2009 remix of Public Enemy's crossover hit "Bring the Noise", which was exclusively featured in Guitar Hero 5.

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