There is a magical time once a year for this seasoned gaming nerd. Once a year between September and December, everything that is relevant to my gaming habits tends to surface. All of the music games come out. All of the sports games come out, and Vancouver's weather tends to make me want to stay indoors more often. Once a year, I finally get to open my wallet and not shudder at the sticker price of a new video game as I stand in line between the unshowered and unhygenic masses waiting to flash their Edge cards at EB.
On September 28th, Activision released RedOctane and Neversoft's final contribution to the Guitar Hero market. Dubbed "Warriors of Rock," the game promised to capture the golden ages of Rock, and help user in the era of Vicarious Visions, the new developers going forward. Upon seeing the original trailer in early summer, I was excited to see many songs I had previously been clammoring for, including the previously unreleased Lunatic Fringe (known nowadays to UFC fans as Dan Henderson's entrance music). Upon seeing the final setlist, however, my excitement started to slow. Re-Dubs and Live Tracks aside, only 20 of the 93 tracks were recorded pre-1990, with 7 of those being Rush's 20 musical journey 2112. Alongside Rock Pioneers like Neil Young, Tom Cochrane and Tom Petty, included as apparent "warriors" of Rock were the likes of My Chemical Romance and Third Eye Blind, hardly known for their contributions to musical history.
Continuing onward were the ongoing comparisons between this franchise and Rock Band. Despite (arguably) having better quality, and more dynamic setlists than Rock Band since the expansion into multiple instruments, Guitar Hero has always been burdensome to play. It has always been inconvenient to have to select your difficulty before selecting song, and with menu sorting and interfacing options, I always felt more regret downloading songs from the GHTunes environment than benefit. Once that was out of the way, the vastly inconsistent scoring windows per instrument always led to general disarray. The timing windows playing guitar and bass were so large, you could drive a truck through it. However, the vocal window was so small you couldn't push a pin through the opening. Given that I spend about 90% of the time singing, I was always unable to play for more than 30 minutes without getting frustrated, especially getting 65% on songs I could 100% in Rock Band. I'm not so competitive that it would stop me from playing the game by any means. Just frustrated that there was little to do in the way of offering a bit of breathing room or freedom to be your own vocalist because you had to constrain to hitting the exact notes at the perfect time.
Still, it is always worth coming into things with an open mind, which is what I did for this game. As an added bonus, the first wave of shipment offered a free download code for the latest Soundgarden album, which is one rewarding gesture Guitar Hero has over and above the Rock Band franchise. Last year, early US Guitar Hero 5 buyers were given a voucher for a free copy of Guitar Hero Van Halen, which they received almost instantly upon redemption, and in some cases almost 90 days before the street release date.
Upon loading the game, I was surprised to see Guitar Hero had reverted back to a regular title screen, rather than the band driven concert atmosphere and automatic Party Play. Gone was the ability to drop into the song played onscreen and continue to the end, from the title screen anyway. Party Play is still available, but you have to select it from the main menu. What was a pain though? I had built up a fairly decent cache of tunes from the GHTunes Library, which I was also surprised to see did not carry into the game, despite my later confirmation that the GHTunes program in Warriors was ported directly from 5, menus and all. That was disappointing. At least my DLC ported over this time without having to download a patch for it.
I would also recommend being careful in re-downloading tracks you had picked up out of GHTunes for Guitar Hero 5, and trying to play them again in Warriors. Some of the songs aren't fully compatible, and will lock up your XBox as you go into QuickPlay+. If you run into this problem, however, just go into the "Jam" area of GHTunes 2.0, and you can delete songs there. Unfortunately, because the software is the exact same across 5 and Warriors, you cannot tell what was created specifically for this game and past ones. You're left to guess. This specific piece of software, however, isn't really what defines the Guitar Hero franchise, or this game. What new has been brought to the table will.
Something cute that Guitar Hero 5 debuted was the ability to put your avatar out on stage rather than creating a character. This feature has remained, and to add an even neater touch, if you did last use your avatar, he or she will then appear in the demo videos. Evidentally, Neversoft liked the avatar feature so much that they left all of the pre-song menu options the exact same as Guitar Hero 5. Once again, you're forced to select your difficulty and instrument type (if Guitar or Bass) prior to entering the song menu, meaning constant switching back and forth if you wish to play a song on hard, and then on expert, or Bass or Guitar outside of Quickplay Challenges.
My ability to hide my cynicism here is short lived, and I must ask whether Harmonix has copyrighted the ability to select difficulty after selecting a song. If they have, someone has to send every music game maker in the world a memo to cease and desist, lest they be sued. If they have not, someone has to send a memo to Vicarious Visions for the future that every single music game since Dance Dance Revolution Max (6th Mix) has allowed you to select the song you want to play and then bring up a menu for difficulty. If my timing is right, next year marks 10 years since DDR Max came out. At least you can switch instruments without having to log out of your profile, which was Rock Band's downfall in the past. Still, that offers little solace overall.
Once there, the song menu shows approximately 110 songs by default - The standard tracks included with the game, and then the Neversoft Instrumentals. The available song list, however, looked a little short, and was quick to tell the story that you had to unlock tracks in Quest mode to be able to play them. Missing from the beginning is the entire 2112 experience, along with other curious tracks like Fury of the Storm from Dragonforce. I hate to sound unprofessional in my saying this, but come on guys. This is so 2008. Your previous game allowed you to play every track from the beginning, so why would that feature be suddenly denied for a future release?
To make up for having to play to unlock, Neversoft added a level up system, and song-specific challenges for everything in QuickPlay+ mode. Leveling up allows you to unlock things like avatar awards and in-game enhancements. All the songs to be unlocked must be done through Quest Mode (or if lazy, Guitar Hero usually has an "unlock all" code which I'm sure exists here as well.) As a general criticism I aim at both Rock Band and Guitar Hero, there has become so much crossover between the two franchises that song lists between the two games have started to overlap for the worse. Playing something that was previously in Rock Band is not a privilege once Guitar Hero has licensed it, and vice versa. The inclusion of Interstate Love Song in Warriors of Rock, for example, is not noteworthy since Rock Band has had it for almost 3 years. Likewise, Jimi Hendrix tracks held for Rock Band 3 are hardly groundbreaking since most have appeared in Guitar Hero. I can definitely understand using them as DLC and giving gamers the option if they have one or the other and want it for both, but I doubt that many gamers that have already spent money to purchase a song as downloadable content want to see that song take the spot of something previously unreleased on the launch day soundtrack.
Guitar Hero gets a slight thumbs up in the sense that transfer licenses only cost $5 per game, as opposed to the $10 gouging Harmonix has thrown out for Lego Rock Band and Rock Band 2. The self-entitled gamer in me wants to remind everybody that in many cases, we already spent full purchase price to buy the rights to play these songs in the first place, so why should we have to spend more money to buy the rights to play them again in the next game? Nevertheless, the music game lover in me relents and puts forth the dollars to buy the licenses anyway. The hypocrite in me takes exception while the entertainer in me never looks back.
Disappointingly, QuickPlay shows you how little was done to improve this game over its predecessors. Really, the biggest difference between the layout of 5 and Warriors once you launch into a song is the "Get Ready!" font used for vocalists. The vocalist scoring system is still too difficult for vocalists to have fun with and score well, while the guitar timing window is too forgiving, leaving the drummer's window too unforgiving. Once again, there is no balance between instrument timing and presentation. The background animations are very pretty but repetitive, and all elements of fun seem to slowly slip away with every passing minute. If this was all the game had to offer, the review would probably end here with a 0 out of 10 for offering nothing but a waste of time. We were, however, promised the idea of a storyline to become a warrior, which is nestled within the Quest mode and is the next stop in this review.
Once you enter into Quest mode, it all makes sense as to where all of the effort in creating this game went into. Narrated by Gene Simmons in an attempt to sound like the late Robert Stack, Quest Mode follows familiar Guitar Hero characters as they make the transformation from their current "normal" state to an undead warrior state. Some, like the Austin Tejas Ichabod Crane transformation are really amazing. Others, like Lars Umlaut's transformation into gothic ManBearPig are just bizarre. It is your job to transform the characters into their "Warrior" state by singing songs and collecting Ankhs. Many songs have been given their own in-quest video treatments, with some of them being absolutely game defining.
The Quest video package for Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, opens with all 4 members standing in a diamond just like the actual music video singing the first lines of the song, and then it takes off into the most fun rendition of the song this side of Wayne's World. The 2112 chapter, which occurs approximately 2 hours into quest mode is one of the neatest, and most bizarre chapters of a video game I have ever played. The chapter centers around finding the legendary guitar, and then you are swept into a colorful and awe-inspiring 30 minute sequence where you play all 7 chapters of the song nestled between a story told you from the mouths of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart themselves. You cannot drop out of the chapter at any point, but being able to do so would probably take away from the overall effectiveness of this biopic, and it is probably for the best. 2112 is probably the best representative of the Quest Mode, because there are a few things that are slightly lacking in the overall experience.
Unfortunately, within each chapter, you are bound to a set list of songs, which prove simultaneously intriguing and tedious. I don't understand why it is that both Rock Band and Guitar Hero decided their career modes would restrict you from being able to progress with your own song choices (though the early Rock Bands allowed you to create song lists, and Rock Band 3 dumps the idea of a conventional career mode altogether,) especially after you've paid hundreds of dollars for the other versions and/or downloadable content. Something else that is unfortunate is the inability to transition the Quest Mode video presentations into QuickPlay. If you want to show that cool Bohemian Rhapsody video off, for example, you have to back into Quest Mode and play it with your band. Lastly, I dare say the Quest Mode comes off like a poorly put together Jack Black film in its scenarios and dialogue. Guitar Hero's never shyed away from being slightly cheesy, however, so I admit it is rather charming that they chose to look at things from this light.
That, in a nutshell, however, is all the praise I can provide this game. Nothing else is fresh. Nothing else is innovative. Sadly, nothing else is really that enjoyable. If this game lacked the slightly entertaining story mode, this game would be an outright insult to the senses and urges of music gamers everywhere. When you break it down to its core, this game is really nothing but an overglorified skin pack. You could play Guitar Hero World Tour, 5 and this next to each other, and could go all day without finding any fundamental changes in gameplay, both for the worse and what little good there is.
Singers still have to hold the controller close by to activate effective star power, and are handcuffed to a terrible scoring and judgment system, which at the higher difficulties is demoralizing at best. Drummers will still likely find some fun in the need for double bass pedals, and well, the game IS called Guitar Hero. The guitar and bass note charts still provide more variety than Rock Band, but are by no means game defining, or worth the purchase price. Add to this what may be the most inane achievements of any 360 games, and this game is not going to be a classic for future generations by any means. You begin to wonder when Neversoft checked out and left their imagination at the door when the achievements urge you to finish with scores that have to be divisible by other numbers, or in the case of one achievement, ending a song with the exact number.
Thank goodness for completionists that other gamers have uploaded cheaty ways to achieve these scores through their uploaded GHTunes songs, otherwise, there would be no rational way to complete some of them.
Graphics: 8/10. The strong suit of this game is its graphics, which I thought were very smooth and well done. With the exception of Beatles Rock Band, which had its own dedicated CGI videos, Guitar Hero Warriors of Rock's graphics definitely beat out any of the Rock Band games. The sprites move with great fluidity, the characters and background are bright and burst forth with color, and the character transformations are definitely some of the most bizarre, yet most pretty animation sequences you will see this side of an RPG.
Sound/Soundtrack: 3/10. This game suffers from a poor executed soundtrack. The soundtrack has all the right artists performing all the wrong songs. Neither Guitar Hero nor Rock Band have a problem recycling each others' songs if licensing permits, and this game already uses many songs that show up in its competitor, so therefore, I don't know why some of the song choices are here.
Something continues to rub me the wrong way with re-recordings as well. It didn't work for Jimmy Buffett, nor Motorhead beforehand, and really, it doesn't do much in Guitar Hero either. I appreciate the efforts of Alice Cooper, Joan Jett and others trying to make their music playable in these games wherein I assume many of the masters were not recorded on enough tracks to satisfy inclusion into the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series, but none of us grew up on these re-recordings, and they aren't the versions we are familiar with. The game gets slight kudos for the inclusion of some modern day rock anthems such as Uprising and Tick Tick Boom, but very few of the artists here that gained their fame post-1990 fit the title's moniker, and bands like My Chemical Romance and Five Finger Death Punch have no business in a game created to celebrate pioneers and warriors of Rock music.
Gameplay: 3/10. If Guitar Hero was a bakery, its start was like a fresh eclair drenched in mouth-watering chocolate sauce, then dusted with the finest of powdered sugars ready for the first passerby to gaze upon it to take it home. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is a stale danish pastry with a congealed fly who met an early demise because the fruit filling cemented his legs to its surface.
Much like Singstar, the game continues to put out the same thing time and again with seemingly little care taken toward its end user, resulting in the poorest of products with so much promise and so little to show for it. This might not be a problem if the franchise had no competition and could coast on its heels sequel in and sequel out. This market, however, is arguably the most competitive with the frontrunning two franchises, and so many others trying to catch up with the promise of real instruments and a better user experience. Many of those games have failed to impress and will fall by the wayside.
There comes a point, however, when a name is not enough and the performance put forth matters most. Guitar Hero has used its name to take itself places that other games only imagine because it arrived on the scene first. The Guitar Hero franchise at this point has become very reminiscent of the guy in the office who does just enough to keep his job. Day in, day out, he's the unprofessional one cracking jokes about how many more hours there is until the weekend, or how he can't wait to drink away the taste of a week where barely did anything anyway. While the people around him bust their butts to perform at a high level, he sits there watching Youtube videos and thinking about his plans after work. The people around him continue to evolve their skillsets and work habits, yet he languishes in past accomplishments, and continues to belief he's a valuable cog in a machine that has clearly turned him into a spare part.
4 years ago, the music gaming franchise was led by the Guitar Hero franchise, proudly holding its flag high up at the top of the gaming mountain. However, as competition crept in, they failed to rise to the challenge, and nearly 2 years after its last great evolution, it continues to be the exact same as it was then. In the business world, Amazon suffered a similar plight where they watched eBay pass them so quickly, their business ended up in a tailspin of which they almost did not recover. Amazon, however, created a smart plan and recovered to the point where they again are at the top of their class, and eBay finds themselves in second place again. Guitar Hero, however, has not only never acknowledged their trouble, but they must continue to believe that they are such visionaries in an ever evolving market that the same basic engine and flawed gameplay are ahead of their time. Otherwise, why would you continue to go back without measurable change?
Guitar Hero missed the window of opportunity to do what Dance Dance Revolution did to Roxor Games and In the Groove - Buy out their biggest competitor at the height of their own popularity to strengthen their core product, and will continue to fall farther behind Rock Band with efforts like this. At a time when the gaming and business world are driven more than ever by the ability succeed by thinking and look outside the box, Guitar Hero struggles to find the lid, and is completely in the dark as a result. The only people I would recommend this game to are the hardest of hardcore music gamers. Otherwise, save the $60 for something better and wait for the disappointed gamers to trade in and buy it used if you really have to have it.