By now, Guitar Hero has achieved a level of cultural penetration that most games can’t even dream of. Nightclubs have hosted Guitar Hero competitions. Two characters on Veronica Mars spent a scene rocking out. The game even figured into the 2006 American League championship series: flamethrowing Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya was sidelined with a sore wrist caused by too much shredding. The unifying power of rock and roll beckons all. Even so, one might be forgiven for greeting with a raised eyebrow the arrival of a beefed-up Guitar Hero II on the Xbox 360. Rest easy: this is anything but a cynical cash-in. It may not be a must-purchase for those who own the PlayStation 2 original, but it’s the finest iteration of the series yet.
Of the new features in the next-gen adaptation of Guitar Hero II, the most striking is the “X-Plorer” guitar. Its design is based on the jagged, asymmetrical Gibson Explorer. The feel is strange at first, particularly if you’re used to the smoother contours of the PlayStation 2’s SG controller. I found that the bottom of the X-Plorer jutted exactly where I wanted to rest my right arm, though this ceased to be an issue after a couple of hours of play. Also, when the game first shipped, reports of unresponsive whammy bars led Red Octane to release a patch shortly thereafter. With that major issue resolved, all that’s left is a solidly constructed peripheral that looks as good as it plays.
The powerful hardware of the Xbox 360 leads to plenty of in-game improvements as well. Several new songs have been added. Standout tracks include master recordings of My Chemical Romance’s “Dead” and the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” and a faithful cover of Iron Maiden’s immortal “The Trooper” that’s worth the price of admission by itself. A notable misfire is Pearl Jam’s “Life Wasted”: the cover isn’t particularly bad, but was that really the best Pearl Jam song they could get? “Evenflow” was begging for the Guitar Hero treatment.
Otherwise, the enhancements are in line with what you’d expect. The graphics are better, especially where the lighting effects are concerned, though that really matters only when you’re not the one playing. Achievements are a plus, and they’ve been devised with a sense of humor. Along with the rewards you’ll get for technical proficiency, you can nab achievement points for failing a song on easy mode or declining to play an encore.
Red Octane has released plenty of downloadable content already. Packs of three songs from the first game are available for purchase through Xbox Live, but at more than $5 a pop they get expensive fast. Still, it’s nice to know that you don’t have to leave the original Guitar Hero behind when you upgrade to the 360 version. All that’s missing is on-line multiplayer, which I hope will be resolved in the future — though simultaneously activating star power wouldn’t be nearly as much fun from separate rooms.
The details may be a little different on this version, but what hasn’t changed is the transcendent feeling you get while playing. Other rhythm games can be fun, but they aren’t transformative. Karaoke Revolution doesn’t change the way your voice sounds. Dance Dance Revolution doesn’t require actual dance moves. But when you’re playing Guitar Hero, the simplified input still results in torrents of pure rock energy. No other game in any genre dissolves the barrier between simulation and reality the way this one does. It’s hard to think of a higher compliment than that.