Originally released on the PS2 late last year, Guitar Hero II is the follow-up to arguably the best music game of all time. Only a few years ago, the thought of a game that required an external peripheral generally alienated gamers, with a few notable exceptions (Duck Hunt anyone?). Harmonix challenged this perception, and have almost single-handedly moved the genre to the forefront of gaming with games like Guitar Hero, Amplitude, Frequency, and Karaoke Revolution. Along with some help from Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, the once niche music genre is now both widely accepted and incredibly popular, just look at the success of the franchise as an example. It's this push by Harmonix that have made peripherals (and to a large extent the acceptability of the Wii) cool and trendy, and while Guitar Hero II doesn't change the tried and true formula, it still offers up the same addictive gameplay that's been so successful in the past.
One of the best things about Guitar Hero is the ease of stepping into the game. It's accessible to almost anyone, even non-gamers who just happen to be curious about the guitar controllers sitting next to the console. The basic mechanics of Guitar Hero II are akin to playing a real guitar; the controller has five frets (buttons), and a pick-up bar that simulates strumming (up and down). Much like a real guitar, you can play single notes, chords, and even a few more advanced guitar tricks like hammer-ons (moving from a lower fret to a higher note in a single strum) and pull-offs (vice-versa). The game displays a virtual fretboard (similar to that of Amplitude/Frequency), and you simply fret the proper note (or chord), and strum it at the proper time. Hit it right and the right notes play, snuff it and you'll hear a dud. While there's no substitute for real guitar playing, Guitar Hero is a lot easier (and just as fun), and much more rewarding when you've got a bunch of friends together at parties.
As you work through the campaign, you'll progress through four difficulty levels (easy, medium, hard, and damn near impossible...I mean expert). Moving up the ladder of success, you'll perform at different venues (from the Rat Cellar, to the Rock City Theatre in Detroit, and eventually all the way to Stonehenge in the UK). The songs are grouped into sets of five, and you'll unlock them as you move between the various venues. To progress you'll typically have to successfully complete anywhere from three to five of the songs (plus an encore) to unlock the next venue (and set). On the medium campaign or higher, depending on your performance, the game will also reward you with some hard-earned cash to buy bonus tracks, new characters, guitars, clothing, and a few unlockable videos.
The Xbox 360 release of Guitar Hero II has a slightly different track list (10 new songs) and placement then the PS2 release. This grouping is better organized, and while still not perfect it's an improvement. The songs do get progressively more difficult (for the most part) as you move further along the campaign. My biggest gripe with the game (likewise with the PS2 release), is that of all the songs included, there's only a dozen or so I'll routinely play, and a handful that I'll play on a rare occasion. And then, there's a few that are truly awful and painful to have to progress through in the campaign (pretty much anything from the Furious Fretwork set fits in here. The game offers up the likes of Nirvana ("Heart-Shaped Box"), Kansas' ("Carry on my Wayward Son"), The Police ("Message in a Bottle"), Guns N' Roses ("Sweet Child O' Mine"), and Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Free Bird"), among others, but many of the tracks included are not the best-known or most-popular songs by an artist, which is too bad. Most of the songs in the game are performed by cover bands (as denoted by the "made famous by" label at the start of the track), and it's hard to complain about the quality of the covers, as they're actually quite good. Fortunately enough, the 360 version does offer up some original content as well, with My Chemical Romance lending their performances to the game. Guitar Hero II also offers up a set of unlockable bonus tracks, which are really hit or miss (the inclusion of Trogdor is a nice touch, coming from someone who has actually purchased the Strongbad CD) and no Harmonix game is complete without some Freezepop!
Guitar Hero II offers up a variety of modes of play to get your fix; on the single player side of things we've got the campaign, quick play, and practice, where you can sit down and nail that challenging rift that always seems to kick you in the butt. If you've got a second guitar, you can hop into the multiplayer modes of the game; co-operative, face-off, and pro face-off. In co-operative, one player performs the lead role, and the other can play as either rhythm or bass (depending on the song). In face-off and pro-face off, players compete for the top-score, the only difference being that face-off allows players to choose different difficulty levels and play different portions of the song, while pro face-off is a true competition to see who is the real Guitar Hero. It's also worth noting that pro face-off is only unlocked when you finish the medium campaign. Although the game doesn't offer any online play over Xbox Live (Harmonix claims that the network delay makes this very difficult), the replay value of Guitar Hero II is incredible and once you start pounding out the songs with a friend it's difficult to put the controller down.
Also new in the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II are achievements you'll be rewarded with for unlocking the various set lists, completing the campaign on varying degrees of difficulty, hitting target note streaks, getting a set number of points in a song, hitting every note in a song, etc. Among these are a few more creative achievements, the "Hendrix Award" for beating a song with lefty flip turned on is an example. The game also has a series of co-operative achievements where you'll have to sit down with a friend to unlock. There's a pretty good balance here, and while some of the achievements are pretty trivial, some of them are for only the true Guitar Heroes among us, like the "Start a Real Band Already Award" award for hitting five stars on every song on Expert. Good luck with that.
One of the biggest announcements for the Xbox 360 edition was that the game would offer up downloadable tracks via Xbox Live. RedOctane and Activision released the first wave of downloadable content shortly after the game's launch to very mixed reactions; the high cost of the song packs and that you'd typically only get one really good song in each pack where the biggest concerns. Since the launch (and said outcry), we haven't seen any new downloadable content, frankly a huge disappointment. With the 80's version of Guitar Hero around the corner, it'd be nice to see some of those tracks head to Xbox Live for the 360 owners out there, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The biggest change with Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360 is the new Gibson X-plorer controller. Aside from the drastic change in shape from the standard SG model on the PS2, the buttons on this one are squared off as well, instead of having the round edge on the bottom. Frankly, I like the X-plorer shape better then the PS2 controller, it seems easier to hold, and more comfortable when you're playing. With any new hardware some problems can be expected, but the launch of the new guitar model has been plagued with them. Bad whammy bars (which was apparently a software problem) were commonly reported, and we've had two units with keys that tend to stick after only a few hours of play. Aside from that, the fact is that it's still a wired guitar, which is a huge disappointment considering the support for wireless controllers on the Xbox 360. Depending on your setup (and the fact that wireless controllers are pretty much the norm), you may find that the cord length just isn't long enough, and while there's always a USB patch cable, a wireless guitar would have been the optimal solution. From a marketing perspective, I guess it leaves something for Guitar Hero III.
Graphically, this is without a doubt the best-looking version of Guitar Hero II, and while it's nothing to write home about in comparison to other 360 games, the graphics really don't matter all that much - this one's all about the gameplay The characters and venues look the same, however with full HD support you'll find that there's a lot more detail this time around. The virtual guitar neck is also a lot sharper and much clearer in this edition as well. Finally, the game also offers settings for those with an HD delay, and while painful to setup the first time around, it's really a necessary feature.
Putting aside the gripes, Guitar Hero II on the Xbox 360 is still a damn good game. Sure, the track list could use a bit of work, the new controllers are a bit flimsy, and the so-called downloadable content has been scarce (and overpriced) thus far, but it's still the ultimate party game on the Xbox 360 (and the game I've probably played the most to date). To those unfamiliar with the game, seeing the oddly-shaped controllers sitting next to the console usually ends up in an hour-long marathon sessions where we rock out a few tunes. If you've already got the PS2 edition, then it's difficult to justify the upgrade to the 360 release, as there just isn't enough new content and the new controller isn't particularly worth the asking price. Yet, if you're new to the franchise, what are you waiting for? Rock on!