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April 09, 2006

Guitar Hero (40)

As soon as I heard about Guitar Hero I knew I would have to own it. That combination of rhythm game, dedicated controller and rock music just spoke to me. Plus, I've never been able to get along with real guitars. I have this thing about strings. Late in Guitar Hero, you see your avatar on the cover of a guitar magazine. One of the fake headlines says 'Buttons or strings: the battle rages on'.

For those living under a rock, Guitar Hero is a PS2 game where you press buttons and pretend to be playing a guitar. In fact you are playing a half-size plastic guitar controller, and you play along to a set of classic and not-so-classic rock songs. The core of this sound is 80s stadium rock, not a genre that played particularly well in the UK, where presumably we could really do with Floppy Synth Hero. Nevertheless, the success of GH in the US has led to its release -- on Friday -- in the UK. And I was sufficiently convinced by what others were saying -- eg the television presenter who giggled all the way through his review or the blogger who described the game as an antidepressant in the form of a plastic guitar -- to preorder a copy.

This game is unbelievably much fun to play.

The basic premise is this. You play the guitarist in a covers band, that starts out playing a basement party, and then gradually get bigger gigs until you're in a stadium. You do this by playing the guitar part to 30 covers of variously more and less famous rock songs (I recognised about a third of them on sight, plus I knew about a third more when I heard them, leaving 10 I didn't know at all). They're pretty well all great fun to play.

You have the equivalent of one string, which you can strum up or down, and five frets. Oh, and a whammy bar which pitch bends long notes to gain star power. Score enough star power from long notes and combos, and you can invoke star power mode by tilting your guitar so it points vertically. At this point my fun meter goes off the scale. Not only can you play along to great rock songs, not only can you hit notes and hear them come out of the speakers as if Eric Clapton was playing, but you can store up star power and then unleash it just before the solo by acting like a rock god.

This is the first rhythm game I've played where the moves you make affect the music directly, note by note. Hit the notes, and the guitar part rings out. Miss them, and it's replaced by various squeaks. I found myself chortling with joy as I got better at songs and realised that guitar parts that I recognised were appearing from the notes I played, or that I'd got to the end of a fast section and not made any mistakes and had No Idea How I Did It. It really does feel like playing a real instrument.

It is possibly fair to say that real guitars have more than one string and five frets. However, I have played a tiny bit of guitar and I can confirm that Guitar Hero on medium is not dissimilar in difficulty to strumming three chords along with a song. And it really gives you a sense of what actual guitar heros are doing when they play, which is to your five frets and a string as Oblivion is to Pong.

And yes, my daughter is trying to get the hang of Smoke on the Water. On Easy. It's still pretty hard. The Easy mode of 'Os! Tatakae! Ouendan!' and the Beginner mode of Dancing Stage do not occupy me at all, but there are a number of songs on the Easy mode of Guitar Hero that I found quite stressful. The learning curve is pretty high on this game, but luckily it's not the sort of game where you get stuck and then try the stuck bit over and over again. Instead, you get stuck and go 'Hmm. Oh, well, I'm stuck. But hey! I can go and play I Love Rock and Roll; I can do that one. Perhaps I can really nail it this time...' The replay value of the earlier, easier songs is considerable.

Marianne lifted her head from the guitar and asked, eyes shining, "does that mean it's educational, Mummy?" I rather think it is. I've been getting a real sense for what certain rhythms look like, what it is you have to do with an electric guitar to make certain sorts of sounds that I've been hearing for years. It's surely at least as educational as chime bars or Boomwhackers, too. Of course it's not likely to improve my melodeon playing if I'm playing Guitar Hero instead.

There's a multiplayer mode which is apparently even better; if you and a friend have a guitar you get different parts so that the solos swap off and it really feels like playing in a band togther. I couldn't pre-order a second guitar, but I'll definitely be picking one up as soon as I can.

I'm just left with a sneaking suspicion that actually playing lead guitar in a band is Even More Fun than this. Difficult though it is to imagine.

Guitar Hero costs 50, for the Playstation 2, including the guitar controller, and is probably sold out at a gaming emporium near you. It's rated 12+, I think because some rock songs have naughty words in them.

Posted by Alison Scott at April 9, 2006 11:33 AM


Posted by: Alan Braggins at April 18, 2006 05:13 PM

And Ctrl+Alt+Del on part III "Rock Hard, Die Young and Stupid".

Posted by: Alan Braggins at April 21, 2006 05:32 PM

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