Immersion is a fundamental building block of gaming. The best games offer the deepest levels of this difficult-to-define sensation. They trick the player into forgetting that, in real life, they're the night manager at McDonalds, and for just a moment make them believe that they are, in fact, a Viking Warlord/Dancing Night Elf/SAS trooper. In this regard, Guitar Hero 2 is possibly without peer. During its finest moments, You are Slash; You are the one belting out the solo to Sweet Child O' Mine; You are the Rock God who is about to get serviced by a dozen groupies backstage after the gig. Sadly the game doesn't (yet) provide that last part of the Rock star experience, but in every other regard, this game is as close as you can get to being the next Jimmy Hendrix without dying from a drug overdose.
Building a miniature plastic guitar, and then replacing the strings with five fat coloured buttons and a toggle switch, was an act of genius that only the maker of ride-on lawnmowers could understand. In words, it sounds stupid. In real life, it's brilliant fun. The success of Guitar Hero, and the new sequel, is all about this rather silly peripheral. Try playing GH2 with a control pad and, unless you're on a particularly strong type of LSD, you'll find it to be a rather tedious affair.
Plug in that plastic guitar though, and suddenly you're transported to Power Chord heaven, busting out the show-stopping notes like you were born with a plectrum in hand. This simple fact was the foundation for the immense success of the first game, and it returns in the sequel. With such a winning formula on its hands, Harmonix didn't need to reinvent the wheel. Instead they've polished it up a bit, made a few tweaks here and there, and reinserted it back into the latest route of the Guitar Hero tour bus.
The most major and obvious change is the new track list. It's this area of the game that will cause the most controversy - you'll either enter a frenzy of head-banging bliss or find yourself retreating to the poppier selection of the first game. The success of the first game has bankrolled a much more extensive track list in the sequel, provided by many famous bands, and we're happy to see a couple of Aussies have made the cut. Carry Me Home by The Living End, and Woman by Wolfmother are both included, although the endless playing of Wolfmother in Australia is starting to tarnish its epic rock status.
Of the 64 tracks in the game, only two are the original recordings. Don't fret though (pun 100% intended) - the covers are so good that most of the time you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference. While there are still a few titles that will appeal to the less-hardcore audience, such as Sweet Child O' Mine and Message in a Bottle, it's definitely skewed towards the long-haired, leather-pants rock brigade. If bands like Black Sabbath, Suicidal Tendencies, Anthrax and Lamb of God all sound a little bit scary to you, there's a good chance their ear-shattering solos won't be to your liking. The meatier licks on offer arguably suit the entire principle of the game better, but we can't forget that first and foremost players have to actually enjoy the songs being played. As a result there's a real risk that GH2 might not appeal to as wide an audience as the original Guitar Hero.
This would be a crying shame, as in every other area GH2 is without doubt the superior of these two duelling banjos. By far the most enjoyable aspect is the revamped multi-player modes. If playing the first game with mates was worthy of a carton of beer and a pizza, this time around you'd best order a keg and a spit roast - it's that good.
One of the simplest changes is the ability for two players to select differing skill levels when playing against each other. No more will the ruling GH champ dominate the night, forcing those without 46 hours of practice to play expert mode. It's such a minor tweak, yet it levels the playing ground to take into account the vastly different skill level of players. Face-off mode now sees the song playing back and forth between each player's guitar, keeping both players jamming through the entire song. For the extremely competitive, Pro-face off gives both players the full track to play. These changes all combine to make GH2 even more worthy of party attention.
Co-op mode is also included this time around; one player takes on the role of lead guitarist, while the other plays rhythm or bass, depending on the song. While co-op is a nice touch, the bass line is often hard to hear, so you'll probably end up fighting over who gets to play lead. Again, the ability to change difficulty levels should keep everybody happy, at least until one of the band members attends rehab and decides they can't rehearse for more than five hours a day.
The single-player campaign hasn't been given as much attention, with just a few new characters, venues, outfits and guitars. But judging by the near perfection of the first game, there really wasn't much that needed tweaking. However, single-player is definitely a much harder experience than the first game - expert mode is practically only playable by those with several years of real world classical guitar experience, and even hard will have you wanting to smash your virtual guitar on your lounge room stage floor.
Thankfully, a comprehensive practice mode is now included to compensate for the Joe Satriani-defeating levels of difficulty. You can pick any unlocked song in the practice mode, play any segment of it (verse one, intro, chorus, solo, etc) and even adjust the speed at which it plays back. This mode is a real lifesaver, and changes what could have been a hair-pulling affair into a much more satisfying learning curve.
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