It's a scary world for music games in 2010. Last year, publishers went for broke with release after release - Activision in particular pushed out Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Band Hero, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen - and audiences largely stayed at home. This year, Activision has curbed Guitar Hero's touring schedule to just one game: Warriors of Rock. The last Guitar Hero title to be developed by Neversoft, it's been called a return to the series roots. Sadly, Neversoft doesn't seem to have gotten within sight of the tree. From a confused setlist that doesn't jibe with the game's heavy metal aesthetic to wildly varying difficulty and a lack of accessiblilty that might make it the hardest Guitar Hero game in recent memory for casual players to get into, I was left with a final question that I was never able to answer - why Warriors of Rock is here.
Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock features the heaviest narrative focus of any Guitar Hero yet. The story goes something like this: an epic hero battles an ancient evil with a mighty axe (get it?), but the hero is defeated. Entombed in stone, the hero's axe is lost, and the evil slumbers. But the evil awakens again, and it's up to the characters of Guitar Hero titles past to discover their rock-powered true selves in order to take the fight to the Beast. In practical terms, this boils down to unique abilities reminiscent of Call of Duty's perk system. Each character has a particular talent - Casey Lynch has a streak guardian, which protects a multiplier from a missed note, while Lars Umlaut can build a 5x multiplier rather than the usual 4x, etc.
The campaign is divided into character oriented set lists. With regards to progression, Warriors of Rock is actually a big step backwards for the Guitar Hero series. As of last year's Guitar Hero: Metallica, new tiers of songs were unlocked according to stars earned, regardless of where those stars were attained. In Warriors of Rock, characters need to be transformed before you can progress, which requires a set number of stars earned from their own setlist. This number of stars is never consistent - each character has to earn a different number of stars to invoke their power animal, as it were, and their abilities can have a drastic effect on how many stars they can get in a song.
It's here that the game really sort of unhinges from past games. The 5 star paradigm that you're familiar with is gone, due to the character specific perks. Whether it's the ability to gain star power from each 10 note streak or the ability to overdrive your crowd meter, you'll generally be shooting for 7 stars as often as possible (and tracks that will see you earn 10 or many, many more aren't unusual). This is both because there are once again songs that are locked from access until you activate each character's transformation, and because honestly, the setlist in Warriors of Rock is all over the place in terms of tone, difficulty, and most importantly, fun. Where the last few games gave you freedom to explore the setlist at your own pace and preference, the "quest" nature of Warriors of Rock has led to something rigid and often frustrating.
This is primarily due to song choice. While Neversoft promised a Guitar Hero game celebrating hard rock and metal, in reality, Warriors of Rock's setlist may be the most uneven collection in any of the main Guitar Hero titles. Sure, there are some standout tracks, like "Children of the Grave" by Black Sabbath and "Holy Wars" by Megadeth (which, coincidentally, is locked for play elsewhere in the game until a specific Quest milestone is reached), and some songs that surprised me by how much fun they were to play, such as R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" and The Cure's "Fascination Street". But there's a surplus of tracks that seem out of place. I don't hate Linkin Park, for example, but of all of their songs, why is "Bleed It Out" here, or "How You Remind Me" by Nickelback?
There's also a great deal of classic rock that falls outside the hardcore veneer of Warriors of Rock. This isn't just an issue of preference either - I can get into a song if it's fun to play, regardless of how I feel about the music. My lip curled at the idea of groaning my way through it, but, for example, "Unskinny Bop" by Poison is actually a lot of fun. But there are too many songs that are just boring to play, whether they're difficult, easy, or somewhere in between, and not enough moments like "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.
Then there are the songs that just don't belong in Guitar Hero; as much as I love NIN and their Broken EP, a song like "Wish" just isn't any fun in the context of Guitar Hero, where guitars have been declared king, but half of the song is composed of synth lines mapped to the touch sensitive trackpad that Neversoft added in Guitar Hero World Tour (which is used liberally in GH:WoR, despite its absence on the Guitar Hero axe being released in tandem with the new game). There are a number of synth heavy songs that are nevertheless shoehorned into Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock awkwardly - I don't want to play Freddie Mercury's piano parts from "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the guitar.
Meanwhile, the story itself is, to put it delicately, dumb. Gene Simmons' narration is stilted and awkward, character designs both before and after transformations tend toward the uglier Guitar Hero iterations that marked Neversoft's initial forays into the series, and all the grace and style of Guitar Hero 5 has been replaced by a crude UI that feels dated. The strongest statement Neversoft made with a Guitar Hero game was when Guitar Hero 5 didn't go into a title screen; it just panned to a band on a stage that began to play a random song from the game that you could jump into at any time. Sure, that mode is back, but Party Play is practically buried under a sea of menus - like everything else in the game, honestly. With Warriors of Rock, that elegance of presentation is gone, and the game is worse for it.
Of course, all the features from previous Guitar Hero games are present - Quick Play+ allows players to enable certain perks to accomplish song specific challenges, and the multiplayer focus is as strong as ever, enabling as many instrument combinations as five players can muster. But the few changes the game sees outside of the quest mode seem geared to the highest echelon of Guitar Hero players, leaving behind the entry level audience that made the series so popular in the first place.