Guitar Hero 5 is visually and thematically Rock Band 2, but with better drums. Moving on from Guitar Hero: World Tour, the new game has less stylised and more realistic-looking avatars, less stylised and more realistic-looking venues and audiences, and the career mode concentrates more on moving between venues than set lists, all much like Rock Band 2. But with better drums.
One nice touch about Guitar Hero 5 is the welcome attention paid to getting you playing quickly. A greater amount of state information is now saved between sessions, reducing the number of button pushes needed to get anywhere. If you play the same character on the same instrument at the same difficulty level most of the time it used to be a minor chore to make the same selections every time the game is loaded. But no more, as all those options are saved. To start playing the game you only need to push one button to accept that nothing has changed from last session.
Continuing play is nice and quick, but beginning your first gig can feel tiresome if you decide to create your own avatar. The number of options and ways to change your character's look is impressive, but it can take what feels like an age trying to come up with the right look when you really just want to get in to a gig and start playing. This only needs to be done right once, though, and the ability to customise your character to get it looking just right gives a greater personal touch to your virtual rock star. It would be better if there were more clothing options available, as there doesn't seem to be much added over the rock, goth or punk options of Guitar Hero: World Tour.
Like other editions of the game, avatars of famous rock stars occasionally crop up to play their own songs, which adds another level of verisimilitude to the notion of playing along with the band. Some of the avatars of the famous can also be unlocked to become available to be picked for your virtual band, but this leads to a problem where a hand-picked female singer croons in the part of a male vocalist, or vice versa, quickly breaking immersion in the gig. The curious aspect of this nonsense is that the problem isn't present in Guitar Hero: World Tour, where singers are swapped in and out as their sex requires, but it is an obvious problem in Rock Band 2. I don't think the designers of Guitar Hero 5 should have been as quick to borrow so many ideas from the other franchise.
It is a wonderful step forwards that none of the songs available in the game are initially locked from solo or multi-player gaming. There is little more frustrating in a multi-player game than having to spend precious time with friends unlocking content that you unlocked during solo play weeks before. But not with Guitar Hero 5, where you can play any song at any time. Taking advantage of the availability of all the songs is the addition of user-definable set lists, a feature I often wanted whilst playing Guitar Hero: World Tour. Instead of being stuck with the standard set lists featured in the game or creating ephemeral set lists, that disappear after use, a whole slew of personalised set lists can be created. This is fabulous, giving players the opportunity to put together a string of songs they enjoy playing that can be called up quickly and easily instead of trudging through long song lists and selecting tracks individually each time the game is loaded.
Despite all the songs being available immediately, there is still content that can be unlocked. The career mode awards stars for good performances and completing challenges, unlocking later gigs and venues for access to further challenges. The challenges effectively replace unlocking song content by instead unlocking cosmetic content, such as new avatars and outfits, and are a neat addition to the game. Each challenge is tailored for one or more instruments, encouraging players not to limit themselves to only one instrument, and to play multi-player. Whether you need to get a certain score, refill the star power a number of times, or get a streak of a certain length, the challenges add a new facet to gameplay that will get you repeating songs for more than simply to try to beat a high score.
When trying to see how big a streak you are hitting, or whether the familiar star power is ready, the user interface isn't quite as clear in Guitar Hero 5 as before. The indicators are all smaller and more discreet, the only clear indicator being the score multiplier. Maybe the user interface has been shrunk to accomodate multi-player gaming more easily. On the one hand, it is more difficult to view current progress quickly whilst not losing your place on the note track. On the other hand, the various indicators don't really show anything necessary to play the game. The exception is the score multiplier, which is useful to recognise quickly when determining whether to use star power or not, and this is the one standard indicator that is easy to spot at a glance.
Of course, it is rewarding to see progress when attempting a challenge, so it is good to see that when a challenge is accepted a new and clear indicator in the form of a disc appears next to the note track. The challenge disc fills up in an obvious manner as progress is made, which reinforces the idea that the other indicators don't really offer meaningful information during standard play and are probably more distracting than helpful.
Gigs in Guitar Hero 5 are all one song long and, although they are ostensibly grouped in venues, they are otherwise uncollected. Whilst the lack of forced grouping allows for disliked or unchallenging songs to be skipped, it creates an overhead that wasn't present before. My problem with single-song gigs is the same problem I have with choosing music on my iPod, and is why playlists and random play were created. There are occasions when I don't want to make all the decisions. Having to make a new selection at the end of every song played in career mode unravels some of the effort made in creating flowing gameplay. And if a new venue is been unlocked it is annoyingly automatically selected, requiring you to scroll back to select the venue just played in if you are trying to play sequentially.
There are benefits to having multi-song set lists. And although the user-definable set lists are a great addition to the game the lack of any pre-defined set lists adds a burden to the player. It would have been handy to have the songs from each venue in career mode collected together as pre-defined set lists, which can then either be modified or copied and then modified, giving a starting point on which to base your own set lists. The only set lists I don't enjoy in Guitar Hero: World Tour are those with songs I don't like, and the game would be improved significantly if I could choose to play the set lists without particular songs. I don't necessarily need to create everything from scratch.
Conversely, Guitar Hero: World Tour has also introduced me to a large number of highly enjoyable songs by bands and artists I have never heard of or wouldn't think I'd enjoy, only realised by the convenience of playing through the pre-defined set lists. Guitar Hero 5 has the right idea but takes it too far in both directions. The complete flexibility requires a significant investment of time in defining your own set lists, only really made possible with considerable experience of the songs available, where the experience can only really be gained by playing the songs more than a few times. I find it an advantage being forced to play unfamiliar songs initially, but it only really works if I also have the option to decide at some point that I don't want to play them any more. As it stands, there is no option in Guitar Hero 5 to play a group of songs that isn't user-defined, but I don't want to rely on my own impetus to pick for a set list songs I don't know too well.
With it a fair bit of initial work it will be possible to set-up a bunch of set lists, featuring favourite, challenging or unfamiliar songs, or an eclectic mix. And the number of set lists that can be saved ensures that a good selection can be created. But these set lists do not compensate for the lack of set lists in the gigs, if only because of the goals for playing in career mode. There is no longer a 'rock rank' that progresses slowly with each performance. Instead, up to five stars are normally awarded for each performance, with up to three more for each challenge. Once you have scored those five stars there is little incentive to play the song again in career mode, as nothing more is gained. It is more likely for you to play your own set lists instead, for the continuous string of gaming that it offers.
The 'quickplay' mode, where user-created set lists are stored, doesn't award stars for performances, though. And it is possible to be awarded six stars for a perfect rendition. So whilst there is little reason to play individual songs in career mode once a five star performance has been achieved, it will still be galling to finally get that perfect performance only to have that extra star not count towards your character's career. Being able to play set lists in career mode would help to strengthen a feeling of progress without continually having to play individually picked songs solely in the hopes of not making a single mistake.
Finally, being able to import songs from previous Guitar Hero games is a nice option, which has the potential to avoid switching between games unnecessarily. It's unfortunate that not all the songs from previous games can be imported, but my main gripe is the cost. To import songs, the unique code that is included with the boxed Guitar Hero game must first be entered, and then the transfer itself costs Xbox Live points, which cost money, and this seems to me to be too much. The unique code prevents a second-hand transfer of the songs, but if I prove that I am the original owner of the older game with this code then I object to also needing to pay for the transfer. At the same time, if someone is willing to pay to import a limited selection of songs I don't see why they can't take advantage of a borrowed copy of the previous game. The cost as it is strikes me as an unfair and controlling demand.
Guitar Hero 5 is another excellent game for fake plastic instrument rocking. The updated graphics are much welcome, as is the unlocked nature of the core content, that of the songs. Being able to play quickly and without much fuss is fabulous, as is the possibility of multiple similar instruments, allowing any player to play their fake plastic instrument of choice, even if that leads to four bass players having an orgy of funk. Some of the new features are flawed implementations of good ideas, others are simply good ideas. Where the monotony of only playing individual songs in career mode fails, having dozens of user-created set lists succeeds. The drive to beat previous scores may no longer be as dominant, but challenges add a new dimension to gigs to compensate. With a new selection of rock and pop tracks, current and classic, Guitar Hero 5 has plenty to keep fake plastic rockers entertained.