Last year, Harmonix unleashed a beast on the United States gaming world with the critically acclaimed Guitar Hero. While many Japanese companies have turned a blind eye to bringing the addicting rhythm game genre to the U.S., Harmonix gave domestic gamers yet another blessing with an exceptional successor to the Amplitude/Frequency franchise. And, now, exactly one year after the release of Guitar Hero, the inevitable part two descends upon the Playstation 2.
Not content on merely resting on the success of Guitar Hero, Harmonix has gone back to the drawing board, surfed through numerous player comments through polls and forums, sought even more music and the result is more than a mere song update. New game play modes, a new, massive song list, an updated career mode, a training mode, game play mechanic tweaks and more give players looking to grind the axe quite a package.
The most notable addition to Guitar Hero II is the new co-op mode, which allows a second player to tighten the guitar strap and lay down either a bass or rhythm track depending on the song. While some of the songs don’t offer a whole lot of opportunities to showcase the bass parts, the mode definitely brings more “band” atmosphere to the game. Some of the bass tracks are borderline tedious and lacking compared to the riveting solos performed on the lead guitar, which may lead to a few arguments over who gets to take center stage.
Friends can also throw down in the game’s battle mode, which breaks up pieces of the songs in back-and-forth battles where only one can walk off the stage as the winner. However, this mode only shines with players of equal skill. While the game bases performance off the percentage of notes effectively hit, battles don't feel heated or look appealing when an expert player is moving their fingers at mach speed while a medium player is hitting one key at a time.
As fun as the two-player rockfest is, though, online features are still sadly missing. Once the Xbox 360 version hits the scene, players are most definitely going to be drawn to the new downloadable content and the lack of online features for the Playstation 2 version will stick out like a sore thumb.
Given the success of the first title, Harmonix, naturally, was able to go after more licensed songs this time around and more notable bands including Aerosmith, Kiss, Rage Against the Machine, Kansas and more round out yet another solid track listing. Some players might question the song choices picked out from certain bands for the game, but Guitar Hero II represents more of a song style variety in the licensed tracks compared to the first title, most notably in the area of heavy rock songs that feature mind-numbing guitar solos.
Nearly all of the game’s licensed tracks are covers and for the most part hit the nail on the head pretty well. However, there are a few sparse tracks with vocals that fall pretty far from the original. While it doesn’t ruin any sort of game play experience, it’s definitely noticeable and if that particular song happens to be a personal favorite, some players might take offense.
This year’s version continues to take great advantage of unsigned artists and ups the ante one step further by throwing in some surprise pop culture rock tracks courtesy of Strong Bad of Homestar Runner fame and the fictional band Dethklok featured in Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse. The unlicensed tracks serve once again as the meat of the game’s unlockables and can be purchased with your career mode gig money along with new guitars, skins, characters, videos and more.
Your gig money comes from the visually retooled career mode, which puts your band on a tour bus that travels to various locations around the United States represented by a number of new venues. The venues show off the extra attention to detail Harmonix placed into the game’s environments for this installment with small animations such as the rats running around the cellar. The crowds are a lot more lively this time around with much more animation and detail that more reflects the quality of your performance with items being thrown at the stage and more.
While the career progress stays primarily the same, the addition of encores adds a new bonus element to the game. Instead of merely playing a number of songs and moving to the next difficulty, Guitar Hero II asks if you want to step out on stage for more to tackle one last new bonus song in the difficulty.
Other than the additions, Guitar Hero is the same riff-slammin’ affair players were introduced to last year. The game attracts casual players like a magnet and even a non-gamer can fall in love with the raw simplicity and ability to not just play along with their favorite rock music, but create it. The training modes and easy difficulties are there for those finally getting around to pick up the game, but Harmonix hasn’t forgotten about the dedicated shredders either.
The difficulty is cranked up for sure in Guitar Hero II. The hard and expert difficulties are sure to ignite some fingers and new, blistering triple chords are introduced, requiring players to hold three simultaneous buttons to hit some notes. One drawback to the difficulties however, is the jump from medium to hard – I’ve already noticed many players having a very hard time getting into the hard charts due to the difficulty spike.
Thankfully for those in the upper difficulties, Harmonix has made the hammer-ons and pull-offs easier to execute. The techniques become key in the brutal solos players will encounter in the hardest songs.
While the end of 2006 has seen a humongous surge in the number of music games released in the United States, Guitar Hero II is by far the top rhythm title so far this year. The success of the original Guitar Hero finally turned some heads in the video gaming world and gave U.S. players a voice that said, “Yeah, we like music too.” (Duh).
While we’re starting to see the release of even more music-oriented games (including Konami’s original Guitar Freaks finally being worked on for a U.S. release under the name Guitar Revolution), Guitar Hero will always be at the top of the pack if it continues to update itself just like Guitar Hero II.
Guitar Hero II has been revamped in almost every category and plays a lot smoother than its predecessor. Whether or not the song list is better is based on personal preference but with the increased variety and sheer number of songs found in part two, everyone should be able to find a good number of enjoyable tracks.
The game looks better, plays better and brings over even more of a hard rocker presentation with a new career mode and interface. Despite a few minor hiccups in the game's new features, Guitar Hero II is a worthy sequel in every sense of the word.
With the novelty of the game gone and the aforementioned cons, Guitar Hero II just barely misses the five-star mark. Certainly we can expect a third installment in the series and if Harmonix can push even more content into the game and tweak the features introduced into part two, the series will continue to be a guaranteed hit.
Guitar Hero II is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Lyrics.