It may come as some surprise to hear that the Guitar Hero series has averaged about four core-platform games per year since the birth of the franchise in 2005, far more if you include portable versions and spin-offs, and in this time the only major change to core gameplay and functionality was multi-instrument support for World Tour.
The previous update, Greatest Hits, was a little underwhelming considering it was a full-priced release and only offered 48 tracks, many of which fans would already have from previous titles, but if anything it seems as though this was the final swansong of what could now be known as the "pre GH5" era.
Just about every aspect of Guitar Hero 5, from the wide-ranging 85-song tracklist to the various tweaks to the gameplay and introduction of new multiplayer modes, suggests that Activision has listened to all of the criticisms from previous games and not only fixed them, but found a way to appeal to a whole new audience in the mass market.
Core gameplay remains the same, with a choice of four instruments, individual play along with multiplayer online and offline modes and all of the songs are available to choose by default. Those who decide to plough through a career will now find ways to speed up progress by completing challenges to achieve additional stars, and most notably it’s now possible to play with any combination of instruments.
Subtle tweaks to the core system include the ability to view the difficulty of each instrument on a selected song but in truth the major new additions to the game this time around are centred on increasing enjoyment for multiple players.
To this end, a new Party Play mode will start up a random or selected song in the background and allow up to four people to dip in an out with an instrument of their choice at any time. It sounds simple, but is extremely effective in making the game more approachable in a party environment.
In addition, new multiplayer modes like Momentum, Streakers, Do or Die, Elimination or Perfectionist bring new challenges that involve automatically adjusting difficulty depending on how well you’re playing, aiming to hit the longest streak of notes, avoiding "strike" notes and competing for points in specific portions of a song. Wii owners will also be pleased to hear that the game can be paired with a Nintendo DS to allow a partner to fix your instruments and break an opponent’s in Roadie Battle, or jazz up a song by controlling camera angles and lighting in Mii Freestyle.
This mode is of particular interest as it allows players to jam freely with any combination of instruments to create their own song, which can then be saved for future play or uploaded and shared online. It’s another example of how Activision has attempted to make Guitar Hero 5 more accessible to casual players, and is an excellent complement to the traditional music studio.
To round things off it’s possible to boost the tracklist by downloading selected songs from World Tour, compete in 8-player band vs. band battles online and revive "fallen" band members by playing well, which all culminates in a more varied and far less frustrating experience for those who are new to the game.
With typically solid gameplay and some genuinely enjoyable new features, there can be little doubt that Guitar Hero 5 offers the most definitive rhythm-rocking party game experience to date.
Guitar Hero 5 represents a major upgrade to traditional rhythm-rocking games and though it’s capable enough on all platforms, Wii owners in particular will appreciate the extra appeal offered by compatibility with the Nintendo DS. Rock veterans have plenty of new features and modes to play with but casual users who may previously have been reluctant to get involved will find that it offers a far more approachable environment.