Pity poor Guitar Hero. Ever since EA’s rival, Rock Band, first appeared critics have been prophesying its demise, and Activision’s obsession with exploring a wider range of musical genres and expanding the game’s appeal hasn’t exactly helped the series hold on to its hardcore fans. Warriors of Rock, then, is a bit of a calculated step backwards, moving away from the Rock Band comparisons, ditching the Sting, Johnny Cash and Duran Duran numbers, and focusing more on the single player experience and on rock in all its glorious forms. The result is an instalment that’s likely to prove divisive: Warriors of Rock isn’t going to woo the mainstream, party-play music game crowd, but for a certain type of would-be axe legend, it’s easily the best Guitar Hero since Guitar Hero III.
The reason? Partly, it comes down to the all new Quest mode. Formed from the same primal stuff as Brutal Legend and old-school Heavy Metal album covers, and narrated by a brilliant Gene Simmons, it frames Warriors of Rock’s setlists as a series of character-based trials, each culminating in the transformation of a guitar hero into one of eight warriors who, with powers combined, can use a legendary axe to fell an evil, demonic beast. Each character and set-list revolves around a specific style of rock; work through the tracks, earn enough stars, and you unlock a new, dark fantasy version of the character, each blessed (or cursed) with a bonus that will bring even more stars and higher scores on future tracks.
This structure is a bit annoying if you hate, say, the darker shades of metal or American punk pop, but it gives the main Guitar Hero campaign a sense of purpose that it’s lost in recent years, not to mention a lovable, loud, tongue-in-cheek hard rock atmosphere that’s sure to bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s ever joined a mosh-pit or played widdly air guitar. The character and venue design is superb, and - visually - Warriors of Rock is the strongest entry in the series yet.
More importantly, Quest mode gives Warrior of Rock new depth and replay value. Not only will single players find this a lengthy campaign on its own, but the ability to return to old tracks in warrior form enables you to reach for new stars and complete a range of challenges that will test your GH skills to the max. And while we’d always recommend playing Warriors of Rock with human bass, drums and vocal support, either in the living room or with a pick-up band on Xbox Live, it’s a very satisfying game to play just on your tod. There’s just so much to play, do and unlock.
Any Guitar Hero game is only as good as its playlist, and at first Warriors of Rock seems to promise an underwhelming set. Sure, there are some big hitters - Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Muse’s Uprising, plus tracks from Nine Inch Nails, Megadeth, Jane’s Addiction, Them Crooked Vultures, Soundgarden, My Chemical Romance, Foo Fighters and Slayer - but there’s guaranteed to be a lot of stuff that will be either too new or too old for you to know about, along with a wide selection of tracks that you wouldn’t pick as being the best track from a particular band.
The surprise is, however, that nearly every track, whether you’ve heard of it or not, works brilliantly in the context of the game. The Cure’s Fascination Street? Oddly fantastic. Dire Strait’s Money for Nothing? Better than we’d ever have thought. For the few minutes while we were playing the track, we could even swear that we actually liked Nickelback. If this isn’t testament to the power of Warriors of Rock we don’t know what is. Meanwhile, the game’s midway challenge - a complete run-through of Rush’s ludicrous sci-fi song suite, 2112 - is an incredible Guitar Hero workout. If you want a music game to test your strum-bar whacking, button tapping skills, this is the one to beat.
In fact, casual players should beware: on anything above the novice level Warriors of Rock is substantially more difficult than GH5 or any Rock Band, and the latter challenges and some of the longer songs are potentially finger crippling. Much as we enjoy hooking up with a group of GH devotees for some QuickPlay Plus online action, even we’d have to admit that four lengthy tracks of thrash metal or progressive metal in a row is about as much as we can take. Still, why let a little RSI get in the way of fun?
There is, of course, a downside to Guitar Hero’s “return to roots” approach. Firstly, there’s a sense that where Rock Band is trying to take the music game somewhere new, Guitar Hero is stuck in a rut, and certainly there’s nothing major here, gameplay wise, that you won’t have come across before. The more rock-centric setlist is also going to affect how well it works as a straight-up party game. If all your mates arrive wearing heavy metal T-shirts, you’re in business. If, however, you’ve got a slightly more mixed crowd, then Bohemian Rhapsody, Losing my Religion and a handful of others are only going to take you so far. Admittedly, the ability to play as and customise your Xbox Live avatar in quickplay mode offers some cheap laughs, but Warriors of Rock definitely has less mainstream appeal than Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero 4 and 5 did.
The sixth Guitar Hero is not for everyone. Where Rock Band is innovating and finding ways to make the band experience more authentic, Warriors of Rock seems obsessed with rediscovering past glories. Yet, at the same time, there’s no denying the appeal of that rock-tastic Quest mode, or the long-term challenge it offers the serious GH fan. If that’s you, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the best Guitar Hero in years.