I found it hard to believe that the game is only a year or so old, considering how recently the third installment came out. Developed by the original creators of the series, Harmonix, the game has the same distinctive feel that the titles have become known for.
The core gameplay of the series remains virtually unchanged from the original title. Using the guitar controller you play strings of notes by strumming and pressing the corresponding fret at the correct time. This is deceptively simple but incredibly compelling. Increases in difficulty add extra frets, faster speed and harder chords as well as the "hammer-on" and "pull-off" abilities. On certain notes, you aren't required to strum and instead can simply hold down the fret, which is a god-send on the harder songs.
By playing chains of consecutive notes you can build a multiplier to boost your score up to a maximum of "x4" but this can be extended with a special move: "Star Power". This allows you to reach significantly higher scores. After playing a series of star-shaped notes without missing any, you have the ability to deploy a multiplier by tilting the controller which doubles your current one (up to a maximum of x8).
The whammy bar also plays a crucial role by tweaking extra star power out of notes and improving your score. This all combines to make surprisingly tactical gameplay. Do you try and tilt the guitar now for star power? Which notes should you whammy?
The graphics for the title aren't incredible but the cartoony charm and the flashy power ups are well executed and create a nice easy going style. The venues all look pleasingly different and the character's themselves are traditional rock stereotypes, in the best possible sense!
Where Guitar Hero II really excels is the excellent multiplayer. Hook up a second guitar and you can either compete or form a duo. Whilst the face-off modes are entertaining and good fun at parties, the real fun lies in co-op. I recently hooked up with a fellow gamer and the sense of achievement when you are both tearing through Free Bird on Hard is one of the best. Having to tilt guitars at the same time and one player taking rhythm and the other guitar is a stroke of genius.
The inclusion of excellent downloadable content on the Xbox Marketplace is also a very welcome addition and provides the best songs from the original game and a healthy selection of newer content packs to choose from. The online leader boards are also an interesting inclusion, but were sadly far out of my league.
Yet, Guitar Hero II is not without some problems. The hammer-on and pull-offs are incredibly hard to tell apart from normal notes, which can make expert and hard songs a living nightmare. There have been times when I have ruined 500 note streaks by not realising notes didn't require strumming.
If you are playing Guitar Hero II after the most recent installment then you might be surprised. The game lacks the polish and style of the third game and I would say the difficulty level is generally harder than the recent game (excluding Guitar Hero III's final venue). Yet this challenge has kept me playing more, as it never feels impossible or punishing and has that "one more try" factor which is essential for the best game series.
The most disappointing aspect of the game is the sound, which you would expect to be top notch in this game. The song selection is patchy to say the least but there are some real gems hidden amongst a lot of filler. This is understandable as the franchise was still finding its feet, but it doesn't add much incentive to play through all the bonus songs.
If you are a metal/rock fan then you may be surprised to only recognize around 50% of the titles. Even if you dislike the genre there are some real classics which are great fun to play and sing along to. The main issue I have is not with the song selection, but with the song quality. Very few of the game's songs are from the original recordings and have been covered by the game's musicians. Whilst this is generally not a problem, there are times when playing through some of my favourites, sections sounds totally different.
Despite not having the same level of sparkle as the latest game, Guitar Hero II has a cult charm. The cover versions, strange selection and sometimes insane difficulty help to keep it fresh and add a sense that this is the last Guitar Hero title by the original developers before the series "popularized".
The game is a top notch multiplayer fun, ideally suited to evenings with your mates. If you have just discovered the series then there will be plenty here for you to enjoy, but you might feel a little disappointed by the song selection and slightly rough appearance. If you are going for the individual game, then treat it as a good value expansion for the third installment.
Right, my fingers should have recovered, time to have a crack at Free Bird on Expert...
Guitar Hero II (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
After finally completing Guitar Hero III and allowing my hand to recover, I desperately needed a new fix for my guitar addiction. Tracking down a copy of Guitar Hero II for the 360 was ideal and the choice of an extra guitar or solo copy was also welcome.