The Guitar Hero franchise has been growing exponentially since the mid-Noughties. The developers have been so relentless about it that even when it had looked like Hero had been completely eclipsed by Rock Band in '07, they still rolled another four titles off the production line. Even when it was looking like Hero was starting to peel ideas straight out from Rock Band by introducing multiple instruments, the franchise kept chugging along like a happily aimless locomotive. Even in Guitar Hero 5, when they had largely abandoned their Ye Olde Hard Rock roots to appeal to the mass of casual gamers that still don't quite get Lemmy, they didn't lay down the plastic axe.
The franchise felt like it had been losing direction, slowly but surely. Throughout 2009 it had spent most of its time being washed out with weak sales until Activision finally decided to re-jig the internal development teams, dissolving RedOctane and putting a hold on Neversoft's Guitar Hero division until the completion of Warriors of Rock.
Warriors of Rock is an attempt to pull on the reigns a bit and bring the series back around to what made Guitar Hero work in the first place. What had worked was evident in the success of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. It was a guitar-centric, heavy rock-based Oktoberfest. Guitar Hero was built originally as a game to whet the palates of gamers looking for material that was as weighted in irony as it was in capital-A awesome music. In homage to the series' origins, Warriors of Rock turns its focus back to hardcore guitar music.
The setlist ranges from Alice Cooper to Stevie Vai, The Ramones to ZZ Top. It heads over to slightly more modern material with Them Crooked Vultures and The White Stripes. You'll ask yourself, how many classic rock songs are even left after six of these games? The answer is about 90, although most of the featured bands have already been part of the series' roster for years. The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Deep Purple are all there again. You also get a now-expected re-designed controller, whose electronic innards have been pushed down to the bottom of the guitar unit, allowing you to modify the actual look of the body.
For the game itself the stand-out feature is an entirely new story-driven Quest Mode, narrated by KISS front-man Gene Simmons. The plot has a whiff of Brutal Legend to it, giving you eight new characters, guided by a Demi-God of Rock, and having you trek your way from CBGBs in New York to a molten lava pit to battle The Beast and save Rock music. This culminates in a secondary story section based very loosely on Rush's 2112, a seven-part Rock suite that tells a dystopian story set in the year 2112. You essentially find the Demi-god's guitar and use it to defeat the Beast. That section gets a narration by famed Rush members Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, based on portions of the album's liner notes.
The bulk of Quest Mode involves playing your way through eight sets to recruit a gang of rockers, with new characters Austin Tejas and Echo Tesla joining series veterans Johnny Napalm , Judy Nails, and Lars Umlaut. Each of the characters will transform and equip power-ups by playing through their setlist. You can unlock ridiculous powers in-game, which exist purely to underline the ironic awesomeness of the series. You might enable a power-up that gives you additional star power once you hit ten consecutive notes, or you might triple the multiplier when you activate Star Power. Johnny Napalm can get you a 2x multiplier at all times throughout a song, while Axel Steel can resurrect you should you screw up and fail.
While the game essentially peddles backwards to its origins from half a decade ago, this feels like the first creative step the franchise has taken in a very long time. Forget the new controller or a slightly polished UI - the narrative is what makes the game. It essentially mimics the hard rock enthusiasm that has existed for decades, regurgitating the lore of demons and heavy metal that has been around since Robert Johnson sold his soul. By accepting that tradition as its own, the franchise will continue to feel like it has some identity amongst the bulk of other rhythm games.
Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii later this year.