Is this the rhythm game we've been waiting for? By now even the most hardcore of fret-heads must admit that the genre needs a few tricks. We've already had several new strum-em-ups this year, and there are quite a few still to come, but Guitar Hero 5 is potentially the best bet for gamers who want something new from their rock games. Unless, of course, they're prepared to ditch their guitars entirely - let's not forget that DJ Hero is just around the corner.
Let's slow down for a second. While the features brought in for GH5 could hardly be described as revolutionary, they collectively represent the biggest changes we've seen in the genre for quite some time. However, it's worth adding that most of the alterations and additions relate to the overall Guitar Hero experience, as opposed to the core gameplay itself. In other words, the basic strum-and-power chord gameplay is the same as it ever was. If you weren't a fan before, you're unlikely to change your mind now.
For everyone else, however, most of the new stuff will seem like steps in the right direction. For a start, you'll no longer have to suffer bitter arguments with your mates about who plays lead guitar and who takes bass, because any band member can play any instrument. If two people want to play guitar, that's all fine and dandy. If you want to have three singers and a bass player, that'll work too. If you've got the peripherals, you could even have a quartet of drummers thundering along to the same song. Each player gets their own note track, while the audio caters to everyone simultaneously: If one guitarist hits a duff note while another one succeeds, you'll hear both the correct chord and the "fail" noise at the same time.
Given the sociable nature of games like this, it's also welcome to see the inclusion of a Party Play mode. Here your console acts as a sort of strum-along jukebox: The game will continuously select tunes and players can drop in or out as they like. This may not sound like much, but it's pretty much the ideal format for any situation where other stuff may be going on around the players. Now if you need to take a break to answer the phone or open the front door - or if your mate Chavvy Dave needs to visit the chod bin - then the game can continue without a hitch. There's also a rather snazzy visual effect when someone joins or leaves the game - as one note track appears or vanishes, the others will shrink or expand to make use of the available screen space.
While the Party Play mode is clearly aimed at welcoming casual gamers, Activision and Neversoft have also thrown in a few goodies for more hardcore players. Competitive multiplayer has received something of a facelift. As before, there's online support for up to eight players to take part at once, but now there's something called RockFest mode - essentially a collection of different competitions. "Momentum", for example, sees every player beginning a track at medium difficulty; when you complete a 20 note streak you jump up a level, but you'll drop back down if you make any more than three mistakes in a row. "Elimination" acts as a sort of survival test, with the game eliminating the lowest scoring musician at intervals of every thirty seconds or so. "Do or Die" wipes out players for making mistakes, while "Streakers" and "Perfectionist" are modes that rank players according to their note-streaks and hit-percentage scores. Finally, the established head-to-head battles will also make a return.
Outside of these multiplayer contests, Guitar Hero 5 will also feature in-game challenges to complement the standard action, a sort of sonic equivalent to a side-quest. You might need to score a certain number of points during a given section, or pull off a technical feat like holding the whammy bar for a set time. There are three levels of success for each of these assignments, and each yields up a star when completed. Performances are still graded with one to five stars, but there's now a bonus sixth star awarded for a perfect run - this means you'll have a total of nine stars to win on each song. In addition to the resplendent glory or such achievements, completed challenges will also gift you some nice prizes, like new clothes and instruments for your avatar.
That's pretty much the list in terms of fresh elements, although there's a natty new graphical style that moves away from the cartoon-y look of World Tour. The characters still look every so slightly larger-than-life, but the game's visuals look a bit more refined and glossy, taking a leaf from Rock Band's aesthetics. You'll also be able to play as your Mii or LIVE Avatar, should you so wish. Meanwhile the core gameplay remains as compelling as ever, especially given the calibre of this year's track listing. Opinions on the roster will vary, as they always do, but fans of contemporary alt-rock should be pleased by the likes of QOTSA, The White Stripes and TV On The Radio, while classicists should also enjoy the presence of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Iggy Pop.
As with World Tour, metal seems to be taking the back seat, but Maiden and Rammstein are on the list - and there's always the inevitable wave of DLC. While we're on the subject, it's pleasing to note that 152 of the 158 downloadable GHWT songs will work here, and an undisclosed fee you'll be able to import all the standard tracks from both that game and Greatest Hits; with any luck such compatibility will soon become standard-issue with games of this ilk. Neversoft has hardly torn-up the rulebook with GH5, but the refinements that are here seem well thought out. If they help the rhythm genre to evolve, even at a glacial pace, that can only be cause for celebration.
Guitar Hero 5 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PS2 in September.