"We were trying to please everyone out there, and I think in the end you end up not pleasing any one person a lot." So spoke Neversoft's Brian Bright, project director on Guitar Hero 5. Personally, I disagree: I liked Guitar Hero 5. Everyone I know who was still into rhythm games (not very many, to be honest) liked Guitar Hero 5. The most memorable event for my band (Goretopsy, thank you for asking) was the evening we all got 100% on Superstition while absolutely hammered; it's those little impromptu nuggets of rhythmic joy which help define the continued existence of the genre.
Activision will have to think long and hard about the future if it's looking to take the series past this year's instalment. Warriors of Rock has some nice opening notes, but ultimately serves a wonky mix of ingredients and ends up leaving a bit of a funny aftertaste. The idea is that Guitar Hero is going back to the core audience, though the end result seems to suggest Neversoft has lost much of their respect - or, at the very least, the necessary untapped musical catalogue - for these devoted players.
The rocking new tone is immediately noticeable. Whereas World Tour was garish and Guitar Hero 5 star-studded and laid-back, Warriors of Rock cranks the flamboyance up to 11 and has you jetting around a world inspired by the front covers of heavy metal albums. Gene Simmons himself narrates the journey across Quest mode, the new-fangled interpretation of career mode, which has the recognisable crew (I seriously hate Johnny Napalm's face, for the record) band together to slay titanic villain, The Beast.
Accomplishing this is a simple everyday task of performing a killer guitar set and then transforming into a monster. Johnny Napalm becomes a blue goblin; Axel Steel gets mummified and so on. Eventually you unleash a legendary guitar and then free the Demi-God of Rock who, for some reason, has been entombed within a granite prison. Bonus points would have been awarded if Neversoft had commissioned a metal cover of Monster Mash for the game's encore - but sadly it didn't.
The bulk of Quest is split into sections for each of the eight characters, with a musical theme bucketed across each set. Pandora's stage, for instance, is full of the screaming, whiny emo-rock from bands like Fall Out Boy and Rise Against. Lara Umlaut handles most of the heavy metal and, on the other side of the coin, there's even a light twang of country over in newcomer Austin Tejas' set. The real diamond in the rough, at least for the core audience, is probably the riff-heavy power rock in frontrunner Axel Steel's set.
In fracturing the music selection, Neversoft has betrayed the fundamental principle of the game's concept. Devoting twenty minutes to Rush's seven-stage marathon epic 2112 is totally (progressive) rocking out; Muse's flimsy Uprising and My Chemical Romance's I'm Not Okay isn't. I'm not even much of a defender of the finger-killing heavy tracks - the first song I played was Edgar Winter's Free Ride, for instance - but painting the game as firmly entrenched within a certain oeuvre and then frontloading it with a musical variety bucket suggests Neversoft once again decided it was trying to please everybody.
Out of tune difficulty levels further compound the issue. For a long-time Hard player, but never one to spend much time in Expert difficulty, the game strikes an unruly chord of being far too easy in the former but still a little too challenging in the latter. Quest mode simplifies the process further by offering up a special power for each character, usually related to upping the max multiplier or increasing the frequency of star power so much that it becomes a throwaway commodity.
Even the Expert players probably won't find much to justify the expenditure. Quest mode's final encore might just happen to be John 5's Black Widow of La Porte, a speed metal track which sits right next to Through the Fire and Flames (Dragonforce are included once again) for blister-inducing difficulty, but there's only a handful of these tracks in the game - nothing that couldn't have been handled with a £5 DLC pack for previous games. Veterans are also forced to slog through a significant amount of early game filler to make it to these all-important tunes.
The problems even extend to Party Play - now a staple feature of all rhythm games, but still an excellent (and now necessary) addition. Whereas Guitar Hero 5's diversified selection helped it function as a digital jukebox, Warrior's of Rock's less party-friendly selection will probably ensure it never gets used for this function. There's nothing on the disc comparable to You Give Love a Bad Name when it comes to late night warbling.
Saying that, there is all-time karaoke favourite Bohemian Rhapsody. But this song, clearly intended to be the party hit of the game, also functions as the prime example of the differences between Guitar Hero and competing franchise Rock Band. Whereas this year's Rock Band 3 is going to have an immaculately crafted Pro Mode (with real strings) and a keyboard peripheral to do all them, you know, keyboard bits, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is slightly cheaper. You might be playing all the keyboard notes with a plastic guitar, but at least you don't have to invest in any new equipment.
There is a new guitar, though. Designed to look like a flame, it's a fastidious attempt at embodying the game's tongue-in-cheek focus. It's clearly of solid construction, even if our strum bar started squeaking after only a few hours of use - a problem my left-handed backwardness seems to create every year.
Still, if you're still a plastic guitar aficionado then Warriors of Rock is undeniably fun; it just severely lacks in ambition, and its ostentatious new coat of paint is little more than a sleight of hand designed to trick you into thinking you're in for a different ride this year. You're not. Neversoft has proved time and time again they can crank out an excellent rhythm game, but as a final bow to the series - the baton now being handed over to Vicarious Visions - it feels a little half-hearted.