For a long time I resisted playing the original Guitar Hero. I had read the rave reviews. I had heard the buzz from friends. But I dismissed it out of hand, figuring that it was somehow beneath me. Being an accomplished guitarist, why would I want to pay 80 dollars to play songs on a fake guitar that I can already play in real life? So when Guitar Hero II came out, I hardly gave it a thought. But after a considerable amount of urging from my older brother, I finally decided to give it a shot. What have I learned? 1) I should listen to my brother more often; 2) Guitar Hero II is an absolute blast, perhaps even more so for those who can play the guitar; and 3) This is the best and most broadly appealing multiplayer videogame I have ever owned, a fact amply demonstrated by the parade of new visitors I have had.
The game works as follows. Players wield a two-thirds-size guitar controller sporting five colored buttons on the neck, a strum bar, and a whammy bar. Players choose a song (e.g., Heart's Crazy on You) at one of four difficulty levels, watch notes scroll down the screen and play them when they reach the bottom by pressing the corresponding button and hitting the strum bar. Successfully hitting sequences of star-shaped notes fills a "star power" meter, which when activated—done by raising the guitar vertically in true rock star fashion—temporarily doubles point values while drawing thunderous applause from the crowd. Rounding out the ensemble is a whammy bar that lets players freely bend the pitch on long notes and chords, whether for individual artistic flair or to gain "star power" when used on star-shaped notes.
The net effect of Guitar Hero II's gameplay combined with its unique controller is the utterly kick-butt feeling of performing live rock music in front of a crowd of screaming fans. During my first gaming session, which lasted five hours, I was jumping around and gesticulating like a deranged rock star in no time, and I would have played even longer if my arm muscles hadn't cramped up. The control scheme comes together beautifully to create a feeling of pure exhilaration that is unlike anything I have experienced in a game save for the original Guitar Hero.
The single-player mode is organized around a musical tour through eight cities, with five songs per city. The fifth song in each set is revealed only after giving in to the audience's cry for an encore. With some of the best songs being saved for the end of each set, the encore setup pays off incredibly well. More than once I found myself beating my fists on the ground and loudly exclaiming my gleeful disbelief upon getting to play a particularly awesome and unexpected song for an encore. The single-player mode works its magic best if the player hasn't seen the full song list beforehand, so I would recommend that declared rock ‘n roll fans keep themselves in the dark initially.
The 40 songs that comprise the main game cover a range of classic and modern rock music, from Van Halen to Guns ‘n Roses to Rage Against the Machine. In addition, there are 17 bonus tracks from a variety of lesser-known bands, some of which are surprisingly fun and interesting. The music in Guitar Hero II is a bit heavier and more difficult than the original overall, but the increased complexity is partly offset by a much more forgiving system for hammer-ons and pull-offs that makes it much easier to execute fast passages.
Where Guitar Hero II really shines is in its three multiplayer modes (face-off, pro face-off, and cooperative) and, having recently played through Guitar Hero, this is easily the biggest area of improvement over the original. In face-off mode, players trade note sequences and occasionally play in unison. Unlike the original, however, Guitar Hero II actually lets players pick their own difficultly level independently of one another, making it much more fun for people at different skill levels to play together. Pro-face off mode lets players compete note for note on the same difficulty, at last providing a level playing field on which to settle disputes with friends over who is better on a given song. But my favorite by far is the new cooperative mode in which each song is split into two parts—guitar/bass or guitar/rhythm. Contrary to my expectations, the bass and rhythm parts were often just as satisfying to play in their own right as the main guitar part, so players shouldn't worry too much about not getting to "take lead."
By far the biggest weakness, however, is the static song list. I personally loved the music, but even the best songs get old after a while. Given the game's high cost, it would be nice if there were some way to customize the music more to one's own taste or to purchase songs à la carte for a minimal extra cost. The forthcoming Xbox 360 version will have downloadable content, presumably in the form of additional songs. Ideally, Harmonix will give the Guitar Hero treatment to a wide variety of songs and make them available for individual purchase and download. Of course, this is not feasible for the hard drive-lacking PS2, but it would be a fantastic direction for the series to take.
Guitar Hero II is one of those rare games that can engage players who would not normally be disposed towards playing videogames. I recently competed in a Guitar Hero tournament—which I won, incidentally—at a local bar and was amazed by how many females and non-gamer-looking types showed up to compete. Any game that can bring such a diversity of people together is doing something right. How long the fun lasts will partly depend on how players handle hearing the same songs over and over again, and on keeping friends and family involved in the multiplayer. For me, the ultimate success of Guitar Hero II's formula lies in the pick-up-and-play accessibility of its controller, the strong selection of catchy songs, and the game's uncanny ability to make players feel like they're actually rocking out on stage.