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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Player's Club: A Thorough Examination of the Music Games of 2009 (Part One of Many)


Year-end top ten lists are a waste of time, especially with video games. Games aren’t about the past; they’re harbingers of the future, primarily a future in which we will hopefully never have to physically interact with another human being. The various music games and add-ons of 2009 deserve a closer look, though, as there are too many gators in that creek to navigate without a knowledgeable guide. And I certainly do know some stuff. I play games. I play music. I’m not just a qualified customer, I’m a damn double-threat. Hell, I write about both games and music, too. I once DJ’ed a karaoke party at work. That’s like three more threats right there. You are now at severe risk of being pelted with my highly informed opinions.

Here’s a quick refresher on how Guitar Hero and Rock Band operate. It’s just like Call of Duty, only instead of mashing buttons on a controller to kill digital foreigners, you’re mashing buttons on fake guitars and drums to play digitized Foreigner. There’s screaming in both, but it’s called singing in one and bloodcurdling death howls in the other. These games are to music-making what Fox News is to journalism, but at least they’re ridiculously fun, especially if you and your friends take your drinking seriously.

First up: Guitar Hero: Metallica and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits.

metallica screenshot

Guitar Hero: Metallica was the first major music game of 2009, and also the first full-band game to primarily focus on a single artist. I say “primarily” because, following a precedent set by 2007’s guitar-only Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, almost half of GH: Metallica’s setlist comes from other bands. This variety is the only reason I picked up the game, as I’ve staunchly opposed Metallica since the days when Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch: Make My Video was the standard-bearer for the music video game genre. A few early Metallica songs are worth listening to, but they aren’t fun to play in a game like this because they’re too damn hard. No matter what instrument you choose, “Master of Puppets” is as exhausting as a Final Fantasy cut-scene. It replicates the difficulty of Mega Man 9 with the added benefit of causing genuine physical discomfort. You can turn to post-…And Justice For All Metallica for a slightly easier experience, but then you’d have to listen to post-…And Justice For All Metallica.

That load is lightened by almost two dozen songs from other artists that either inspired or were inspired by Metallica. There are a few true gems here, including a fantastic but obscure cut from the Michael Schenker Group called “Armed and Ready”. “Armed and Ready”, a fast-paced rocker from the former UFO and Scorpions guitarist, is an excellent Guitar Hero track: it’s challenging but not overwhelming on both the guitar and drums; it’s catchy enough to stay fresh after repeated play-throughs; and it’s a perfect example of music games using their popularity to spotlight forgotten artists and songs.

What’s most important, though, is that Guitar Hero: Metallica features one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s two best songs. If “Tuesday’s Gone” wasn’t on here I never would’ve grabbed it off of Target’s red tag clearance shelf. Fifteen bucks might sound steep to fake-play a song I can sort of jam on a real guitar, but in this case it’s entirely justified.

Unsurprisingly, the actual value of Guitar Hero: Metallica comes down to how much you like Metallica. If you love the band, you’ll probably enjoy the game. If, like me, you’re indifferent-to-dismissive, it’s not the wisest choice. Guitar Hero: Metallica is lacking in features common to Rock Band, with limited downloadable content and no ability to import or export songs between games. And, as always, you’ll have to contend with Guitar Hero’s unfortunate art design, where every character model looks like a Guitar Center employee. I love playing “Tuesday’s Gone”, but I’d love playing it more in Rock Band.

Less than three months later Activision released Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, a collection of full-band versions of songs from previous guitar-only Hero games. In addition to letting you sing and play drums, the tracks on Smash Hits also come straight from the original master recordings, instead of the hamfisted covers found in the original Guitar Hero games. It’s a solid idea, but Smash Hits feels tossed-off in almost every way. The art design remains awful, the cluttered interface is still playing catch-up with Rock Band, and less than half the setlist can be exported into other Guitar Hero games. It’s a potentially a bargain as a track pack, considering songs cost $2 a piece as downloadable content. Still, there are only 48 songs on Smash Hits, barely half what Guitar Hero World Tour, Guitar Hero 5, and Rock Band 2 offer, and yet it launched as a full-price game. It’s also the least diverse setlist of any of the non-band-specific music games, drawing almost exclusively from metal, alternative, and ‘70’s classic rock. You can now easily find copies for $20 or less if you’re looking to expand your pool of Guitar Hero songs, but that lack of a comprehensive export feature and subsequent disc-changing can stall out a Guitar Hero party. These songs really should’ve been released as DLC, even though it would’ve cost the diehard Guitar Hero completist more to buy them all individually. That way you could only buy the songs you wanted, and queue them up alongside the dozens of songs available in World Tour or Guitar Hero 5.

Releasing two Hero games in just a few months might sound like overkill, but Activision won't be content until that horse is just a sticky wet spot on the ground. There's still Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, Band Hero, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen to contend with.

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