Guitar Hero 6: Too Much, Too Late?

There are some great ideas in the latest Guitar Hero game, Warriors of Rock. It’s a shame they weren’t introduced a few years ago, because they might have helped stem the franchise’s current slide towards irrelevance. As it stands, this might be the best entry in the series in a few years, but one that sadly will get overshadowed the second Rock Band 3 arrives.

The big new feature in GH6 (and yes, I’m going to keep calling it that) is its Quest mode. There’s a goofy god-of-rock story that sounds like the plot for a Tenacious D movie, but it’s how the game fiddles with the gameplay that matters. Instead of just trying to beat each song, the game throws you one of several powerups (extra Star Power, larger multipliers, etc), and asks you to rack up as many stars as you can — there isn’t even a traditional score. Once you’ve collected enough stars, you unlock the next tier and a new powerup.

What makes this so interesting is how it changes the game for players of all skill levels. If you usually play on Normal or Hard, you can suddenly bump up the difficulty and the powerups will help pick up the slack. The final battle, which features three tough Megadeth songs, lets you combine four powerups at once. And after you’ve won, you get to go back with all eight powerups active to try and dominate the songs for 40(!) stars per song.  If you’re the kind of person who always felt Expert was out of your reach, this pseudo-godmode makes it more accessible without dumbing down the traditional quickplay.

I was initially underwhelmed with the game’s set list when I first saw it, but a lot of the songs I wasn’t familiar with (mostly industrial stuff) have great note charts and are a blast to play. I’ve been waiting for years to play “Modern Day Cowboy,” I could play Anthrax’s “Indians” all day, and “Money for Nothing” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are also long-overdue pleasures to rhythm games.

The highlight for me, however, is the inclusion of Rush’s “2112.” I realize Rush isn’t everyone’s bag, but if you grew up a fan of the Canadian trio, 2112 might be worth the cost of the game on its own. In Quest mode, it’s split up into seven parts, with narration by the band in between songs fleshing out the story, and the guitar charts are some of most enjoyable in the game. (I have not attempted Mr. Peart’s drum parts yet, nor do I expect to anytime soon.)

After lots of little tweaks over the last few years, the GH engine finally feels like it’s settled down. The game has constantly added visual cues, like a note streak counter or a star meter, and now there’s a small bar that shows you how far into the song you are — all features I wish Rock Band would adopt. The note windows also remain more forgiving — you don’t need to hit notes with as much precision here as in Rock Band, which makes it easier for you to hit the loopiest solos, which I think goes a bit underappreciated at times.

While it’s technically not part of the actual game, the new guitar that ships with GH6 may in fact be the best to date, maybe even better than the GH3 Les Paul, which has been my plastic axe of choice for the past three years. It’s got a goofy shape, but it plays almost identical to the Les Paul, missing the touch strip of recent GH controllers. So if you weren’t a fan of the GH4 or 5 guitars and your old Les Paul is on its last legs, you now have a very excellent option to turn to.

I could spend a lot more time talking about vocals, drums, multiplayer, new features like the GH Feed or the doomed-to-obscurity GH Studio, but the sad reality is that, thanks to the limited song library, it’s all too easily disposable. You can actually import a fair amount of songs from recent Guitar Hero games (including most of GH Metallica), but many of the top-tier songs of previous games didn’t get re-licensed, and the franchise’s DLC offerings have been laughable compared to Rock Band‘s. So after a week or two of playing through the setlist a few times, it’s hard to get excited about playing any further.

I’m not really sure how to fix the Guitar Hero series from here. Rock Band has gone so far ahead with its music library that you’ll need to reinvent the genre somehow if you want to stay competitive. As it stands, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is a very good game on its own, but there’s just not enough here to keep you from moving on after a single playthrough. B+