The ControlsGuitarists will immediately feel comfortable with the game controller for Guitar Hero II. The unit is shaped like an electric guitar, and includes a strap to allow you to wear the unit in the manner of a traditional guitar. It feels remarkably similar to a real guitar in your hands. Replacing actual strings on the neck of the "guitar" are five color-coded buttons, found approximately in the position of frets one through five. In the mid-body of the controller, where you'd traditionally pick/strum a guitar, is a switch that can be pushed both downwards and upwards (in a motion similar to that of down-picking and up-picking). The controller also features a whammy-bar, which, although not integral to game-play, allows you to give each guitar track your individual touch.
GameplayAfter you've chosen the look of your guitarist, and the guitar your "hero" will play (all Gibson guitars, including a flying V, Les Paul, SG, and others), you can get down to playing a song. Your band takes the stage; the drummer counts off the first song; the notes start flying at you. Your goal is to press the correct colored buttons on your controller, while simultaneously "picking" them with your right hand, as they are displayed on the screen. Hit the notes correctly as they fly past, and you'll hear your guitarist nail the guitar part. Miss a note, and you'll flub a few bars. If you keep hitting all the right notes, you'll work the crowd into a frenzy, and you'll rack up huge scores. If your hero keeps blowing his guitar part, however, he'll end up getting booed off the stage. If you successfully complete four of the five songs in the first set-list, you'll move on up to bigger venues, bigger crowds, and more advanced songs.
Testing Guitar Hero IIWhen my copy of Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360 arrived by mail, I immediately called a few non-musician friends over for a couple hours of gameplay. I wanted to test a theory I'd developed in reading the game's press materials. Ten minutes into playing, I'd already confirmed my suspicion - that guitarists have a distinct advantage in playing Guitar Hero II over non-guitarists. While my friends initially struggled to make it through the opening setlist at a medium difficulty level, I managed consistent four-and-five star performances, despite limited video game experience.
The advantage guitarists have probably owes little to the feel of the guitar controller itself - although guitarists will feel immediately more comfortable with it in their hands, everyone reported that they found it easy to use. The real benefit of being a guitarist involves having a much more advanced sense of rhythm. The colored notes flying by are synched with the rhythm of the song, and often involve slightly tricky rhythmic patterns that non-musicians may have trouble with. Several of the songs, such as Rush's "YYZ", use a variety of changing time signatures that, although challenging, musicians will find much easier to conquer.
Will Playing Guitar Hero II Make Me a Better Guitarist?This is the important question - can you justify the purchase of a $90 video game (including controller) with the guise of improving your skills as a guitarist? If you're expecting Guitar Hero II to improve your technical guitar skills, you'll be disappointed. Although using the controller does an admirable job of replicating the act of playing guitar for non-guitarists, the physical movements involved with playing Guitar Hero II are very different than those used for playing real guitar.
Where some novice guitar players may benefit from Guitar Hero II is through a required attention to rhythmic detail. Most songs involve quirky rhythmic figures that, in order to successfully complete, need to be learned. In many cases, younger guitarists have trouble internalizing some of the rhythmic aspects of playing guitar, and in these situations, Guitar Hero II may indeed help them grow as a musician.
Additionally, Guitar Hero II may help newer guitarists conquer the challenge of playing songs with multiple parts. As songs progress from verse, to bridge, to chorus, etc., the guitar parts often change dramatically. These different sections usually require some preparation to be able to move smoothly from part to part. Traditionally, newer guitarists have trouble playing songs that involve multiple transitions from part to part - they get too wrapped up with what they're playing now, and can't think about what's going to happen in four bars. Guitar Hero II may help these guitarists learn to look ahead, and anticipate changes in the music.
The benefits to guitarists aside, hard rock fans will find a whole lot to love about Guitar Hero II - it's air guitar brought to a whole new level.