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Sean Pettibone


Guitar Hero II 
(Red Octane for Xbox 360)

Red Octane and Activision's smash hit music title Guitar Hero II arrives on the Xbox 360 in fine form with the same addictive gameplay you've come to expect plus some additional enhancements. The game allows you to shred through a variety of hard rock and heavy metal tracks using the included guitar style controller, plus adds additional tracks and the ability to download additional songs via Xbox Live for a small price. GHII includes everything that made the original so appealing such as the career mode, solo modes and more. Look inside as we discover how much harder this new edition rocks.

The long-awaited Xbox 360 edition of Guitar Hero II builds on the success of the earlier editions released last year and adds several new features to create an enhanced experience. Some of the changes are minor, such as slightly improved graphics, while others are more significant. This edition features a cooler X-Plorer controller, done in all-white of course, that feels heavier and slightly more responsive than the controller used in the earlier Guitar Hero games. Once you get past the main menus, which feature a fairly similar set of modes and options, you'll find some additional music tracks, which gives veterans some new songs to master. However, the Xbox 360's biggest addition this time is the ability to download additional tracks via Xbox Live, which opens the game up substantially and should extend its replay value. Aside from this, Guitar Hero II on the Xbox 360 offers what should be a fairly similar experience to its PS2 counterpart. Guitar Hero II's accessible gameplay is deceptively straightforward and easy to understand. The basic premise is that you are a guitar player and your mission is to follow the notes as they appear on the screen and use the fret buttons on the controller to hit in time to when they hit your time bar. It's somewhat tricky at first but becomes easier once you get the timing down. The trick is to hold down the strum bar before the notes hit, which requires some dexterity. Depending on which difficulty setting you use, they come down at different speeds in time to the song, making it important to keep the beat and feel of each track. When playing in the easier levels, this is relatively easy to perform. Once you get to the harder levels, you'll need better timing and coordination, since notes come at you faster. The patterns also become more complex since you need to strike chords with multiple buttons. These are harder to perform since need to be pressed at the same time to create these notes, making things more complicated. Some notes need to be pushed when they hit your status bar, while others need to be held down to create a longer note to create longer notes. As you get the feel of each song and learn its rhythms, you can use the whammy bar to wail and make the notes sing which increases your score and ratings.

As you shred through each song, the crowd will rank your playing ability. If you consistently hit notes and chain combos, your rock meter will rise. When you miss notes, your ranking will fall. If you miss too many notes, the meter will start flashing red and if you miss too many notes, the song will end prematurely. In addition, the score will rise if you hit notes in succession, and help you to move forward in the competitive modes. Combining multiple notes also increases your score multiplier, which goes through the roof the better your performance is. Consistently hitting the notes will rock the crowd, and cause your both your score and ratings to rise. Adding to these cues, you'll also hear the cheers and boos of the crowds as you play, which helps to set the mood for each performance. If you really start doing well, you're special Star Power Meter will rise. When the Star Power meter is filled up, you can implement this special mode for a short time, and cause your guitarist to perform some super moves that will really rock the crowd. This can help to increase your score even more and helps you to achieve super-human score much faster. Learning how and when to implement these special moves is a key element in beating the songs and unlocking additional tracks later on.

Guitar Hero II includes several modes of play to help anyone go from groupie to legend without much effort. For the uninitiated, a practice training mode is included which helps you learn the basics. Once you've completed the tutorial, you can play the songs individually in the game setting, which is much more challenging and leaves you less room for mistakes. The game has several levels of difficulty and these play a large role in the complexity and challenge you'll face. Guitar Hero II starts off simply enough, but its harder levels throw a lot at you at much faster speeds, requiring a great deal of skill. The solo modes are a lot of fun, but the game also lets you battle it out with another player in multiplayer mode. This requires a second controller, which can become expensive, but it probably worth it if you want to have friends over. It is tempting to try out the more advanced songs first, novice players will probably find themselves quickly overwhelmed by them. Playing the solo mode is fun in short bursts, but most players will probably get bored of the same half-dozen songs after awhile. In order to unlock more tunes, you need to go into the game's Career mode. Here, you can start and name your band, select your avatar character, including both male and female with a variety of genre icons ranging from a punk to a classic rocker. You can also select a signature guitar for you character including a flashy v-neck or go classic with the legendary Gibson Les Paul. As you start your career, the band then hits the stage at a number of smaller venues such as high school battles of the bands, small bars and other events. These early levels build up your reputation as you master and beat songs while earning points and street cred. This helps your band earn money which you can use in the game's store to purchase additional items such as new moves, extra guitars and even more songs. As you go higher up the food chain, you'll find that the crowds become much more demanding and you'll need to play at a higher and more consistent level to progress.

Guitar Hero II remains accessible and enjoyable throughout and the game lets you build up your skills at your own pace, allowing you to have fun right out of the box without feeling overwhelmed. From a gameplay standpoint, the game is relatively simple and follows most of the conventions of music games. However, the sheer coolness of the rock genre and the gameplay is only enhanced by the game's special controller. This serves to make the experience even more immersive and exciting than you'd expect it to be. On the Xbox 360, Guitar Hero II includes a flashy, all-white V-neck axe called the X-Plorer, which feels comfortable and responsive in you hands. The controller includes all the standard buttons that you'd find on a regular Xbox controller, including the navigation X button, which is a cool addition. It's fairly simple to use and feels like a standard guitar in form and function. Instead of strumming strings as you would on a real guitar, you instead need to push the strum button up or down to hit notes. The fret buttons are nicely spaced apart, and work with the strum allowing you a comfortable fit. A whammy bar completes the package, and makes you feel like you're playing a real guitar. It's a really cool controller, and it feels like a real guitar, to the point of including straps to hang it on your shoulder. Using the Xplorer controller is fairly easy and makes Guitar Hero II immediately accessible. It should be fun even for non-musicians who might have never played an instrument before. The game itself is presented competently with an easy to understand interface that shows the notes on the bottom of the screen, while an animated movie shows your band rocking out above. It's fairly straightforward in the graphics department, but does its job effectively. Some of the animations are fun to watch and the game has a good sense of humor throughout that keeps things light-hearted.

Guitar Hero II's licensed hard-rock and heavy metal soundtrack featured an appealing mix of tracks from classic acts and more recent bands on the PS2, the new Xbox edition includes several new tracks plus the ability to purchase additional songs on Xbox Live, which should extend its replay value even further. The basic package includes more than 50 tracks in all. Each track's vocals are easy to hear under your guitars so you don't have to worry about them being submerged underneath your fretwork. As you play through the game, you can also go back and retry other tracks you've already beaten at other difficulty levels, which adds to the challenge. GH II's visuals have undergone a slight upgrade for the Xbox 360, and its aesthetics look good in either standard or high definition. Despite these changes, the game's remains just as appealing on Xbox 360 as it did a few months ago. Guitar Hero II's accessible structure is easy to understand and offers multiple paths and options with plenty to unlock. This is a solid port of the already successful music game that Harmonix and Red Octane should be proud of. Guitar Hero II comes with axes blazing on Xbox 360, it's definitely a great casual/party game that offers an exciting and accessible challenge.

- Michael Palisano


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