The days of Rock Band games being clearly superior to Guitar Hero games are finally over. When Harmonix went to EA and MTV to make Rock Band, Neversoft tried not once, but twice to hold onto the "old" formula of guitar-only play, in both Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock (which came out before Rock Band, to be fair) and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Neither game was as good as Rock Band, let alone the last Harmonix GH, Guitar Hero 2. When Neversoft made their full-band game, Guitar Hero: World Tour (aka GH4), which came out around the same time as Rock Band 2, it seemed like they didn't bother looking for what didn't work in the first Rock Band. They kinda just threw something together, and it was a train wreck. Guitar Hero: Metallica, the second full-band game from Neversoft, had better music, if you like Metallica and '80s metal in general. Worse if you didn't, but the gameplay was about the same. Bad. Now Neversoft is stepping up the game with Guitar Hero 5, but have Neversoft learned from World Tour/4 as well as Rock Band 1 and 2? In short, oh yes. In detail, read on.
It's still Guitar Hero. Sign-in issues that shouldn't exist, do, and will annoy you to no end. Your "band" will develop stupid tricks for doing this stuff "just right". For example, it pays to have the same person sign in first (to be the "leader") every time. Stupidly stupid stuff happens when you don't, but some cool things happen when you do. More on that later. The menus seem bloated with too many entries. However, to its credit, the game goes into a "demo" play when you're at the menu, some song will play, and you can press a button (Y or yellow on the Xbox 360) and you jump right in. If you're on a guitar, you choose guitar or bass, lefty or standard, difficulty, and you're playing. Instantly. Anyone can press Y to join in. Just like that. This is the party mode you've probably heard about. It is quicker than quick play. No loading, no nothing. (No failing, either.)
The Quickplay playlist is far more advanced than Rock Band 1 or Guitar Hero World Tour by a long shot. Like Rock Band 2, difficulty is given, on a scale of ten. (RB1 had a scale of 9, RB2 has a scale of 7, and World Tour had no difficulty notation.) Like other games, a sample of the song plays as you hover over each song. Album covers are not shown, as in Rock Band 2, but the length of the song is given. You can sort by "intensity" for each instrument (intensity is difficulty), total running time, year the song came out, name of the song, name of the artist/band, and maybe a couple others. You can make a playlist of as many songs as you want, it would seem. (RB1 had no playlist, RB2's playlist is seemingly unlimited, but WT's was limited to 6 songs.)
If you're the band leader, you can load and save playlists, too. But you can only load playlists saved when you were the band leader. If someone else was, everyone has to exit out, and that person must sign in first to become the leader, and then load the playlist. You can name the playlists, but Neversoft continues to not support the chat pad; you must enter text arcade-style.
The first thing you may notice is that Guitar Hero 5 lets you play as your Xbox 360 Avatar. Doing this, in fact, unlocks an achievement. In the first hour, too, don't be surprised if you get half a dozen achievements, if you're any good at all. Neversoft's plan thus far seems to be to lure Rock Band loyalists in with achievements and the promise of more to come. I think I have 135-185 Gamerscore with it already?
Anyway, a lot of the "band play" mistakes that World Tour made are gone. Star Power is no longer confusing. Like GH:A and previous, and both Rock Band games, each band member now has their own Star Power. (World Tour tried to "pool" Star Power, and it was just confusing.) Everyone also has their own crowd meter, as opposed to Rock Band's "shared" crowd meter on the left. The score now shows a sort of "band streak" I don't fully understand. GH5 introduces a new feature called "Band Moments", which is like the Unison Bonus in RB2. During a Band Moment, everyone's notes burn in flames for a few seconds. Hit each one and you get a big band multiplier. The band multiplier goes up to 11, between Star Power and Band Moment, if everyone's on the ball.
As such, scores tend to be a lot higher than in Rock Band 2. Expect a million plus points for a decent performance. For a long song with a great performance, don't be surprised if you get a few million. Also, for the first time, you can see each musician's individual score, in addition to the percentage and note/phrase streak. Score-wise, vocalists still get the short end of the stick. An expert guitarist scoring in the low 90s percentage-wise is going to get many times more points than an expert vocalist scoring in the high 90s and getting FCs. Jen complained about the vocals, but not as much as she did with World Tour. Even RB2 has sloppy vocal recognition, in parts, so vocals is bound to be a mixed bag anyway.
The soundtrack is pretty damn good. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana is finally playable. John Mellencamp is finally in a rhythm game, for better or worse, with "Hurts So Good". All kinds of rock, from the 60s to today, is represented in this game.
If you have downloaded songs for World Tour - we do, but only 15 - they will play in GH5, but not right out of the box. You must download a 300MB patch (I have no idea why it's so big, but it IS FREE) which allows downloaded songs for WT not by Jimi Hendrix to work. (Maybe it just re-downloads your DLC in one patch, I don't know.) For $3.50 (280 Microsoft Points) you can export SOME but NOT ALL of your World Tour songs, specifically 35 of them, plus an additional 21 from Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (no, the DragonForce song is NOT one of them, dropping the ball becomes a regular thing at Activision). Still, it sounds like you can get a lot of songs in Guitar Hero 5. And, songs exported from World Tour and Smash Hits will also work as DLC in the upcoming, family-friendly Band Hero Neversoft is putting out later this year (to compete with Harmonix's kiddie offering, LEGO Rock Band).
All in all, Guitar Hero 5 is a good game that, for once, allows Guitar Hero and Rock Band to compete directly. Both Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have good features I miss in the other, and they both have a lot of room for improvement. Rock Band will probably always have the larger library, even if Neversoft does figure out how to get the soundtracks of the previous games into the latest one. But Guitar Hero will probably always have the better exclusives. When playing the same song, on the same difficulty, on the same instrument, the track still differs from Rock Band to Guitar Hero, so even the same song is a different playing experience from one to the other. So it is definitely worth buying. And as an added bonus, they're going to give you Guitar Hero: Van Halen when it comes out in December? That's a great deal. And this is coming from a Rock Band loyalist.