Not that long ago, we wrote an article that stirred a debate around gaming franchises that need to retire.
Several local game distributors were less than impressed. Activision, in particular, really didn't appreciate our comment that "...the quiet release of Guitar Hero: Van Halen this year is evidence that the bottom of the barrel has indeed been scraped, and that gamers have probably had enough of music peripheral games for at least another decade."
There's a solid reason why we wrote that article, and in many ways our opinion hasn't changed. The Guitar Hero franchise has been rudderless since Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Credit where it's due; developers Neversoft are aware of the rather stale nature of the genre, and have clearly designed their latest iteration - Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock - to pick up where Legends of Rock left off. It's not just the similarity in the title of the game that gives it away either.
In order to understand the motivation behind the redesign of the franchise, it's necessary to understand what made the original Guitar Hero titles so addictive in the first place. Although a large part of the appeal was down to the novelty value - something Neversoft will naturally struggle to replicate - the music selection and progression curve can't be understated. The early games required you to pass various songs in order to unlock new songs. You may not have liked the songs (or indeed have ever heard of them before) but by treating the progression as a game in itself, even most of the terrible songs became tolerable, then even enjoyable.
Unfortunately, when presented with a near-full setlist out of the box in both Guitar Hero: World Tour and Guitar Hero 5, it's pretty easy to simply avoid the songs you don't like, which ultimately changes the feel of the game. The franchise went from a complex, fast-moving challenge to a plastic party trick, and in doing so left behind the plot.
Warriors of Rock is a bridge between the Guitar Hero of old, and the inherent desire by game developers to fix problems that don't really exist. Yes, the rather substantial 90-track setlist is largely available in quickplay mode, and unlike the early titles you'll be able to sing and use the drums, if that's your thing. But the focus has been to move the guitar into the forefront again by injecting a series of challenges and a substantial helping of rock, so it's really here that the game differentiates itself from the happy clappy pop rot found in the likes of Band Hero.
The premise is convoluted and more than a little silly - you'll need to recruit eight Warriors of Rock for a final boss battle against an underworld demon hell bent on destroying... rock. Or something. It really doesn't matter. Gene Simmons narrates as you play a variety of sets to recruit your warriors, each of whom have different powers that can be used to boost the number of stars you gain for successfully passing a track. You can utilise a shield that ignores a missed note and preserves your streak. Or perhaps choose a warrior that increases your maximum note multiplier, or provides a boost to star power for every ten-note streak. That sort of thing.
Each warrior must be successfully recruited by gaining the required number of stars, which involves playing anywhere from four to eight tracks. After four warriors have been recruited, you'll play a set list comprised of Rush songs, and if you're anything like me you'll want to avoid carelessly wondering aloud "who the hell is Rush anyway?" With the stinging guffaws from Gameplanet's deputy editor still ringing in my ears, the situation was only made more humiliating after a quick Wikipedia search seems to indicate they've sold over 25 million records.
After this interlude, four more warriors must be recruited, and once all eight warriors are on board, you'll progress to a final boss battle featuring Megadeth tracks and a smattering of Occupation Overuse Syndrome. It's fair to point out at this stage that the game is hard. Not Guitar Hero III "I've got blisters on my fingers" hard, of course, but certainly much more difficult than Guitar Hero 5 or World Tour.
The game engine appears to have been lifted from Guitar Hero 5, so it's unlikely you'll spot any real difference in the note structure or the hammer-on, pull-off timing. Again, Neversoft have used an intermediate setting between the ridiculously accurate timing required in World Tour and the completely open Hammer On and Pull Off (HO/PO) timing from Guitar Hero III, so we can assume this will be the default for all such future releases.
The combined powers of the warriors come together in the final battle. There are so many bonuses available that there's really no reason why you can't pretty much play the battle songs with star power running the entire time. The goal is not to simply pass the song, but to gain enough stars to win the game - failure is always an option, but getting booed off the stage repeatedly is clearly not the experience Neversoft intend for the player.
Once you've finished the Quest and unlocked a bunch of game assets that serve a purely aesthetic role, you can jump online and battle it out with other gamers, or participate locally with three other players. Again, no difference here from Guitar Hero 5, although the set list is undeniably rock focused.
With the back-to-rock attitude comes the new guitar controller. Gone are the neck tap notes that nobody used anyway; the entire guitar has been redesigned and features detachable "blades" that allow further customization. The main body of the guitar retains the non-slip strum bar from Guitar Hero 5, and appears to be built with the same attention to quality that was demonstratively lacking from the early hardware.
There's really much more on offer in this release than any other Guitar Hero title before it. Along with Facebook integration, there's a clear shift towards the social side of gaming, with the Quickplay+ mode allowing access to tracks online and offering hours of entertainment for those willing to invest the time.
Neversoft have made a solid effort to reinvigorate a fading franchise here, and with the now annual release schedule it's really a case of "less is more". For Guitar Hero fanatics, Warriors of Rock will be well received, although it may struggle to restore interest for those who stashed their guitars away after World Tour.