Tuesday 15 September 2009


Is this the great battle of the plastic-instrument-game end times? In the red corner, Guitar Hero 5. In the blue corner, The Beatles: Rock Band. Released within two days of each other (in the UK, a couple of weeks in the US), which is the best? There’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

(There’s an idea… Note to EA and Activision: why let hip hop artists have all the fun? With all that effort spent creating a digitised Fab Four, plus Metallica, Aerosmith and assorted other Guitar Heroes, relive the glory years of Marvel vs Capcom with a Rock Band vs Guitar Hero beat ’em up! RINGO FLYING DRAGON PUNCH! SPINNING LARS JUMP KICK!)

Actually, other than the release dates, the two games aren’t really going head-to-head, there are two battles going on here: Guitar Hero 5 vs Rock Band 2, and The Beatles vs The Awesome Power of Hyperbole. Like the opening paragraph.

Starting with the more straightforward, Guitar Hero 5 is the second full-band Guitar Hero game after World Tour (counting Metallica and Greatest Hits as “expansions” rather than main releases), and with Rock Band eschewing full sequels in favour of downloadable content it goes up against last year’s Rock Band 2 (or, for European Wii owners, next year’s Rock Band 2, not that I’m going to keep harping on about that or anything). Guitar Hero 5 doesn’t do anything too radical, but generally spruces things up from World Tour: there’s a single loading screen to skip rather than having to furiously mash the green button 27 times to actually get to the game, the gig venue lists are clearer, the old favourite characters are back with unlockable outfits (despite “create a rocker” being almost as fully featured as the Champions Online character creator, the console interface is pretty clunky when working through hundreds of possible outfit options). The whole song list is open for quick play from the start, and it’s much easier to jump straight into playing, swap players and difficulties without having to backtrack through assorted menus, and, if you have the peripherals, you can have any combination of four instruments allowing for that four-drummer version of Ring of Fire you’ve always wanted to try.

As well as making things much more accessible, Guitar Hero 5 throws in something for the more achiever-centric in the form of Challenges. While playing in career mode each song has an additional challenge for either one of the instruments or the whole band, such as the guitarist whammying notes for a certain duration, the bassist up-strumming a certain number of notes, or the band maintaining a score multiplier. Challenges have Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels of success, offering a potential extra three stars over the main song performance, and they unlock extras as you go.

Song-wise it’s the most mixed bag yet, there should be something for almost everyone, but by the same token it’d be pretty unusual to find someone who loves everything. I’m finding it good so far, and enjoying being introduced to some interesting new stuff (the strength of a disc full of songs over DLC) as well as playing along to classics. There has been one sour note, though: “Bring the Noise 20XX” isn’t a patch on Public Enemy’s original or the version with Anthrax; Zakk Wylde’s riffing is fine in itself but doesn’t fit around the lyrics at all, most disappointing and puts a right crimp on my Chuck D impressions, but still. GH5 also emulates a welcome feature from Rock Band, the ability to import songs from previous games and DLC compatibility, albeit with a lower percentage of songs being transferable (only 35 songs from World Tour and 21 from Greatest Hits so far, possibly with more to come later). I haven’t been able to test this yet, though, as the European Wii music store hasn’t been available over the launch weekend. Annoyingly the only six songs of World Tour DLC that you can’t use are the Hendrix songs, the biggest chunk of my DLC library, but the Hendrix estate has always been strict on licensing conditions with those songs, and those songs only, always using the Hendrix avatar in World Tour (not present in GH5). Speaking of avatars… I’m sure you’ve heard the fun and games over Kurt Cobain being a playable character, which I can’t say bothers me nearly as much as some other people; John Lydon’s advertising butter, Iggy Pop is flogging insurance after all.

Overall, then, a solid development of the series, well worth picking up for anybody with a set of World Tour instruments unless you really can’t stand the bulk of the song list.

The Beatles: Rock Band is a slightly different kettle of fish. Or the same kettle, but with different fish in it. From the purely pressing-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music perspective it’s fine; technically I believe the only thing it really adds to the genre is three-part vocal harmonies, but that’s not really the point. The point is it’s The Beatles, in the Beatle-iest game ever made (admittedly there isn’t really much competition there). Where the Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica games had songs from other artists and were generally structured as games, with a loose story following some of the band’s major gigs but the songs themselves arranged by difficulty, The Beatles: Rock Band includes only Beatles songs, 45 of them (with more coming as DLC), arranged chronologically. I previously linked to a New York Times article that goes into the care taken over the production of the game, with clinking-teacup ambience added to fragments of studio chat for the in-game Abbey Road sessions; glorious dreamscapes kick in when playing the later songs, transporting the band out of the studio. It’s all very lovely.

There are slight quibbles, from both a Beatles and Rock Band perspective. From the former, it’s undoubtedly a sanitised version of history with no acrimonious break-up, the band always playing together, Ringo on the drums (even if McCartney played them on the song in question). From the latter, the sanctity of the material means you play the songs as they were, no drum fills, no whammy, and no audible effect when you kick in overdrive/”Beatlemania”. Neither seems a particularly major loss to me, though.

The attention to detail is superb, but it’s generally just a slightly more specific evolution of band-centric games rather than a revolution (number nine) in the genre; for a die-hard Metallica fan the opportunity to play the motion-capped band at Tushino Airfield in Guitar Hero: Metallica is probably as appealing as a die-hard Beatles fan getting the opportunity to play Shea Stadium. A more significant difference is that from the very beginning guitar games have been pitched at hard rock/metal fans, but The Beatles: Rock Band has a different profile and target market, potentially spreading the joy of plastic instruments (Matron) further than ever before. In newspapers and the music press, TB:RB is sneaking out of the “Games” ghetto into the wider “Arts” sections, with predictable results; there’s the usual barrage, occasionally in the reviews themselves, always in online comment sections, of “learn a real instrument” from people labouring under the illusion that players labour under the illusion they’re really in The Beatles. Newsflash, folks: the (vast overwhelming majority) of plastic instrument players no more believe they’re actually playing music than somebody playing a racing game with a steering wheel and pedals believes they’re a Formula 1 driver moving around a track. Enough of that before I get cross.

Veering too far the other way and declaring the game of massive cultural importance also seems wide of the mark; it’s possible TB:RB will introduce new players to gaming who’d never thought about it before, but just as World of Warcraft’s massive subscriber numbers don’t seem to have translated into a a similar upsurge in interest in other MMOGs, and Wii Sports drove sales of the console itself but not so much interest in other Wii games, I’m not sure it’ll have a more lasting effect. Last week’s games charts saw Guitar Hero 5 at number one followed by Colin McRae: Dirt 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylym, with The Beatles: Rock Band in at number four; the hefty cost of a console plus instruments might well be putting a dampener on totally new gamers rushing to pick it up, or it may just be a slow burner.

For myself, at the risk of being branded a Partridge-esque Beatles phillistine (“I’d have to say my favourite Beatles album is… The Best of The Beatles”) my collection doesn’t stretch much past old taped copies of the Red and Blue compilations, which in a way is what the game represents too, so I’ve been really enjoying it. I’ll have to find some non-gaming Beatles fans to see their reaction to it sometime.

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