Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Mercy Side: The Rise and Fall of Guitar Hero (Part 2)

If you missed the first half of the article, click here to read it!

Hello and welcome to the second part of my three part homage to Guitar Hero. Yesterday I gave you The Rise of Guitar Hero, which you can view here. Today, I’m going to talk about The Fall of Guitar Hero. Enjoy.

While things were going quite well for Activision and Neversoft, Harmonix and MTV Games were looking into making a new series of music games. This would also feature a guitar controller like Guitar Hero, but the guitar would have ten frets rather than five; the first five being in exactly the same place as the Guitar Hero controller but the other five would be on the base end of the neck of the guitar. They also developed drum kits, complete with a bass pedal and four symbols. Finally, they added a microphone for singing, similar to the SingStar series. All of these combined created a four player game, where someone could play guitar, another bass, someone on the drums, and someone singing, all at the same time. Harmonix called this game Rock Band, and it was officially a direct rival to the Guitar Hero series. This game series was more emphatic on online play, and more importantly, downloadable content, something the Guitar Hero struggled to do successfully at the present time.

Neversoft and Activision responded by initially going in a different direction, to creating another spinoff title. This title was Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, paying homage to one of the most famous rock bands of all time. There were many of Aerosmith’s most famous tracks on the game, as well as songs that inspired the band to create music in the first place, and also tracks that were inspired by Aerosmith. It was a wild project, but one that was ultimately successful with Aerosmith fans.

However with Rock Band on the rise and getting rave reviews, and with the game being very successful with all the available songs for download, Guitar Hero inevitably conceded they had to expand to compete. They too, starting using a drum kit set and a microphone to the game, also creating a good multiplayer experience. They released “Guitar Hero World Tour”, the fourth title in the main series, and had a then record 86 tracks in the game, and for the first time, all the songs were master recordings.
The complete World Tour package. Naturally a second guitar is needed for four player fun.
One of the criticisms that was given for Activision’s “Guitar Hero III” was that very little had changed to the gameplay since “Guitar Hero II”. Their response with “World Tour” was to have many new features. First was to have the four player experience as mentioned before, as well as change how the Career mode is played. The player can choose to play guitar, bass, vocals or drums, and multiple players can join in to create a full band. The player(s) choose their instruments; they choose an avatar and a band name. They then have a choice of ‘gigs’ to choose from, rather than the linear list of songs in the previous three games. Each gig has a different set list, and the idea is to complete the ‘gig’ and unlock the “Encore” song. After completing the “Encore” songs more gigs open up. This new method of choice made the choices a bit more personal rather than the previous games tell you what songs to play in what order. In the “Quickplay” mode, you can create your own gig playlist, rather than play songs individually. Choosing up to six songs in succession was definitely an improvement time wise to get the most out of the game. One of the main criticisms of “Guitar Hero III” as stated earlier was that the game was too difficult, the response was to add a new difficulty mode called “Beginner”, which featured the use of only one fret and this made the game simpler yet. There were more musicians added to this game than in “Guitar Hero III”, with Jimi Hendrix, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Ozzy Osbourne, Sting and a few more. There were also real venues added rather than the fictional ones of previous games, most notably the Ozzfest that was set in Germany.

The biggest additions to the were the “Create a Rocker” system, which allowed you to customise your own player. Another addition was the mode which allowed you to customise your guitar, which allowed you to change the colour and design of the skin and neck of the guitar; these additions further added to the individuality of the game. Another big addition was the ability to create your own songs note-for-note, on any of the instruments, and you can then put them online for other people to hear. The idea was for you to create your song, and it would be the “Expert” difficulty setting, and the game itself would create the simpler versions of the song.

Guitar Hero World Tour was released in October 28th 2008 on the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PS2, and was met with positive reviews, although it still didn’t reach the heights of the first two games in praise.  There was a big feeling overall that Rock Band pretty much did everything better than Guitar Hero in nearly every aspect. My main criticism of the game lies in the list of songs; it’s just a weak playlist. Considering there was a record amount of songs available, most of the songs just weren’t any where near as fun to play, and there are questions to why certain songs are on the game again, especially the foreign tracks. With all due respect to Los Lobos and Spain, but not everyone can sing “La Bamba”, despite it being a very simple Spanish language track. My favourite track to play from World Tour was “Love Me Two Times” by The Doors, as it felt reminiscent to playing some of the great songs on the original game, the beat and riffs are just fun to play and it really brought me back to a few years ago when the songs were chosen for their enjoyment rather than the name on the game. I’d give the game **** stars.
Screenshot from Guitar Hero World Tour, emphasising the four players playing together.
As the Guitar Hero games had now officially hit the seventh generation consoles, it was only a matter of time before they tried to do games for the DS, and they released not one, but two games on the DS in 2008. Calling this spinoff series the “On Tour” series, the idea was for a grip to be attached to the back of the DS, which overlapped the handheld and the main compartment would plug into the GameBoy Advance Slot of the DS. Out of the GBA slot was the compartment, which had four frets, and you had a guitar pick that was used to strum on the screen of the DS. I’m not going to do into too much detail on the On Tour series but it was met with a decent reception, and the Guitar Grip was praised for its innovative design. The song lists however were quite small and that was were the main criticisms were.

If you didn’t count, that was four Guitar Hero games that were released in the year 2008. There was “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith”, “Guitar Hero On Tour”, then “Guitar Hero World Tour” and finally “Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades”. Neversoft and Activision went a bit mad, releasing game after game after game, and the series wasn’t selling as well as it used to.

They didn’t stop however. If you thought four games was bad, they went on to release SEVEN in 2009. You could argue that it was a knee jerk move, as the game series wasn’t selling as well as before. After paying homage to Aerosmith, they then followed that up with a great homage to Metallica. This was a great game, no doubt, and was very well received, but the continuing onslaught of Guitar Hero games means the charm of the game was pretty much non-existent. I have this game and if you like Metallica, get it, it’s a pretty damn good homage to arguably the most iconic metal band in the history of music.
The Guitar Hero games timeline, look at 2009, where SEVEN games we released.
The onslaught continued with the third and final On Tour game for the DS, with “On Tour: Modern Hits”, which, like the title suggests, is a game with many modern songs on it. The third game of 2009 was “Guitar Hero Smash Hits” which combined all the ‘best’ songs from the first three games for one game. There was a point to this exercise; the first Guitar Hero game was only released on the PS2, which was pretty much dead by this point, and the second one was only released on the Xbox 360. It gave fans access to the great tracks from the original games, however, at this point most of these songs were available as downloadable content for both the Xbox 360 and PS3, so the accusation of Neversoft and Activision ‘milking’ the product was inevitable.

The fifth and penultimate main title in the series was the fourth of seven games released in 2009. Simply titled “Guitar Hero 5”, it was a solid entry into the series, and had 85 songs, one down from “World Tour”, in the game. There wasn’t really any change in the game play from “World Tour”, but little nifty features were added, such as “Party Play”, which was used for ‘on the spot’ rocking. Anyone up to four players can start playing when they want, and exit when they want. The songs are played at random and it’s just song after song. If you want to just play right NOW, this was a good mode to use. The other mode that was added was the RockFest mode, which had 30 second bite size sections of songs. You can play up to four players offline or eight online, and everyone competes against each other in that 30 second time frame. There are different options to make the RockFest more competitive and interesting, you could do a mode called “Do or Die”, which refused to let you play that section of the song if you failed three notes in the song, or another option was “Streakers” which increased your points tally the longer your note streak was. This mode was a decent addition to the game, although an argument can be made to say that it’s not as competitive and fun as just playing against someone on a specific song.

A new feature was added to Career mode, which was called challenges, which asked you to do a specific task for a specific song, for instance with the microphone, one of the challenges was to perfectly hit the change of tone at the end of David Bowie’s “Fame”, when he says the word many times (at the ‘is there any wonder?’ section of the song). There were more musicians added to the game too, with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Johnny Cash and Shirley Manson of Garbage and Matt Bellamy of Muse being available.
Matt Bellamy, one of my favourite guitarists, was featured in "Guitar Hero 5".
The game was released on September 11th, 2009 in the UK and was met with a great response. It’s considered the best post Harmonix Guitar Hero game, an opinion I definitely share. “Guitar Hero 5” had a great selection of songs when compared to “World Tour”, although it’s still weaker than the first and third games I feel. But there were some great tracks on the game, even from a fun playing experience, like “Sweating Bullets” by Megadeth and the incredibly odd “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson. The songs were definitely better in terms of a band experience rather than a guitar experience, which really in the end doesn’t make sense due to the game being called “Guitar Hero”. But that’s the evolution of the series and the name “Guitar Hero” sells more than any other music rhythm game. I’d give the game ****1/4 stars as it’s a solid effort, but it still lacked a lot of the charm that the original had, and the track listing is not quite as good as the third in the series.

Going back to these spinoff titles, Neversoft and Activision continued the rampant “Guitar Hero” titles by moving onto DJ sets, with “DJ Hero”. Whilst you can argue that this isn’t a “Guitar Hero” title, let’s be honest, there would be no “DJ Hero” without “Guitar Hero”. “DJ Hero” has a turntable controller instead of a guitar controller which had three “stream” buttons on it, and it had a crossfader, an effects dial and a Euphoria button. I’m not going to get into much detail on this once again but it was praised by critics for its diverse track listing which did more than just do rap music, and for its change in approach to the “Guitar Hero” series.

The sixth game in 2009 was “Band Hero”, which played pretty much identically to “Guitar Hero 5”, but with a different set list. These songs were aimed at an audience who liked softer music, pop rock if you will. Artists such as The Jackson 5, No Doubt, Taylor Swift and N.E.R.D. were featured. The game was met with a mixed reception due to the fact that it was pretty much “Guitar Hero 5 Lite”, and only had 65 tracks in comparison to the 85 tracks in the earlier game. Last but not least “Guitar Hero: Van Halen” was released, and was similar to the Aerosmith and Metallica homage’s.
Gwen Stefani of No Doubt in Band Hero.
At this point everyone had had enough of Guitar Hero. The sales waned, there were far too many games and the critics slated the makers for milking the product far too much. What needs to be remembered in all of this is the expense of the games as a fan and customer. The guitar and game bundles here in the UK are usually £50, or the band packs were usually around £150. So, if I were to get the band pack for £150, then each game would cost £30. So for just the main series, I could have easily have spent £400 in Guitar Hero games to get everything, if not more. It’s just stupid money for the average customer, and you need to remember, it was only four years ago at this point when the game series was created. Also, this was around the time where the credit crunch happened, which squeezed the pockets not just of the people of the UK, but the States as well. The critics were very harsh on the creators of Guitar Hero, making jokes and ripping them for asking too much from the fans, making too many games in succession. To be fair, they responded with announcing that they would reduce the number of games to be made in 2010.

And that they did, in 2010, the last year of the life of Guitar Hero, they only released two games. They released the final game in the main series, which was called “Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock” and then “DJ Hero 2”. I want to briefly talk about DJ Hero 2, and say that once again, the game was well received. The main positive to take from the game was the even more diverse track listing on display, using artists such as Metallica, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna, artists not associated directly with rap and dance music.

But the main final act for Guitar Hero was “Warriors of Rock”, which is also the most diverse of all the games. They wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from Rock Band whilst using the same peripherals, and changed the style of gameplay dramatically to achieve that goal.
Warriors of Rock features a lot of influence from Rush's 2112 album and song.
They did many changes, from things as subtle as adding yet another difficulty level in “Expert+”, although this was only used for the drums, where they introduced a double bass pedal.  Keeping with the theme of “Warriors of Rock” they redesigned all the characters in the game, giving them ‘warrior-esque’ looks and abilities. The career mode is replaced with “Quest” mode, where it is made possible to get much more than five stars for your song rating. In fact, it’s possible to get up to forty stars for each song. This is done by the ‘warrior’ star power abilities, which can do things like give you a six time multiplier for your star power rather than the original two, or by hitting a succession of note for an instant star gain. “Quest” mode puts you through all the songs, similar to the “Career” mode of old, but with added layers of story in a way never seen in the series so far. The story is narrated by Gene Simmons of KISS, where the player must save ‘the demi-god of Rock’ from a creature called “The Beast”, and the player must recruit eight more players to take on this creature. The players are basically the other characters from the game, who all have their signature styles and abilities. When recruited, these characters then turn into their ‘warrior’ guise, and are ready to take on The Beast. Without going into much more detail on the game, a lot of the latter parts revolve around the band Rush, and the ‘2112’ song, the logo and the ‘starman’ icon associated with it.

This new approach to the series was met with praise by critics, yet it did raise the concern that people who aren’t fans of Rush might not like the game much. It may have been a better idea to make this game “Guitar Hero: Rush”, although to concede, there are many other songs and artists featured in the game. Rush’s role in this game is purely for “Quest” mode, and there area total of 93 songs by 85 artists in the game otherwise, which more than makes up for anyone not interested in Rush.

Unfortunately for Neversoft and Activision, the game didn’t sell too well and it ended up being the final nail in the coffin of Guitar Hero. Activision in February 2011 announced that the series is on hiatus due to poor sales, although the way it was worded, it feels like it is indeed the end of Guitar Hero as we speak.
The many different Guitar Hero controllers through the years.
Guitar Hero barely if ever, produced a bad game. The series was consistently fun and that’s down to the great work done on the guitar controllers, and the decent selections of songs that were usually available. It wasn’t in the quality of gaming where Guitar Hero failed. The game series failed in the end because of greed. There was so much potential in the game series, but they wanted success, they wanted money, now. They wanted too much too soon, and it put off players and critics. The rise of Rock Band while not as successful financially as the Guitar Hero series, has still made over $1 billion in revenue, and a lot of these people who bought into that probably didn’t buy the Guitar Hero series afterwards, possibly because they couldn’t afford to or possibly because Rock Band maintained their reputation as a series who cares about fans. Keep in mind Activision released FIFTEEN titles in four years, where as Rock Band only released seven (the three main Rock Band titles with many downloadable tracks, a Lego game, and a homage to The Beatles, Green Day and Unplugged for the PSP). It was the pure greed and milking of the product that failed Guitar Hero, they never gave their fans enough time to take a breather from the series and maybe spend their money elsewhere. The decline in the music gaming marked at the turn of the decade approached, along with the credit crunch didn’t help, but Activision made their own grave unfortunately.

Maybe it’s not the end of the game series; hopefully they take a few years out and bring out a new title then. Let’s just hope there are enough people who are willing to buy either a new bundle or keep their old ones to show the interest. I know I will. I love and loved the Guitar Hero games. Like many people, I played it obsessively four or five years ago. But like many people, I grew out of it. I love video games in general and will play a variety of games. I have a wife and kid, and don’t earn a great deal of money, I can’t afford to buy every appliance Guitar Hero make, AND other games. But I have a lot of the games now, and I have two guitars. I’m going to upgrade to the Xbox 360 versions this Christmas, as I still have the PS2 originals. But I’m not going to play all the time, if not too often ever. Because I want to enjoy these games when I play them.

Guitar Hero has a place in my heart and it will never leave. Let’s give the series the round of applause it truly deserves, and remember the many, many good points the series gave us. If it’s truly gone forever, it will go down as one of the best video game series of all time, but it’s a story that I hope many other video game companies take heed of when thinking about their product, the audience, and the cost of video games.

I’ll be back tomorrow for the final part, the Mixtape, where I list my favourite songs to play in the game series. But for now that’s all from me, thanks for your time.

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