Guitar Hero 2 is a lot of fun, and features some excellent design aspects, but the extreme difficulty and song selection may exclude some new players.
Guitar Hero 2 largely follows the same format as the original game. In fact, if you've played the first you'll be able to jump right in and barely notice the changes. Coloured notes move down the screen towards you, in time with a musical track, and you have to hold the matching fret buttons on a novelty guitar controller and strum at the appropriate time. There's a whammy bar to make those long notes interesting, and you can tilt the guitar upright to deploy "star power" and start the audience cheering and clapping along.
If you've bought both this game and the original, you'll end up with two guitars, so it's a good thing that Guitar Hero 2 includes some new multiplayer modes. "Face Off" makes a return from the original game, which sees each song divided up between the two players, with Player 1 taking a riff, then Player 2, and so forth, with both players joining in on the chorus and ending. There's also "Pro Face Off", which lets both players play the entire song at the same time.
The most interesting new mode, though, is "Co-operative". Here, one player plays the song's lead guitar track in its entirety, while the other player takes the rhythmn or bass track (depending on the song). Players share a single score, star power meter, and rock meter. The effectiveness of this mode really varies from song to song - Killing In The Name Of and John The Fisherman, for example, have killer basslines, where you can really tell if your bass player screws up. On some others, though, the lead guitarist may as well be playing alone, as you can barely hear the other player's efforts. When it works, though, it's a lot of fun.
The sound balance as a whole throughout the game is fairly sub-par. The lead guitar is nice and loud, but the vocals are often barely audible, the rythmn and bass lines vary in quality, and the crowd cheers and special effects are often loud enough to drown out the drum track and leave you struggling to find the beat. You can mess with the audio settings to some extent, but you can't isolate the guitar tracks individually or separate the vocals from the rest of the band, so it's hard to get a satsifactory result.
The track listing isn't quite as great as the first time around either. Guitar Hero 2 has an unremitting focus on metal and hard rock. Despite the inclusion of songs like Rock This City and Heart Shaped Box, the sequel just doesn't have the same generation-spanning appeal as the original game. Metal fans will likely love it, but those who enjoyed the first game for tracks like More Than A Feeling or Killer Queen might feel a little left out.
It also doesn't help that most of the songs are covers, and some of those covers are outright appalling. Killing In The Name Of, You Really Got Me and Misirlou are all particularly nasty, bearing little if any resemblance to the versions you know and love. On the other hand, Primus apparently provided the gold masters of John The Fisherman, so you can hear that one in whatever original glory it can be said to possess.
The bonus songs are great, though. Guitar Hero 2 follows the tradition of its predecessor by including a bunch of indie and lesser known artists as optional extras, including some fantastic tracks like Buckethead's Jordan. Plus you can play Thunderhorse by Dethklok from the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse, and the extended version of Homestar Runner's Trogdor.
Probably the most controversial aspect of Guitar Hero 2 is the difficulty. It should be said straight up that Guitar Hero 2 has one of the best tutorial schemes ever used in a game. It's short and to the point. I've seen maybe a half dozen people use it now, and it does a fantastic job of not only teaching you the basics but also building your confidence and inducting you into the atmosphere of the game. The tutorials are followed up by supplementary tips on loading screens prompting players to try out techniques they may not have attempted before, or explaining the game mechanics in more depths.
All that teaching will go to good use, because Guitar Hero 2 is vastly more difficult than its predecessor. Easy mode is still fairly easy, and works fine as a "party" difficulty. Medium, though, is more akin to the original game's Hard mode, and Hard is exponentially harder again, throwing five frets, three-note chords, and long complicated rhythm passages at you until you want to cry. It's likely that a lot of players will just hit a brick wall at the end of Medium and not be able to progress further, which is more than a little disappointing.
For all the difficulty, when you do manage to make the skill jumps necessary to conquer previously impossible songs, it's incredibly satisfying. The game doesn't need to reward you - the mere consciousness of the insane fingering you just pulled off is deeply motivating. Very few games have ever motivated me as much to keep improving merely for the sense of mastering the skills.
There's a practice mode this time around, that lets you slow down songs to learn the fingering, or play (for example) just the chorus, or just the solo. I haven't actually found it very useful - I prefer to just keep repeating the song - but I'm sure some people will get a lot out of it.
Guitar Hero 2 still holds up well as a party game. The difficulty and song selection mean it's less suitable for non-gamers than the original, but on the other hand the wider variety of multiplayer modes compensate.
Thanks to Sim for coming down from Sydney for a marathon two-day Guitar Hero session. It turns out she's a fiend on a bass guitar and I wouldn't have been able to unlock all the extra bass guitars without her.