At their best, music games can be deeply communal as player and developer participate in a conversation about their shared passion for music. Music games allow fans to relate to music in an entirely new way and can even challenge a player's preconceptions about specific artists or genres. Music games also grant players a feeling of mastery -- over an instrument, over an enormous crowd of cheering fans -- that most people would otherwise never experience.
Which brings us to Neversoft's Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. A sturdy entry in the long-running series, sprawling in content and gameplay, but seemingly without ambition or aesthetic focus. It plays as well as any music game ever has, but brings absolutely nothing new to the genre. Can these Warriors hold their own with the elite of the music game world?
Warriors of Rock is the first Guitar Hero game to feature a story-based Quest Mode. Narrated by Gene Simmons of Kiss, Quest Mode tasks players with recruiting a series of band members who will ultimately battle The Beast and resurrect the God of Rock. Characters are chosen from a world map screen, and though players have a measure of freedom in the order they chose to acquire the Warriors, Quest Mode is ultimately a linear affair. Before progressing to the final battle, each and every character will have to be collected.
Each character possesses a unique power that gives them a specific scoring advantage (higher multipliers, more Star Power, etc.). These aren't particularly important early on, but once the full band is assembled, and their powers combined, players can begin to earn some seriously high scores. Before a character can be recruited, players must earn enough stars to allow him or her to transform into a Warrior.
Though Warriors of Rock in general, and Quest mode in particular, declares an allegiance to Capital "R" Rock, the game displays a real lack of both reverence and insight. Its proclamations of rock adoration never feel genuine or organic in the way that, for instance, Brutal Legend's did. Instead of an overriding, focused mythology, every possible visual cliche (Robots! Demons! Elves! Mummys!) is simply thrown at the characters in the hope that, by the end of the game, some sort of consistency would emerge. It doesn't.
An example: early on, players will recruit Judy, who's setlist is comprised of 90s alternative rock and, inexplicably, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (each of Warriors of Rock's characters are loosely affiliated with a specific musical genre, from 1970s FM hits to modern arena rock, and beyond). Her untransformed attire is already pretty garish, suggesting some sort of Hot-Topic revisionist take on 90s punk, metal, and grunge attire. But the transformation? Though her set includes the least "rocking" song in the game (REM's "Losing My Religion," a fun song to play, but decidedly mellow), Judy transforms in a one-winged demon babe, wearing Insane Clown Posse makeup that recalls Ichi The Killer. And she grows hooves. Hooves! Other characters fare no better.
To be fair, the characters are well-rendered technically, with flowing clothes and hair, and generally high levels of detail. The characters are expressively animated, and their performances are nicely staged, as in Warriors of Rock's launch trailer. Though the graphical muscle applied to the characters doesn't carry over into every aspect of the game (the drums, particularly, don't look so hot), Warriors of Rock is currently the best looking music game on the market.
The game's story, such as it is, should have allowed the designers a lot of freedom to create unique settings for the character's performances. Stevie Ray Vaughn stand-in Austin, for instance, plays in a room that recalls the interior of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction. It's a nice visual break from rest of the game, but too many stages are just variations on the standard music game concert hall, full of asynchronously (though identically) animated audience members.
The mismatched aesthetics and largely uninspired settings conspire to create the impression that Neversoft was either not completely invested in Warriors of Rock's Quest Mode, or had no clear vision for it. Maybe both. But there is one significant exception.
Fairly early in the game, a necessary quest to obtain a mythical guitar sends players on a journey through Rush's "2112." The visuals in this portion of the game are rich with the album's artwork and iconography, and all three members of Rush provide awesomely goofy narration in between songs. This stage is far and away the highpoint of Warriors of Rock's Quest mode. Suddenly, the whole experience simply springs to life. The designer's love of and respect for the material is tangible, unmistakable and contagious. Though Quest Mode never again reaches these heights, it is glorious while it lasts.
Completing Quest Mode will take most gamers several hours. Returning to completed stages to Dominate them once Quest Mode is complete will take several more. But there is so much more to Warriors of Rock, including a quick play mode that assigns a number of unique challenges to each of the game's 90+ songs, and a fantastic party play mode that allows players to freely drop in or out, and change difficulty or instruments, without ever interrupting a song. Competitive modes, online play and the GH Studio music creation suite round out the package. Progress in any of the game's modes unlocks ever more content, principally new characters, stages, and instruments. There is even a new Soundgarden album packed in with the initial shipment of the game. As a sheer value proposition, Warriors of Rock is unimpeachable. Players looking to wring out every last drop of gameplay from Warriors of Rock will be doing so for a long, long time.
Mechanically, the game upholds the traditionally high series standards. Nailing a tricky passage full of hammer-ons still feels great. A nicely graduated set of difficulty levels bring even the most difficult songs (and, man, are there some difficult songs in this game) within the reach of less proficient players, though there is more than enough challenge in Warriors of Rock for the virtual virtuosos of the world. The game's tracklist covers a lot of ground musically, though a significant portion of it tends toward the heavy end of the spectrum. Still, Warriors of Rock does a pretty good job of including songs that are primarily fun to play, even if players don't particularly care for them.
Should players bring home the Warriors of Rock guitar bundle, they will be treating themselves to the best guitar controller currently available. The uninterrupted core of the instrument feels tremendously solid. The strum bar is as clicky as ever, and the fret buttons, which seem slightly closer together than on previous Guitar Hero guitars, are springy and responsive. It's a fantastic controller.
Ultimately, Warriors of Rock lives up to the best parts of Guitar Hero's legacy. Yes, the quest mode could have been better (as the "2112" stage so clearly proves), and yes, the game's aesthetics are probably going to put some people off. But moment to moment, the game remains a blast to play. It is not in any way a forward looking game, and gamers who value innovation will find none here. But as a feature rich and song packed distillation of all that music games have been up to now, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock battles with honor.
Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is available now for the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. Game Rant reviewed the Xbox 360 version of the game.