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Review – Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s

posted on July 26th, 2007 by christian

In my time with videolamer, I have been very, very kind to Harmonix. I began to fall in love with them with Frequency and Amplitude, games that changed the way I thought about the rhythm genre. Then came Guitar Hero, which changed my gaming habits significantly. The sequel made me a bona fide fanatic (I own one of each official controller).

Now comes the cliche: I think Harmonix is starting to sell out.

Funny how the company making music games has the history of a rock band. They started off small and simple, making some great products that only a few really tried to appreciate (Frequency and Amplitude). They got a nice little break from a big “label” (Konami and their Karaoke Revolution series), and grew to have a stable fanbase. Then they have their “Breakout” album (Guitar Hero), followed by the world tour worthy followup (GH2), and suddenly they’re one of the biggest names in the scene. Rock Band has got everyone in the industry talking. Even the general public knows and anticipates it. Again, Harmonix is ready to to become the equivalent the industry’s Beatles or Zep’ or Rolling Stones.

And here is an old time fan, accusing them of selling out. When this happens in the music world, we usually grow tired of it pretty quickly. Did they really sell out? Or are fans just pissed that they are no longer “in the know” about something cool and obscure? I know it isn’t the latter; there has never been a time when I thought “too many people want to play this game”. My worry comes from Harmonix’s first and final GH song disc, appropriately called Encore: Rock the 80’s. It is frustrating, disappointing, and comfortable, and I am really trying to determine what this says, if anything, about the future of this dev house.

Here’s how the game works: Take Guitar Hero 2 – the whole damn thing. Add new content for the intro and opening menus. Take the rest of the menus and artwork wholesale from GH2, and paint some of it haphazardly in neon colors. Remove several characters and one venue, and give the remaining characters new 80’s outfits (only one though – there are no alternates). Add no new 80’s themed guitars, in fact don’t even fix the same damn bug from GH2 with Grim and his guitar. Now slap in thirty songs, and you’re done.

I can almost understand the lack of a venue (the game is lacking a 7th set). But the rest of choices made here are questionable. Did they remove characters because they couldn’t be made to look “80’s?” (note to Harmonix: Clive Winston is timeless). Or were they simply too lazy to re-render them? The art direction is the biggest joke of all. I guess I’m supposed to once again say that they did more than the typical DDR expansion with this one. But that simply isn’t true. When it comes to interface, DDR is not lazy as much as it is standardized. It keeps the exact same look and feel through every game because it works well and people are familiar with it. There is no need for any major tampering.

Guitar Hero does not have this benefit. Yes, the games have the same basic menu structure, but they also had unique artwork that gave them a certain level of personality. If the “personality” of GH2 was slapped into the 80’s disc with no changes, I wouldn’t mind so much. It wouldn’t be any worse than a PC expansion pack. But when they take it and make some of it neon, some of it is left the same, and then throw in a few new pieces of art, there is no longer any personality. Just a hodgepodge of stuff that is wildly inconsistent. Making that option screen with the chicken man entirely green does not automatically make it reminiscent of the 80’s. The design here is pure laziness, and it is all the more frustrating when what little new stuff there is is once again charming.

Because really, I still find it charming. I love seeing the Grim Ripper with 3d glasses and Flava Flav clock. I love the “Don’t do drugs” and PMRC stuff. But then I see the Blackout Bar, and the only changes seem to be different colors of lights, and the inconsistency hits me again. I want to blame Harmonix for not following through, not delivering the product they could have. But then they make me smile again, like the music fan that calls “Sell out” and still buys the new album. GH 80’s makes me conflicted, especially when you get to the music itself.

Countless people will complain about the quality of the covers, the choice of songs, and of course the value of 30 songs for $50. But dammit, this is still fun. The tracks are (mostly) recognizable, they do a pretty good job of representing at the least the “feel” of the 80’s, even if better stuff was made during the decade. Most importantly, in a room full of early to mid twenty-somethings, the glory of the 80’s brings something extra special to the game. It just feels good to play these tunes. I’m reminded of the first game, where the tracks weren’t always as hard as in GH2, but sometimes they were simply more enjoyable.

Some reviewers feel the tunes will lose their charm quickly, and I think it is a possibility. But I also know that a lot of people play these games with a straight posture and a glazed stare in their eye, not budging for a moment as they track the notes on the screen. For them, this game will certainly get boring, especially considering most of these tracks are slower and easier than past selections. But if you can feel the music, if you like to move around and make a performance out of it, nothing will get a laugh out of the crowd quicker than putting on your best Skid Row imitation. Rock the 80’s is all about the performance. How you deal with this is up to you.

The fact that Harmonix has been completely silent about the GH franchise after their purchase by MTV games means that we don’t even know who to blame for all of this. But GH Encore reminds me of when Linkin Park did a cut and paste job for Meteora, and wondered why no one wanted to pay 20 bucks for an album. It reminds me of hearing Fallout Boy in the dorm of an indie band guitarist in 2003, and on Gamestop TV in 2006. I think of Rock Band, and all of the promises that have been made about it, and I can only think of a bloated and pretentious U2 making a rubbish album that gets plastered over iPod ads and slobbered over by Rolling Stone. Or maybe it will become the genre’s Chinese Democracy.

So many questions abound here. GH Encore makes it difficult for me to choose which criticisms are appropriate. Should I care about the laziness of the production when the content is still so much fun? Should I award the fun to the efforts of Harmonix, or to the bands that made these songs in the first place?

One thing is for certain – this is an expansion pack at a full game’s price, and for once I support the people concerned with issues of value. The game critic in me wants to say something inflammatory, like why did I buy such a hack job instead of paying ten dollars less for the privilege of buying Resident Evil 4 again on the Wii. But the human in me, the guy who actually plays this game, knows that GH Encore will suck away as much time and beer as its predecessors did.

Choose your own conclusion, I guess.

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9 Comments

  1. GoldenJew said on July 26, 2007:

    I feel like developers are getting frighteningly good at determining exactly how little work they have to do while including enough content that people will buy the game anyway. In this case, 30 songs for $50 is really what is carrying the day– when you consider it’s $2 a track on Xbox for the downloadable songs and people buy them. It’s extra frustrating as a gamer, because if the game is good enough, you’re going to get sucked in. You have very little to gain for a principled stance against buying it.

  2. Christian said on July 27, 2007:

    I agree that there’s not much one can do, hence why I bought it in the end (also, got it for only $40). However, when GH2 itself is out with more tracks for the same or less price, its hard not to be a little puzzled as to why one is paying more or less. If not for this, I don’t think I would have sided with the Price Watching gamers out there. Usually they don’t seem to be willing to buy anything for more than fifty cents

  3. Tyson said on July 27, 2007:

    All I know is that if any Poison song were in that game I would pick it up. I love Poison, they were the first cassette I ever had as a child.

  4. Christian said on July 27, 2007:

    Tyson – Nothin’ By a Good Time is in the game

  5. Tyson said on July 27, 2007:

    Reason to get a 360 #45982 (*^_^*)

  6. Christian said on July 27, 2007:

    Tyson- its only on PS2

  7. GoldenJew said on July 27, 2007:

    Christian, I bet they’re using the downloadable tracks and the stand-alone expansion as test markets for Rock Band and future games. Gives them some market feedback of how many units they can sell, in what format, and for what cost to them. They can optimize the delivery for the future and rake in even more money.

  8. Christian said on July 27, 2007:

    Golden Jew, I would agree, but the absolute slowness of delivery of packs on the 360, coupled with the lack of new tracks on 360 seems odd for that kind of approach. I’d at least throw out one batch of new tunes to see how people warmed up to them compared to recycled GH1 tracks. Though you know more about business than I do, so I only throw it out as a point of interest.

  9. GoldenJew said on July 29, 2007:

    Christian, you have a great point– it doesn’t mean they did it right. Is the slowness of the delivery packs an Xbox Live issue or Harmonix issue? Not to make Harmonix seem omniscient, but it’s just as well a test of the Xbox distribution system as it is of us. If I was a developer, I’d certainly run Microsoft through their paces given their lackluster reputation.

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