Guitar Hero II: The Future of Red Octane’s Crown Jewel

Like many, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Guitar Hero II for the Xbox 360 since it was announced. Despite already owning the game for the Playstation 2, I picked up another copy because the game quite obviously has the potential to be the far superior product.

Unfortunately, almost 48 hours after launch, a large number of people have reported through various forums that their X-plorer controllers are defective, particularly the whammy bars. Some complaints even go so far as claiming to have completely non-functioning guitar controllers.

Luckily for me, mine’s only a little messed up and still has mostly full functionality. I’m going to skip the review of this game because we all know what Guitar Hero is by this time. Instead I’m going to talk about why I think this new release has the potential to be the best Guitar Hero ever.

The most obvious reason is the ease of downloading content through the Xbox Live interface. While no songs have shown up yet, it’s practically a sure bet that the whole set from the original Guitar Hero will be made available shortly. Given the nature of the Marketplace I think we’ll also be seeing some new characters, outfits and possibly even venues in the near future.

What’s piqued my interest most about this release is the new “Effects Pedal port” on the bottom of the guitar controller. The first question I have is what kind of pedal is this going to be? Will it be a wah, a flanger, a discombobulator? What type of effect will the pedal create? Will there be different pedals? My second question—yes, that last part was all one question—is how will this be incorporated into the gameplay? I imagine some songs will require that you have the pedal to play it. Either that or the functionality is already included in the songs as they are now, but having the pedal in the controller activates them.


What I want is added depth and challenge to the gameplay along the lines of multiple pedal effects in a single unit, free-play or a means to change the scale or octave of the notes. What I don’t want is a glorified means of activating my star power or anything even similar along those lines.

Making peripherals is risky business. Just look at what happened to the Sega CD and the Game Boy Camera. Both gone, both humorous footnotes in the history of gaming. But not too long ago peripherals were the whole of Red Octane’s business so they must know what they’re doing. Still, making an accessory for an accessory sure takes balls.

The last aspect of this release that sets it above the previous releases escaped my notice until the last minute. Red Octane had tried to get the Xbox proprietary wireless controller technology licensed for this release but were denied. Instead they had to make a guitar controller with a USB interface. Not only does this mean that you can plug the controller into your computer and run it using Microsoft’s free drivers for Xbox controllers, but the stage is set for the homebrew crowd to make truly unique and fun applications using the controller. And thanks to Microsoft’s XNA, now anyone can make an Xbox game that uses the Guitar Hero controller.

In fact, I was able to get my controller to work on the popular clone of Guitar Hero, Frets on Fire. After I downloaded the drivers for Xbox controllers, I simply reconfigured the buttons in the setup menu of FoF and away I went.

I have to say that Frets on Fire is not the game that’s going to whet your appetite for virtual guitar shredding when you just can’t squeeze one more drop of enjoyment out of your new game. Although the graphics can’t live up to the original, the real defect in FoF is in the gameplay itself. Too often the songs (which are all homemade) are out of sync with the finger patterns on the fret, ruining any feeling of actually playing the song. Stick to the genuine article until an update comes along.

If Red Octane and Activision want to realize the full potential of this game, they need to do three things: The first is providing consistent new content to the Xbox Live Marketplace. The second is making sure they perfect the design of the effects pedal and its role in gameplay. Last, they need to rein in their lawyers when some programmers create a free and totally shredding game based around the guitar controller interface.

Guitar Hero is going to need a large fan base, especially if the new Harmonix game, Rock Star, turns out to be a hit (although in all likelihood Red Octane will be making the peripherals for Rock Star given their past relationship with Harmonix).

I see a bright future for this game. Even if you aren’t convinced and you want to wait on buying the game, I think time will prove me right when I say this will be a must-have Xbox 360 title.