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Game Review

In a land far, far away, where the legends of rock 'n' roll are born and not made, I still can't shred. Not after more than two decades of playing the guitar. Not after spending countless nights burning the midnight oil until my fingers bled. Not after getting signed to a recording label. Not after thriving in the studio. Not even after playing in front of thousands of screaming fans out on the road.

No, I've been to this distant haven called Rock and found the truth—namely, that the real guitar gods are only those who can get through the "Expert" level of virtual shred-fest Guitar Hero II.

Finger Dancing on the Fretboard
If you're unfamiliar with the first Guitar Hero video game that came out in 2005, here's a quick primer. Following the success of such rhythm games as Dance Dance Revolution, Bust a Groove and beatmania, gamemaker Harmonix Music decided to translate all those colorful follow-along icons to the world of smokin' riffs, licks and chops. Though the idea had been executed before, the original Guitar Hero elevated the playing field while quickly becoming a critics' favorite.

The premise is simple—think karaoke on a guitar. As a song is played, notes come in the form of color-coded blips that travel down a giant onscreen fretboard. When a note or chord reaches the bottom of the screen, you hit the corresponding colored buttons on your (wickedly awesome-looking) guitar-shaped game controller. Sounds easy enough. And it is ... at first. Harmonix wisely made the game accessible to even the most non-rockin', musically challenged wannabes out there. The result is that, à la Dance Dance Revolution, the Guitar Hero titles are still a blast to play with a big group, whether you're hording the spotlight or just watching someone else play the comic relief/star. (The co-op and face-off modes even let you pick along with or compete against another guitarist.)

Ah, but then comes the separation between the hacks and the heroes. The "Easy" mode is just that, as players only use three of the five buttons on their mini-Gibson SG controllers. "Medium" introduces an extra button. "Hard" throws in all five and some chords. The real challenge, however, is conquering the advanced techniques of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Any classic rock lover knows that no guitar solo is complete without these, and it's the same here if you want to get through such rock standards as The Allman Brothers Band's "Jessica," Anthrax's "Madhouse" or the ridiculous intro of Heart's "Crazy on You."

Do that, and you're well on your way to riffing through a "Free Bird" encore at the legendary Stonehenge while a giant spaceship zooms in, evaporates the lights display and then beams you up. Dude ... rock on!

Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell
That tongue-in-cheek, Spinal Tap-ish take on rock 'n' roll is pervasive throughout Guitar Hero II. The over-the-top characters you can play as in career mode bear such stage monikers as Axel Steel, Johnny Napalm, Pandora and my personal favorite, Lars Ümlaüt. Obviously, those behind the game had a lot of fun while creating it. It also seems that, for the most part, they tried to keep that fun relatively clean for the teen-and-older crowd.

Unfortunately, with the rock setting comes some bad rock tendencies. Although lyrics of the more than 60 total songs have been cleaned up a bit (profanities have been excised), they still range from the suicidally dark (Lamb of God's "Laid to Rest") to the outright satanic (Sevenfold's "Beast and the Harlot") to the risqué (Warrant's "Cherry Pie"). Expect to see a few pentagrams, 666s, grim reapers and the like. Early gigs include beer bottles thrown onto the stage. A practice room features a poster of a woman showing cleavage. Loading screens incorporate a handful of suggestive sayings ("Throw your undies on the stage. No wait, you're underage," which is actually a lyric from one of the game's indie bands). And at the end of tutorials, your guide launches into reminiscing about adventures on the road and inexplicably uses a (bleeped) f-word.

Not that Guitar Hero II takes a disastrous stage dive from its opening power chord. While entertaining it also educates, fostering a sense of rhythm, and developing the ears and hand-eye coordination, as Primus' Les Claypool pointed out in an interview with gamespy.com. Though the renowned bass player says he is adamant about restricting his own kids' game time, he's also quick to praise this title's positive elements: "It's getting kids into instrumentation again, as opposed to pushing buttons on an 808 or scratching a turntable. And I've sort of seen this resurgence among friends of mine who have teenage kids. The movie School of Rock has been a huge thing to get kids into instrumentation again, and now Guitar Hero, so I'm all for it."

That's a hefty endorsement from a bona fide rock star. I'm nowhere close to Claypool status, as Guitar Hero II unmercifully reminds me again and again. But that's not why I can't quite echo his glowing refrain. Despite some flashy, sweet-sounding, crowd-pleasing—instructive—riffs, this encore still hits a few sour notes.

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