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Closeup of the guitar neck and frets
Another Game, Another Guitar Peripheral.

By now, we're used to each major release in the Guitar Hero franchise seeing the release of yet another plastic instrument threatening to take up space in our closet, this iteration at least does us the honor of bringing some new tricks to the party. We got some extensive alone time with the guitar and came away fairly impressed overall, we'll start from the top and make our way down in this preview.

The biggest change to the guitar is hardware and software based; the touch strip. Located higher on the neck of the guitar (not as high as the solo buttons on the Rock Band Stratocaster) is a full set of frets, they differ from the normal frets weíre all used to in the fact that they arenít really buttons anymore but a touch sensitive strip with minimal segments between each fret. Kind of like the scroll wheel on an iPod. This touchstrip actually has multiple functions, all of which are optional (which means you can still hold on to that favorite Les Paul and not be gimped in game play), but all of which add a new way of playing that can really help extend the life of a song.
Purple string holds the world together
The primary use is for special Slide Sections that are usually speckled about the song but are mostly found in the insane solos that have long sections of HOPOíable notes, most of the solos in Free Bird would have been designated as slide sections. Slide sections are differentiated from the normal chart by the inclusion of a purple Ďchainí that connects a gem to the next, forming a daisy-chain of guitar destruction in some of the harder songs. The chain links are meant to help you visualize the timing between each gem, but they will take some getting used to before you really start to appreciate them, theyíll likely just confuse you more the first few times you see them. Anyway, when you see these links, you can slide your fingers along the touch strip in the pattern as dictated by the gems on screen and the hope is that youíll be able to have an easier time at nailing those huge trains of HOPOs, like the ones found in Satch Boogie. As with just about everything else in the rhythm game genre, things take some getting used to, donít expect to nail some tough sections using this sliding mechanic on your first try. As an aside, you donít have to slide either if you donít want to, you can tap the individual frets if thatís what you prefer and you can use any combination of frets (between the normal frets and the touch strip frets).

The last use for the touch strip is actually my favorite; you can use it to strum any note, anywhere. All you have to do is tap the touch strip, in any location, and itíll register as a strum. So you wanna play some slap bass? Well now you can, you can slap the entire song if you like, I did that multiple times. You would think that being able to tap pretty much any note would mean that those insanely fast sections of strum notes would be easier to hit since you could probably alternate taps between two fingers faster and more accurately than you can alt-strum the strum bar. In my experience with the guitar, I would say that you are wrong, I had a harder time hitting those fast strum sections by tapping the touch strip than I did with the strum bar. Still, it is damn fun to play a song this way and it certainly makes some of the easier guitar and bass songs more interesting and visceral. This feature alone had me using the touch strip more in my single day with the guitar than I did in over a year with the Stratocaster solo buttons.

Star Power ButtonThe next major overhaul to the standard design we're all used to was applied to the Star Power button, that's right, they now have a button called specifically for the task of activating star power as opposed to the appropriation of the select or back button. This button is large, about the same length as the Les Paul strum bar, and resides on the bridge of the guitar as to not look completely out of place. I'm pretty sure everyone, upon hearing of or seeing this new button, praised the rock Gods for what surely should be a great addition to the guitar (as anyone with an Xplorer can tell you). Hold your horses there Tex, we had some issues with this new button that aren't very apparent in pictures and can only be appreciated while playing. First of all, the button is pretty stiff and a bit tough to actually press. Considering how buttery smooth the fret buttons move, you'd think they would have been able to give the same consideration to this button. Don't worry though, it isn't "smash it with a hammer" tough, but you'll definitely notice it and have to adjust a bit to get used to it, we were activating just fine by the end of the day.

Body ActionThat is if it weren't for one of our biggest issues with the new guitar. Check out that super close-up image up there on the right really closely, notice the two tiny buttons on either side of the Star Power button? Those buttons would be the Start buttons, yes there are two start buttons (lefty flippers aren't completely left out in the cold), now what issues could we possibly have with those buttons? Even though they are the smallest buttons on the face of the guitar, we still accidentally paused during gameplay far too many times. Pretty much all of us paused the game at least once while trying to activate with the Star Power button, most of us paused multiple times. The problem lies in the fact that the button is placed pretty much exactly where the Les Paul Select button is, so for the bulk of us that activate with the buttons, our hands rested on the button and an attempt at star power activation usually triggered the pause menu. We honestly feel that the snazzy new countdown timer present after un-pausing is a direct effect of of this issue.

The strum bar is arguably an improvement over previous iterations, it is longer than we're used to and features are rounded tip that should make finger slippage just about obsolete. They didn't feel as 'clicky' as the Les Paul strummer, but they certainly aren't silent like the Stratocaster, it felt just about right to me. I didn't hear a single complaint about the strum bar from anyone, it works like it's supposed to and it feels comfortable to play.

The whammy bar is another 'more of the same' feature of the guitar, I didn't have a single issue with any of the whammy bars I played and they don't get in the way like the Stratocaster variant. So let's just skip over talking about that and make a quick mention about the size and overall heft of the guitar. As you can see from the pictures, it is bigger than the old Les Paul guitar and it also weighs a little bit more, nothing terribly noticeable though. The removable neck, the Achilles Heel of the Les Paul, is still present. Turn that frown upside down, they ditched the old contact boards and it now connects via a plug mechanism, we don't anticipate any faulty frets coming from this setup! The neck is also very snuggly in place, I know one of my major gripes with the Les Paul neck was how it would jiggle around, that problem is non-existent on the new guitar. Rejoice!

The directional pad and Xbox button combo deserve some honorable mention. The D-pad now looks like a knob on a guitar, so as to blend in with the whole motif better, and is a bit easier to use than the old Les Paul version. The Xbox guide button is smack dab in the middle of this new D-pad and functions just as you would imagine so there isn't really much else worth talking about in that respect. I may be mistaken, but I seem to remember the D-pad acting as a button if you push it in, just like the analog sticks on the standard controllers. What this button may or may not do isn't something I thought to ask about so your guess is as good as mine. The whole knob is now located opposite the Whammy bar in pretty much the same location as the D-pad on the Stratocaster, which means that you have to swivel the Whammy bar out of the way if you intend to use it for any extended use, which I personally find annoying.

Definitely Not the Same Old Song and Dance

Neversoft obviously wasn't content with sticking to the tried and true formula of the Guitar Hero franchise (as anyone who has played multiple versions of the Tony Hawk series can attest), whether or not that is a good thing will likely be argued about until Guitar Hero 5 sees eventual release. I for one find the new additions to the guitar charts a pleasant and welcome surprise, we didn't really hear or see anything about these new additions prior to the event, maybe they were afraid of the inevitable outcry from some of the *ahem* more vocal of their fans.

The first thing you may notice are the strange sustains plunked down right in the middle of another sustain of a different fret, they don't look any different of course, it's just a little off putting to see and play a sustain while already holding one down. I can almost guarantee that most people will drop the first hold to pick up the second or third, the action goes against what we've been trained to do since the original game, even though the motions are exactly the same as sticking a Hammer-On. To me, the most memorable time you play this type of action comes from the intro to "Mr. Crowley", though "Wind Cries Mary" also has a very cool section like this where you hit triplet sustains up the fretboard (G-R-Y then R-Y-B then Y-B-O). The inclusion of these types of notes only strengthens the experience and I didn't notice any sort of 'over-charting' with them, they were only used where it made sense.

We didn't actually have an image of those two sections, so we went with this interesting one instead.The other notable change to the guitar charts includes notes in the middle of a sustain. I'll let you try and get a picture of that in your head before I explain it to you. Got it? Good, let's move on. These sections are essentially a sustain that you hold while you tap or strum individual notes while still holding the sustain, the standard rules concerning what is classified as a HOPO note still applies. Itís pretty strange when you first see it, especially when the notes are star notes and you try to whammy the sustain for more star power. Willie Nelson's song "On the Road Again" makes particularly fun use of this element with the chorus being a marathon of holding a single sustain while having to strum higher notes intermittently.

How Hard is Too Hard?

A lot of the more casual players are worried about the difficulty of the top tier songs as well as the difficulty curve throughout the setlist, and with good cause considering the mess that was the difficulty in Guitar Hero 3. This is in no way our final stance on the matter as we haven't played the entire setlist yet and we weren't able to get through an entire solo career, but it is our impression that the difficulty has been improved greatly. I would pin the guitar chart's difficulty somewhere between Guitar Hero 2 and Guitar Hero 3. People will also be happy to hear that we didn't come across a single "Before I Forget" style of charting, you know, a triple chord-fest charted in a way that makes your hands cramp and scream in pain. That isn't to say there isn't a song hidden away in there like that, but if there is, we didn't play it. Overall, we were all very happy with the charts that we played on the guitars and drums, definitely feel that the charting style has improved.

Next: Bass


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