For Those About To Rock

Guitar Hero cranks rhythm-gaming up to 11.

Guitar Hero Publisher: Red Octane

Platform: PlayStation 2

Price: $69.99

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)

Score: 7 (out of 10)

Nothing is more punk-rock than a plastic guitar.
Nothing is more punk-rock than a plastic guitar.
Deep down, we all want money for nothing and chicks for free.

Back in 1985, when Dire Straits first revealed this eternal truth, it seemed that any goofball with a DayGlo headband could pour himself into package-hugging spandex and become a rock star. But it turned out that noodling on the fret board wasn't nearly as easy as advertised. Those of us without talent were left to the cold comfort of our air guitars.

That finally changes with Guitar Hero, a videogame that recreates the rock-star experience so vividly, you'll think you deserve your own episode of Behind the Music.

The key to its success is the custom controller: a life-sized plastic guitar, complete with whammy bar and shoulder strap. The packaging even includes cheesy decals to help personalize your instrument. If you can get past how silly it is to play dress-up with a plastic guitar, you'll be embracing your inner Eddie Van Halen before you even press Start.

This is no ordinary axe. Rather than strings, you strum a toggle switch with your thumb. And in place of chords, you press oversized buttons on the fret board. It's like a Fender Strat for dummies.

Guitar Hero plays like other rhythm-based games, such as the massively popular Dance Dance Revolution: You press the right button at the right time. But instead of hopping around on a dance mat like a crack-addled retard, you'll be playing a guitar . . . like a crack-addled retard. Keep up with the song onscreen, and the crowd goes wild. Fumble too many notes, and you'll be booed offstage faster than Sinéad O'Connor at Catholic mass. With persistence, you'll lead your band from the musty garage to sold-out summer festivals.

The game is easy to learn, but harder to get through than an Ozzy Osbourne poetry reading. "Easy" and "Medium" settings are a breeze, but "Hard Mode" is a nightmare of soloing, quick chord changes, and death-metal speed. Don't even try Queens of the Stone Age's "No One Knows" on "Expert" unless you have an extra finger.

To add to the metal mayhem, special sensors in the guitar track the instrument's position. Standing still, James Taylor-style, gives you a much lower score than doing your best impression of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. There's no bonus for lighting the controller on fire, however, unless you count the buzz you get from the PCB fumes.

At $70, the price is a bit steeper than that of the average game, but it's still cheaper than front-row tickets to a Green Day show, and you're 70 percent less likely to suffer a neck-snapping injury.

Unfortunately, the game's paltry number of tunes cuts the show short. The cuts here are commendable -- everything from the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" to David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" to Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" -- but with just 25 songs in rotation, the set list wears out its welcome quicker than an Ashlee Simpson B-side. Sure, there are some additional unlockable songs, but they're by a bunch of nobodies who won a contest to appear on the game. Instead of Iron Maiden, we get . . . Graveyard BBQ?!

Still, on the whole, Guitar Hero earns an encore and proves it's more than just a novelty act. Here's hoping that the sequel packs more than a double album's worth of material. Game On

For Those About to Rock

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