'Guitar Hero 5' rights many wrongs

The next installment in the series is not the same old song and dance.

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There was a time when a new "Guitar Hero" felt like a momentous occasion after months of speculating over which songs would make the cut. But never in my wildest imagination would I have predicted "Guitar Hero" to rival "Dynasty Warriors" as the king of overabundant iterative sequels.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. "Guitar Hero 5" displays a truly meaningful facelift that makes it, dare I say, the most fun "GH" game ever.

The title of "Guitar Hero 5" carries many expectations, especially because two other console games ("Metallica" and "Smash Hits") have already dropped this year alone. Although the others felt rushed and slapped together, "GH5" feels like it had some serious thought and care put into it.

It tosses out the clunky mechanics and menu interface of all games since "GH: World Tour" and starts from scratch. The plethora of minute changes, when taken individually, don't make much of a difference, but all of those changes add up to make "GH5" a worthy addition to the main series.

"GH5" also thinks outside of the rigid guitar-bass-drums-vocals band setup laid down by "Rock Band." Now anyone can play with any permutation of the four roles. This is a godsend for those of us who have collected more plastic instrument controllers than we know what to do with.

The series also continues to drift further away from the "play all of these songs to unlock the next batch of songs" method of progression for its career mode. No more slogging through the entire career just to unlock songs; everything is available immediately in the Quickplay mode. They must have finally gotten some of my angry letters.

The intent of the new Party Play mode is sound: No one likes having to wait for someone else to finish a song before joining in. While in Party Play mode, press one button on any instrument, and a new note highway will materialize on the screen. It gets the job done as far as making the game friendlier toward social gatherings, but this feature getting relegated to a separate mode fails to solve any problems if a career or online song is in progress. If you've planned ahead for guests, though, this mode is golden.

The make-your-own-songs GHMix mode stands to be improved the most. The tools for making something special are there, but they always have been. The process of actually getting there is still impenetrable for most players, especially when the layers of menus are so tough to navigate with the instrument controllers. Neversoft needs to give GHMix a user-friendly revamp if they want anyone to take the mode seriously.

Virtual Jimi Hendrix from "World Tour" was already disturbing enough, but at least he only appeared during his own songs. Not only are Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain in "GH5," they're also playable on any instrument with any song. Which means you can watch Cobain sing "Ex-Girlfriend" by No Doubt. Disrespectful? Maybe. But Muse front man Matt Bellamy does look pretty freaking awesome performing "Plug In Baby," so I'm willing to forgive and forget.

The frequency of "Guitar Hero" releases makes lambasting Activision for being a money-grubbing cash cow easy, but "GH5" genuinely surprised me with its polish and smart decisions. Calling it the best "Guitar Hero" yet probably sounds like sacrilege to the Harmonix-era fans, but even that brand of cynics should give "GH5" a fair shake. At the very least, it's comforting to know if The Beatles ain't your thing, "Guitar Hero 5" makes an admirable substitute for this year's "Rock Band 3."

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