Guitar Hero 5: Same As It Ever Was?

    Unassuming box art adorns the latest Guitar Hero rendition. Are we due for some pleasant surprises, or is what we're seeing just what we'll get this September? I always feel a little guilty for chastising Neversoft's decisions in guiding the Guitar Hero franchise since it picked up the reins in 2007. It's almost certain the studio has been under a lot of pressure for years from publisher Activision's growing dependence on expanding and exploiting franchises at a fever pitch -- just look at the decline in quality as the Tony Hawk franchise relentlessly iterated upon itself.

So try to imagine how Neversoft's staff must have felt when Activision dumped what was arguably the biggest name in gaming fresh into its lap and demanded the biggest, best sequel to be built from scratch in less than a year. That's probably more or less what happened when Harmonix and Activision/Red Octane parted ways in late 2006.

That's no mean feat, especially when you consider that Neversoft also had to compete against the Guitar Hero series' originator, Harmonix, and its debut of the genre-expanding Rock Band franchise. Yet despite better name recognition, higher sales numbers and a marketing campaign to rival MTV/Harmonix's own, it all comes down to this: Neversoft's Guitar Hero games just aren't as good as the Guitar Heros and Rock Bands that Harmonix put out.

Guitar Hero 5 seeks to make the experience more flexible, allowing any combination of instruments to play at a time. And if you're throwing a party, guests will be able to jump in and out of songs at any time without worrying about winning or losing.

But as another year passes, another major Guitar Hero release looms on the near horizon. And unlike Guitar Hero III and Guitar Hero World Tour, which both changed up the game's formula significantly, the fifth entry appears to be playing it safe. The Genericaster guitar features a few small modifications -- mostly cosmetic -- over last year's Guitar Hero World Tour guitar controller, but nothing else has changed.

Believe it or not, this gives me hope for the series. If there's one thing Rock Band has unquestionably done better than Guitar Hero, it's how it managed to truly build a gaming platform out of a single game. The staggering selection of downloadable songs (more than 600 now) that can be played in either Rock Band 1 or 2, coupled with the ability to export the Rock Band 1 disc's songs into Rock Band 2, mean players know their investment in hardware and additional songs is an enduring one.

Neversoft never took that position before. To date, every Guitar Hero game's downloadable songs (with the exception of Metallica's Death Magnetic album) can only be played on its own respective game. A number of reasons have been given to justify the limited functionality: Major engine changes between games, the introduction of other instruments and purchasing additional licensing rights, to name a few. But this time around, things are looking awfully conservative on the hardware front, which seems to indicate that Neversoft is eager to give this latest Guitar Hero game some serious legs.

I'd be shocked if Guitar Hero 5 didn't include cross-compatibility with Guitar Hero World Tour's DLC and/or a song export feature for Guitar Hero World Tour. But what if Guitar Hero Metallica and Guitar Hero Smash Hits -- both built on the GHWT engine -- also exported to GH5? Then you'd be looking at an established platform with hundreds of available songs that truly rivals Harmonix's accomplishments.

With Guitar Hero 5 due out September 1st, the answers can't be too far off.