I should have known.
In fact, when I was in line to pick up my copy of Guitar Hero: Smash Hits on the day of its release, there was also one lone copy of Ghostbusters for the 360 sitting next to the seemingly endless number of Smash Hits copies. I had a bout of insecurity, asking myself if I was doing the right thing. $60 isn’t exactly chump change. I had already made the trades at GameStop to be able to afford the game… so it wasn’t like I could have backed out of a purchase altogether. Besides, if Ghostbusters is, in fact, a direct sequel to the movies, I never saw Ghostbusters II and therefore wouldn’t have understood the story… right? Right?
I tried to maintain my excitement as I drive home with my new game. After all, Smash Hits had all master tracks on the disc… and some wrist-breaking songs from before Guitar Hero went south as a franchise. I was especially looking forward to checking out Play With Me by Extreme, Bark at the Moon by Ozzy Osbourne, and The Trooper by Iron Maiden. During the drive home, I attempted to justify the expense to myself, but I had a feeling that I was in for some major disappointment.
My feelings were accurate.
Paying $60 for Guitar Hero: Smash Hits means that you’re part of the problem. You’re basically telling Activision– who’s already done this kind of thing once by charging full price for another Guitar Hero expansion disc with its Rocks the ’80s compilation back in 2007– that it’s OK to overcharge for a repackaging of the same game that we’ve already paid for at least once that has little or no advantage over past games. In some ways, Smash Hits is worse than Rocks the ’80s; Smash Hits offers nothing new in terms of content and has charting and instrument mix issues. If you want to sell this to me for $30 or even $40, that’s fine… but $60 is a money grab that I was impulsively stupid enough to contribute to.
Let’s talk about the content of the game. There are two big selling points for Smash Hits. One is that the disc contains many of the more popular or notable tracks from earlier games in the franchise and centralizes them. These tracks, unlike the Wavegroup covers that we got for many of the tracks in Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, and Rocks the ’80s, are all master tracks. The other selling point is that these songs are all recharted and scored for full band support, including vocals, drums, and bass guitar.
Now, come on. Songs that we’ve already played, in spite of the fact that the covers have been replaced by masters, don’t equate to a $60 game. Neither does the new charting and instrument support. Sorry. It also has Neversoft’s GH Tunes support (which I never used in Guitar Hero World Tour or in Guitar Hero Metallica)… but that’s still not worth $60. Guitar Hero Metallica had more tracks and most of its material was new to the series. World Tour implemented band support for the first time, had many new tracks, supported DLC, and introduced GH Tunes. These two games make valid arguments for fully-priced entries in the series; Smash Hits doesn’t come close. Even Rocks the ’80s introduced new tracks… but Smash Hits does not.
Once you get into Smash Hits, the progression feels a bit like that of Guitar Hero Metallica in that you open up new tiers by earning enough stars through earlier tiers. That’s fine. There are tracks in Smash Hits that I’d rather not have played again, anyway, so being able to skip around them in order to progress through the game is great. If I want to, I can go back and play them to increase my score after I’ve unlocked everything else. After making your way through the game, though, you come to a stopping point; in order to unlock the last tier– which arguably has some of the best songs on the disc– you are required to have played all of the other songs on the disc. I can see if you’re playing on Expert difficulty, as the game should be challenging you to do everything but the kitchen sink to win, but forcing players to trudge through all of the earlier songs to get to the last few when playing more casually is weak. What’s worse is that Encore performances for each tier only happen when you’ve played all of the songs in a tier first, instead of playing a tier until you’ve accumulated enough stars to move on; it’s almost as if Beenox (the development team behind Smash Hits) said, “We know there’s not a lot of replay value here, so let’s force players to play everything… it’s make the game longer.” What a genius idea. Actually… no. No, it isn’t.
Then we come to playing the songs themselves. There are two significant issues to that pop up in a fair number of tracks. The first issue lies in the charting. While some of the charting changes are decent, others are questionable in that you don’t know which guitar you’re being charted for. When playing Message in a Bottle by The Police, the charting towards the end of the song alternates between lead and rhythm guitars. May I ask why? What’s worse is that the songs have been edited differently, so they almost never end the way you remember or expect them to. Several tracks end rather abruptly (like Boston’s More Than A Feeling). Queen’s Killer Queen has you strumming to a keyboard rather than guitar in the first few measures. Now, if you remember playing the same song in the original Guitar Hero, you’ll recall that Harmonix made the decision to just have players wait through the piano solo and play along with the actual guitar when it came in. Yeah, it can be tough to have to sit there and wait if you want action, but hearing just a keyboard or piano playing as you strum a guitar is just broken; it’s like hearing a cow say, “Oink!”
The other issue lies in the instrument mixes. Some instruments sound terribly distant at times. This is the first time in the series that I’ve noticed something like this. Sure, you can go into the Options menu and manually adjust the instrument mix, but if we’ve never had to do this before, why now? Is it because these are master tracks now, and the balance is off? I guess it’s possible, but it’s weird having to strain to hear certain guitar parts.
I’ll admit that I only own a (wired) guitar, so I don’t have any band experience in Smash Hits. Perhaps having these songs playable for four parts will make the game worth it for some players… but I honestly don’t see how. Also, if you’re a vocalist, good luck with some of these tracks. Even though I (kind of) sing for a living, I’d never attempt some of these.
Fool me once, with Rocks the ’80s, shame on you. That disc with the last one that Harmonix worked on under the Activision label before they moved on to MTV Games and developed Rock Band. I don’t know who to blame for that fiasco, but that was two years ago. Unfortunately, if you fool me twice, as Activision and Beenox did with Smash Hits, then shame on me. I knew even when waiting in line that I wasn’t going to be happy with this game, but I still bought it. Sure, I didn’t know that there were going to be problems like the ones that I’ve addressed here– which made the experience worse– but I knew deep down that this wasn’t going to be worth the asking price. Now all I can do is hope that my words and experience will prevent others from doing the same impulsive thing that I did.