In the world of interactive music games there are two franchises that stand out, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. With the inclusion of varied instruments, Rock Band stepped it up a notch, Activision and Neversoft responded with Guitar Hero World Tour but was it enough? How can the Guitar Hero franchise reclaim its previous title, especially with The Beatles: Rock Band coming out soon as well? Thankfully, Guitar Hero 5 steps it up a notch and helps the franchise reclaim its title, even if it may be for a short while.

When a new installment of an existing franchise comes out, it’s reasonable to expect the standard gameplay to remain the same with a few additions to enhance the experience. A little polish here, and some new shine there and gamers will generally return to what they’ve become familiar with. Guitar Hero 5, or GH5, takes the tried and true formula and runs with it. While the presentation has remained unchanged, the addition of a few new features is what really makes this one of the best GH games yet.

The biggest addition is the new Party Play mode. We’re all familiar with the difficulty of getting everyone ready to play a song, from choosing which character to play, the instrument, logging in, etc. It became a real hassle and took too much time. Party Play works and it works well, does away with this in a most agreeable way. It’s designed to enhance the camaraderie, while lessening the angst of getting ready to play. There’s no more divvying up the parts into a bassist, guitarist, drummer or singer. You can have three people playing the guitar part, or even all four if you want. The freedom to move between instruments, or jump in at any point really makes it easy and fun. You don’t have to pause the game for a person to switch, it’s all done on the fly. The Party Play is very versatile and friendly to all skill levels, they’re focusing on the fun instead of the hassle.

The Career mode has also received a bit of a makeover. You no longer earn money or need to tour and there isn’t any story to speak of. Instead, you’ll work your way through a set list at various locations, earning stars and unlocking new gigs and items along the way. Gone are the separate careers for each instrument and the difficulty levels associated with them. Now the focus has shifted to earning stars. Now every song has its own bonus challenge that enables you to earn a few extra stars. Challenges range from doing only upstroke strums on bass of tapping as many notes as you can, They vary song to song and instrument to instrument. They’re based on three levels: Gold, Platinum and Diamond. The more stars you earn the more that’s available to you.

Multi-player is still relevant in GH5 as well, with a new competitive multi-player modes that merges the standard Face Off and Pro Face Off. There’s also a mode called Momentum, which is a free-for-all where everyone starts on medium difficulty and then progress up or down depending on how well, or poorly, they play. There’s also the Do or Die mode where a player gets knocked out of the game for a while if they miss three notes in a given section. Streakers awards players for making streaks, a series of consecutive notes, with the value further increasing for longer streaks. Then there’s Perfectionist, where players are ranked for each section of a song by the number of correct notes hit. The top player getting the most points wins. Lastly, there’s Elimination where the person with the lowest score is removed until there’s only one player standing.

Like its predecessor, Guitar Hero World Tour, GH5 offers GHStudio, a feature that allows you to create your own songs using pre-recorded samples. Neversoft made some nice refinements to this mode with more and better sound samples, increased length in time for the songs and most of all it’s easier to navigate. Still, it’s a bit difficult to get a hang of and will take some tie to get used to. It’s really worth it for the extremely dedicated, otherwise don’t expect much out of it.

Presentation wise, Neversoft went all out with it. It’s the best looking Guitar Hero game yet and they’re really went for the gusto with the guest performers. From Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Muse’s Matthew Bellamy to past greats like Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain, they just add that little extra to the game. A great new feature for XBox 360 players is the ability to import your Avatar into the game. You can have your entire band looking like you and your friends. It was great seeing a COG soldier from the Gears of War franchise rocking on stage to some Megadeath.

Speaking of Megadeth, Guitar Hero 5’s music selection is one of the largest yet, at 85, but probably one of its weakest. The track list feels a bit too broad, especially when you go from Megadeth to Coldplay then some Peter Frampton. It’s nice that a number of the songs aren’t from high-profile bands and it’s great to see an eclectic mix of songs that many will enjoy, but as a whole it feels a bit weak. To make things worse is the disappointment in the import capabilities for the Guitar Hero World Tour song list. Only 35 of the 86 songs in GHWT were available for import, and for a fee to boot. There is a free download that will allow you to play any downloadable tracks from Guitar Hero World Tour for free, which is nice. The great thing about that is that the new gameplay features work with the imported DLC.

Still, despite my disappointment in some of the songs there are still a lot that can be played within the game and even more will be offered within the future since they’ve announced that all songs will be compatible with GH5’s new features.

Overall, Guitar Hero 5 is probably the best game to come from the franchise to date. It’s easier to enjoy, whether in Career mode or the Party Play mode. Fans of the series will have no trouble jumping right in and enjoying it. The new features and little tweaks make this worth the purchase.