Confession time: we can't play Guitar Hero on Normal mode any more. Yeah, you read that right: not 'don't', but 'can't.' Other games? Yeah, sometimes we like them easy. But in Guitar Hero, Normal just doesn't give us that buzz; that twitchy jolt of adrenaline that comes when your conscious brain shuts down and your fingers fly over the plastic. Orange notes are our drug, and we've been desperate for a fresh fix for months.
OK, we'll explain. Play on Normal in Guitar Hero and you're strumming along to a watered-down, low-fat version of whatever song you've picked. Chunks are missed out of runs, notes are ignored and - because Normal never uses that orange button - your hand never moves. Until you start playing on Hard you aren't really playing at all: that's when you're forced to play virtually every note in the song and make tricky chord progressions like a real guitarist. It's when you need to start using hammer-ons and pull-offs - which have mercifully been made easier this time around. It's also when you start to notice subtleties in songs you haven't heard before, and when you start to dream in button combinations. It's a beautiful experience, every bit as good as racing a perfect lap or doing a double flawless in Tekken. Some people, of course, will tell you that you'd be better off practicing the real guitar. These people are idiots.
HARD TO BEAT
Why is the difficulty so important? Well, because the best change in Guitar Hero 2 is its Practice mode. In the last game, you'd often ace the early riffs of a song only to come a finger-mangling cropper on an extended solo ten seconds before the end. Even if you managed to muddle through with a well-timed blast of star power, you wouldn't actually be able to play the solo - just survive it. Because you'd only get the chance to practice it once in five minutes of play and the notes just blur past in certain songs - think No-One Knows - sometimes you wouldn't even be able to work out what was going on, so you'd never get any better.
This is not a problem in Guitar Hero 2. Instead of just slapping in a never-fail option, Red Octane have included a comprehensive Practice mode that lets you loop any part of a song - verse, chorus, bridge or solos - and strum until it's hard-wired into your hands. If a solo's proving particularly challenging, you can slow it down to one of three speeds, then build your way up until you're rocking the plastic frets like a Vaseline-smothered Eric Clapton. It might sound like a minor change, but to serious players it's huge - suddenly, hitting the magic 100% on Expert sounds almost feasible, and frustration is eliminated at a stroke. Expect every other game to implement a similar mode soon.
The other, more frequently-mentioned changes for Hero 2 are bass and rhythm sections for co-operative play. These give songs yet another dimension: unless you're a decent musician, we'd practically guarantee that you've never noticed how good the bass section is in Sweet Child O' Mine. Playing together's a whole new experience: suddenly, you're forced to hold your bit of the action up when the lead guitarist fumbles a tricky riff, and whoop "Star Power!" for synchronised power-up activation. Our only complaint is the lack of a co-op career.
TRACKS OF OUR TEARS
Problems? Well, for what it's worth, we're not quite as keen on the new tracklist as we were on the old one. It's telling that our most-played songs are the Stray Cats and the Top Gear theme, and there simply isn't a punk tune on here that's quite as memorable as Infected or Fat Lip. What Guitar Hero always does well is introducing you to new songs - and making you realise that you actually quite like KISS - but the selection here just isn't quite tight enough for our liking.