Guitar Hero II is a game about rock music. And in a game about rock music, the guitar is a hero. During the game's 70-plus songs, the hero wails convincingly. The hero gads up and down the musical scale with electronic distortion. The hero strums rhythm when necessary. But the hero always rocks.
The hero is not the 3D computer-generated guitarist who plays in the band during Guitar Hero II's Xbox 360-created concerts. There are a dozen of these digital guitarists to choose from -- girls and gothy Germans among the tight-panted stalwarts -- and none of them are the game's heroes.
The hero only shows up when I play the right notes. In my hands, I hold Guitar Hero II's half-sized plastic guitar controller. There are five color-coded frets, a strum button and a whammy bar, all molded into white plastic in the shape of an electric guitar. It slings over my shoulder and fits under my hands like an axe.
The cord trailing from the controller to the front of the Xbox 360 completes the effect. I'm genuinely plugged in to the television, and when the onscreen band starts playing, all I need to do is press the appropriate colored frets and strum at the right time.
Timing the notes is extremely easy. There's no discernable lag between the rhythm of the song that's playing and the colored dot that drops to the bottom of the screen to indicate PLAY. The note hits with the sound, and as long as I press the same-colored fret with one hand and strum with the other, I get to hear the lead guitar filling out the rock concert onscreen.
As the game progresses, the same several dozen songs get more complex, and the fingerwork required to play something as simple as a chorus on "Cherry Pie" can become exasperatingly fun. But as long as I press the right buttons at the right time, I hear me playing the hero.
THE GOOD: The most famous songs and solos in Guitar Hero II are generally provided by cover bands. This is sometimes helpful. Not all of the songs originally had a prominent electric guitar solo -- "Rock This Town," for example, is thoroughly thrashed in Guitar Hero II. But the cover bands are the best kind. They respect and love the original music, and are interested in exploring different facets of it, not just ripping it off.
THE BAD: A few sheets of stickers (stars, a bomb, a stabbed heart) come packaged with the guitar, allowing me to decorate it like a butt-rocking middle-schooler personalizing a brown-paper covered textbook. Something a little more grown-up would have rocked better, especially considering the game's price tag of $90. That's steep for a plastic guitar and some stickers of skulls pierced by daggers.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Guitar Hero II is a finger-flinging music game that puts a guitar in my hands and lets me solo the soul of rock 'n' roll.