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Channelling your inner rock star

Guitar Hero II: Hook this thing up to your TV at a party and I guarantee a good night

Globe and Mail Update

This next one goes out to all the readers of this space who do not play video games. It is a slow song, but be careful with those lighters if your news still arrives on flammable material.

Usually I envy you people and your active lifestyles, eyes that can process sunlight and copious free time to sample the finer things in life, like reading a good book in a park as leaves fall around laughing children.

But no envious green feelings this week. I know I am not supposed to admit this, but I am having fun — like Tom Hanks in Big fun, after he gets that job testing toys and before he decides to find the wish-granting Zoltar and go home.

Nice people called publicists have invited me to play with two new consoles due in stores this week, Sony's PlayStation 3 (today) and Nintendo's Wii (pronounce it "we" if you ask for one on Sunday). You can pick up or surf to tomorrow's Review section to find a detailed breakdown of these systems and Microsoft's Xbox 360, including buying tips for current gamers and neophytes.

But it is the games, not the high-tech boxes that play them, that lead to fun and good times. And one of this week's new releases is a blast even if it is not built for a next-generation console. It is called Guitar Hero II and it is for Sony's PS2. You may have heard about its predecessor, which was a surprise hit in 2005. I know most of the games I write about each week are aimed at a specific audience, like fantasy fans, real-time strategy addicts and men who are still in regular contact with their inner teen. But I compare Guitar Hero to charades or karaoke — this is a game for music fans, for groups and parties and families. Musicians, too, are reportedly among the game's addicts: Korn's Jonathan Davis, My Chemical Romance's Bob Bryar and the Donnas' Allison Robertson are all players.

Guitar Hero II does not change the basic mechanics of the original, so if you know how the game works, bear with me as I explain it again. Both versions come with a guitar-shaped controller that is about two-thirds the size of a real Gibson SG (the game and one controller cost about $80). The game's developers, Harmonix Music and Red Octane, have taken rock songs and broken them down into colour-coded notes and chords. As the songs play, you stand -- you have to stand, with the guitar slung below your waist since, as the game says, "you are not in the Beatles" -- and then press buttons on the neck of the guitar while strumming up or down. The notes scroll toward you on a slanting fret board that is superimposed over a virtual stage.

If you press the correct button and strum at the right time, the travelling note will burst into flames and the proper guitar sound will ring out. Get it wrong and you will hear a "plink," which can ruin a riff and cause the crowd — the virtual ones and the real people watching, in my experience — to boo.

You "pass" the songs by hitting enough notes to survive into the next round -- I have no musical ability so I play as if it were Space Invaders with a much better soundtrack — and there are points to be collected, including special multipliers that can be activated by tilting the guitar up la Eddie Van Halen or Tobin Sprout.

As you advance, you can access trickier songs by a wide variety of bands. This new version features Cheap Trick, Wolfmother, the Police, the Rolling Stones, Danzig, Nirvana and even Spinal Tap among the 50-plus outfits contributing tracks. Also new this year are detailed statistics about which sections you aced and the ones you botched, a practice mode so you can work on the problem areas, and a multiplayer mode that allows two people to play a song together, with one person playing the lead sections and the other choosing bass or rhythm.

Basically, hook this thing up to your TV at a party and I guarantee a good night. There are enough PS2s out there -- Sony has sold more than 100 million of them over the years -- that you should be able to track one down. There will also be an Xbox 360 version out next year that will allow users to buy individual tracks as the developers translate more songs into virtual rhythm tests.

Get hooked on a game like Guitar Hero and the excitement the Wii has generated with its motion-sensing controller begins to make sense, as do the long lines in Japan last weekend to get the initial batch of PS3s.

Until that happens, however, enjoy the park and the book. I am off to find Zoltar.

RHYTHM IS A DANCER

It takes more than a slick guitar player to make your living-room band rock like Poison. You need a good name -- dibs on Swear Engine, in honour of Deadwood's Ian McShane -- and a singer or two will come in handy to fill those quiet moments between face-melting solos.

There are several warbling games on the market that bring the joys (or the terrors) of the karaoke bar into your home. This week sees the debut of the latest SingStar game for the PlayStation 2, SingStar Rocks. The game uses two special microphones and a scoring system that measures timing and pitch to calculate points as you sing along to about 30 music videos. Rocks has songs by Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Nirvana and Queen, among many others, and there are four previous versions with pop tracks and eighties favourites.

From a scoring standpoint, SingStar falls into the Paula Abdul camp of talent rating. Get close to the correct pitch, even if you are just humming, and points will add up like dollars in Simon Cowell's bank account. But SingStar is less a game than it is a recipe for multiplayer fun at parties, and it works fine in those situations.

For more musical adventures on your TV, the Japanese developer Konami is the current rhythm-game king. Karaoke Revolution: American Idol (PS2) is due next month, and the venerable Dance Dance Revolution series, which uses a floor pad to score the accuracy of your dance moves, welcomes Ultramix 4 this week. The Xbox game will have 85 downloadable tracks for a total of 150-plus songs, the largest DDR library yet.

But the company's Beatmania, a PS2 game that lets you lay down drum tracks or even scratch records on a special peripheral, is underwhelming. If you want a drummer for your den ensemble then Donkey Konga, from Nintendo, is your best bet with its bongo-drum controllers. But take some advice from Guitar Hero: Don't give the drummer a solo unless you need a washroom break, and never let them hold the money.

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