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‘Guitar Hero 5’ stretches limits of music gaming

The recent release of “Guitar Hero 5” marks the third game released just this year from Activision’s profitable series.

Two more band games — “Guitar Hero: Van Halen” and “Band Hero” — and “DJ Hero” are scheduled for release by year’s end. Some might be overwhelmed by the over saturation of the music gaming market.

But that shouldn’t dissuade you from checking out the newest “Guitar Hero” game. After a slew of mediocre releases — save for the excellent “Guitar Hero: Metallica — dating back to “Guitar Hero III,” the newest entry from the series is the best effort by developer Neversoft, which took over the series from Harmonix in 2006.

At this point in music gaming, there’s really no reason to talk too much about gameplay because the advancements have largely stayed the same.

Where “Guitar Hero 5” succeeds is at its attempt to become the ultimate party game.

The developers scrapped the formula that a band must consist of a lead guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a singer. In this game, you can play with any combination, including four drummers in a band if you have four drum kits.

Players can jump in and play from the very start of the game. Others can jump in or out during gameplay. The entire 85-song track list is available from the start in the game’s quickplay option.

The track listing offers an amazing amount of diversity, perhaps too much for the casual gamer. There are plenty of well-known, famous tracks, but a good number of the game’s songs won’t be immediately known to many players. The biggest positive of the track list is that a large amount of people will be exposed to new music.

For a fee, you can import 35 of the songs from “Guitar Hero: World Tour” and 21 of the tracks from “Guitar Hero: Smash Hits” into the game. That’s less than half of the on-disc tracks for both of those games.

Some controversy has surrounded the game with the inclusion of former Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain as a playable character. Once you unlock the deceased singer through beating Nirvana’s songs in the game, he is available to put into your band. YouTube videos have sprung up with Cobain prancing around the stage singing to other bands music, even rapping Flavor Flav’s parts of “Bring the Noise.” Many critics have decried the disrespect for Cobain’s legacy, and Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, has even threatened litigation.

I don’t think Neversoft added the option out of malice, and I think people are making a little too much out of this. Maybe the company did exercise a little bad taste with Cobain — Johnny Cash is also available but strangely enough no one is upset by his availability as a playable character on any track. But it isn’t enough for people to get worked up about, and it certainly isn’t enough to mar a pretty strong effort from Neversoft.