- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

Here’s an abbreviated look at some family-friendly video games.

Guitar Hero 5 (from Activision, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99) — Let’s state the obvious: Activision is fighting a tough battle this year. Even as the popular granddaddy of the musical video game genre, it must still stand toe to toe with The Beatles: Rock Band juggernaut unleashed earlier this month by the competition.

It’s not going down without a fight, however, and this latest effort easily offers the most accessible and customizable Guitar Hero ever developed for the faux musician.

That’s kind of good and bad news.

The set of 85 songs from 83 artists means there’s a tune for everyone in the family, from lovers of No Doubt’s “Ex-Girlfriend” to fans of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or Arctic Monkey’s “Brainstorm.”

That also means, however, there’s 84 tunes that may not be appreciated, depending on the player’s demographic. I could have done without “Bring the Noise 20XX” by Public Enemy and “Wannabe In L.A.” by Eagles Of Death Metal, for example, but embraced Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and Screaming Trees’ “I Nearly Lost You.”

The game takes the World Tour premise from last year and generously embellishes it as four band mates in the same room or online use guitar and drum controllers along with microphones to follow scrolling, multicolored icons on-screen corresponding to notes and song rhythms.

Customizing band members’ looks and instruments has become an epic reality fashion show for four picky gamers. The marathon of style choices, from robust tattoo creation to a guitar’s headstock, can consume hours before a single note is heard.

Added features include multiple band mates playing the same instrument controller (two drummers, three guitarists, etc.), saving a band member who fails a song, and joining in or dropping out at any time. The Career mode also does away with collecting money for gigs and instead features winning a certain amount of stars or challenges to unlock venues, more fashion and gear.

An assortment of celebrity appearances, including Shirley Manson and Carlos Santana and the late Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain, mix with a really gorgeous and lively presentation.

Also, a very friendly party feature allows a host to simply turn on the game for songs to automatically play so guests can dive in quickly.

Competition (up to eight players online) is now standard and encouraged in a handful of versus modes, including Do or Die (miss three notes and wait to rejoin the action in the next part of the song) and a Rock Fest that sets up a series of song challenges determined by the players.

Round out the effort with being able to import Xbox 360 avatars as characters, create original instrumental tracks in a much more robust studio (for upload) and import most of the World Tour and Smash Hits set list for a nominal charge and Guitar Hero 5 is the all-encompassing choice for the fan of the genre.

No matter how much I might appreciate the latest Guitar Hero, however, and it is a very solid, I’ll still sing The Beatles: Rock Band song catalog a hundred times over before I would want to jump into the majority of songs offered here.

Although folks who purchase the game also get to mail in for a free version of the upcoming Guitar Hero: Van Halen, a pretty amazing offer, short of Activision also getting Led Zeppelin to join the franchise, I’m thinking the musical video game genre might have run its course.

Defense Grid: The Awakening (from Hidden Path Entertainment, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, 800 Microsoft points, $10). A critically acclaimed PC title ports over as an affordable Xbox Live Arcade download to dazzle players who love strategy and war.

Dubbed a tower defense game for obvious reasons, a player positions a selection of weapon-loaded turrets along paths soon to be filled with waves of invading creatures in hopes of stopping them from grabbing and stealing energy core orbs.

Through two dozen methodical campaigns, a commander eventually chooses from 10 types of upgradable weapon towers to hold off 15 types of sneaky and persistent enemies.

Those towers can pack quite a punch, including spewing flames, unleashing targeted laser beams, cannons shooting fire balls and even a pulse device to slow down an assault by the foes. The invading robotic alien crustaceans counter the firepower with force fields, flight, passing orbs off to one another, and some lumbering, nearly unstoppable bosses that can steal multiple energy orbs.

Twists to the action involve towers that have a limited attack range, the necessary accumulation of resource points (collected by defeating enemies) to build more towers, and later levels giving the enemies multiple routes of access.

Add 100 unlockable permutations of the campaigns (i.e., use a set number of towers or a certain amount of resource points), beautiful, gritty and futuristic three-dimensional terrain enhanced with some spectacular fiery explosions, and a calming British voice acting as computer assistant/narrator, and this microcosm of a Command and Conquer universe will temporarily capture a warmonger’s imagination.

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