Real guitar heroes play 'Guitar Hero II'

On the eve of the video game's release, two axemen from Berklee College of Music get a sneak peak.

With a shrunken plastic Gibson SG guitar hanging from his neck, Will Townsend reaches for one final swig from a bottled coffee drink before casually turning back to the prompts on the big screen TV.

"This feels weird, dude," he says. "Oh man, this could be very embarrassing."

To his right is Rick Peckham. He happens to be the assistant chair of guitar at Berklee College of Music, just two miles down the road.

In the offices of Harmonix Music Systems, the company that created "Guitar Hero" – the 2005 video game phenomenon for Sony's PlayStation 2 – a guitar student and a professor are about to sample "Guitar Hero II."

When the second iteration comes out Tuesday, it will mostly resemble its predecessor – a game that probably won't make you a better guitar player, but will certainly let you feel like one. "Guitar Hero II" has an expanded song list and it's easier for two people to play together. Settings allow for both collaborative play and dueling.

Initially, there's some confusion: Where are the strings? No pick? And hesitation: "I don't know if I want to battle the assistant chair," says Mr. Townsend, a second-year Berklee student and Los Angeles native. But the two settle on a face-off.

As his avatar, the loose-limbed onscreen image that will represent him, Townsend picks green-haired punk rocker Johnny Napalm. Professor Peckham chooses the burly metal head Axel Steel.

The professor, clean shaven, bites his lower lip in concentration. The scruffy pupil leans back on his checkered Vans sneakers, showing little emotion.

When "Guitar Hero" came out a year ago, it was a sleeper hit whose success startled even its creators. Out of an unexpectedly respectable office building came a rockin' music-based video game designed to make gamers from technophobes and rock stars of the tone deaf.

"We're trying to make games for people who don't know they like games," says Daniel Sussman, who has worked on both projects. "And it's not just about playing games. What we do here, what we're proud of, is ... giving people that sensation of being musical, even if they're not."

An advertising poster on his office wall reads: "Kiss Your Air Guitar Goodbye!"

"Guitar Hero" went on to sell around 1 million units worldwide and garner some of the industry's top awards. (In September, Harmonix was bought by MTV.)

The teacher lets the student select the first song: "Anything you want," he says.

To start, players choose from a palette of anthemic guitar songs by bands such as Black Sabbath and The Ramones, as well as tracks by unsigned groups.

"Well, do you listen to Anthrax?" asks Townsend, as the band's aggressive music fills the room. He settles on the equally jarring "Laid to Rest" by Lamb of God.

The guitar console has five colored "fret buttons" and a "strum bar" where strings would be on a real guitar. On screen, colored gems, which correspond to both notes in the song and the colors of the fret buttons, scroll from bottom to top. Holding down the fret button with one hand (or multiple buttons for chords), the player plays the strum bar with the other. Points are scored by accuracy and consistency. No musical ability necessary.

The screen splits. Johnny Napalm (Townsend) is hitting more notes. "Nice tune choice," says Peckham, as his avatar, Axel Steel, falls further behind. Townsend wins handily.

The guitar hero as cultural icon – Hendrix, Clapton, Slash – seems to have gone the way of hair bands. But Harmonix's Mr. Sussman senses a comeback. Whether the game struck gold on the cusp of this return, or is actually helping resurrect interest, is anyone's guess, he says.

Round II is close; the bout goes to the professor. And then the tiebreaker: "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. "OK, I'm not going to hold back," says Peckham as the lead passes back and forth.

The outcome is one for the ages – disciple surpasses mentor. Final score: Townsend 2; Peckham 1.

Townsend doesn't play video games much. But he offers a characteristically understated endorsement: "If I had money to buy things, yeah, this is pretty cool."

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