Guitar Hero: World Tour Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2
Approaching Guitar Hero yet again brings about a multitude of feelings – once a revolutionary step for rhythm action games, now a fully-fledged gaming institution with new instalments arriving often more than once a year, it’s difficult not to see it as a total cash cow. However, finally coming into contact with World Tour, the latest in the series, has given us ample reason to breathe a sigh of relief.
The changes made to the fourth installment (fifth if you count Aerosmith – we don’t) in the series are pretty epic when compared to the transition between Guitar Hero 2 and 3, but that’s not to say that the general character and feel of the game aren’t still very much rooted in what made Guitar Hero great. Having spent the last 6 months or so playing the excellent Rock Band, however, it’s incredibly difficult not to spend every moment with the game analysing the similarities and differences between the two – something we’ll do an awful lot of during this review. With World Tour‘s addition of a drum-kit and microphone, it and Rock Band are in a league of their own. It’s kind of like when you’re in a relationship with someone who you love dearly, but you keep comparing her to your previous girlfriend. It feels somehow wrong and unfair, but it’s the only frame of reference you’ve got, and you keep doing it even though the first girlfriend has put on a load of weight and had her first child at the age of 21 since she left you.
…Sorry. Got distracted. What’s important to know is that World Tour still has what it takes to get you on your feet and shaking your head like a crack addict with palsy. The drums, with their velocity-sensitive pads, feel more like an entry-level electric kit than a video game peripheral. The choice to include raised cymbal pads, which initally feel like they were shoved on just to avoid a lawsuit from Harmonix, have actually turned out to be a really nice addition. Rock Band veterans will certainly find themselves getting confused to begin with (well, assuming they’re not just playing with the Rock Band kit, of course), but with a bit of practice it soon starts to make sense. The new, larger guitars with their elongated whammy and strum bars are as responsive as ever, and with a little more weight to them feel far more ‘grown up’ – imagine the Rock Band guitar, but with a strum bar that clicks properly, but not too noisily. The touch-sensitive panel below the five face buttons has been included for sliding notes on solos. It works, but feels a little redundant – not many of the songs have sliding sections (marked with darker notes, with purple lines running between them) long enough to warrant switching to the touch-panel, and you can quite happily just keep using the standard fret buttons for these sections – you just don’t need to hit the strum bar. It’s also worth noting that both the guitar and drum peripherals are completely wireless, which is a welcome feature when attempting to fit four grown men into a room the size of a garden shed.
Those of you who have followed the Guitar Hero series from day one will remember that Guitar Hero 3 took a fair bit of flak from the fans, largely due to its confusing and sometimes inconsistent note-charts – musically identical sections of songs would have slightly different note patterns in the game, for example, which frustrated a lot of people. The good news is that this frustration seems to be largely absent from World Tour. Whether or not this is a tell-tale sign that Neversoft simply threw Guitar Hero 3 out of the door as soon as possible in order to keep the lights on, is unclear – but they’ve taken a step in the right direction nonetheless. Even on higher difficulties, sections of notes that look utterly bewildering still manage to flow perfectly, making you wonder how you even managed to do them without missing a note. Which isn’t to say the game is easy, of course – there’s still a few face-melters in there, and the tracklist is generally a fair bit more interesting, apparently learning from Guitar Hero 2‘s example of eschewing interminable tapping solos in favour of songs with genuinely interesting structures and unusual rhythms (with a few stunningly bland exceptions – whoever decided to put Linkin Park in the game needs shooting).
Tackling World Tour as a single-player experience (as many of you may have to – the solus and guitar editions will be available first, with the full band edition coming in the following weeks), it certainly feels a lot more complete than Rock Band did. Put simply, playing Rock Band on your own felt like you were only playing a quarter of the game at a time, and you were missing out on the full experience. Songs would have simplistic or repetitive guitar parts, and sometimes feature lengthy sections where you play nothing at all. Some of this is present in World Tour, but it’s nowhere near as obvious – played on your own, it still feels like a Guitar Hero game, and you don’t get the feeling that you’re missing out on anything else.
But what about multiplayer? Well, this is where World Tour does start to let itself down a little. Online, the multiplayer is fine – doing pro face-offs against your friends is just as compelling as it was on Guitar Hero 3. Offline, though, World Tour struggles to hold a candle to Rock Band‘s sleek presentation and alarmingly uncluttered interface. Harmonix did well to cram so much information into one screen, enabling all four players to clearly see what they’re playing, and also how well the band is doing as a whole, and Neversoft have failed to recreate that magic. Again, perhaps it comes down lawsuit-dodging, but while World Tour‘s interface appears largely the same as Rock Band‘s, there are a couple of changes that make it considerably less helpful. The most obvious change is that, whenever your band fails a song, you’ll all turn to each other, looking confused and trying to figure out whose fault it was. Rock Band, on the other hand, always made it clear who was messing up, and gave the other players a chance to pull them back into the game. Couple this with the fact that players appear to be able to activate each other’s Star Power, whether you want them to or not, and you’ve got a multiplayer experience that feels a bit bloody confusing.
One area where World Tour completely smacks Rock Band in the mouth, however, is instrument creation. Rock Band allowed you to take pre-made guitars and change the colours and such on them – World Tour, on the other hand, lets you build them completely from scratch. Starting with the body shape and colour, you then go on to apply decals, change the fretboard pattern, headstock design, and so on. Coupled with the fact that you unlock more body shapes as you make your way through the game, it seems safe to assume you’ll be spending as much time messing with the appearance of your gear as much as that of your actual character – the latter being an area where World Tour matches Rock Band pretty much evenly, too.
One of the most interesting inclusions in World Tour is the Guitar Hero studio. This consists of two different modes – an on-screen virtual studio where each part (be it lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, or keyboards) can be recorded in real-time, and an editing suite where the recorded instruments are nudged, tweaked and mixed down so that they can then be uploaded to GH Tunes, the online repository for user-made tracks, and shared with all the other budding pretend-musicians around the world. At face value it’s an incredible addition to what is already a substantial package, providing plenty of opportunity for free user-made DLC. What Neversoft give with the right hand, however, they take away with the left. Though the layout of the studio means that four people can sign in at once and jam together using a variety of different guitar effects and drum kit settings, recordings are limited to one setting, and can’t be changed during a song. The same goes for the key and scale for each instrument, heavily limiting what could have potentially been accomplished.
The user-interface also tends to be overly complicated, the best (or rather worst) example being the use of the guitar’s tilt sensor to change octave when recording in real-time, often resulting in sporadic high and low notes thanks to its overly-sensitive nature. The guitar is also used to alter settings and browse menus with no alternate option to use a standard controller. This becomes particularly troublesome at the editing stage, when a simple task such as adjusting a note’s location in a song becomes an all-out operation. There are also a handful of things – the ability to quantize a song’s notes, for example – that have been completely left out. That said, for their first effort to bring a diverse editing program to a general user-base, Neversoft are to be commended. It’s just hard not to feel as though too much has been crammed into too small a space.
Still, shortcomings aside, for a game that everyone thinks of as a shameless copy of Rock Band, Guitar Hero: World Tour has come off extremely well, and throws in more than enough good ideas of its own (and some slightly rubbish ones, admittedly) to make itself a worthy contender to the rhythm-action throne. There’s the slightly prickly issue of Rock Band 2 being on its way, but here in Europe we’ve got no idea when it’s actually going to arrive, so it’s fairly moot. As it is, if you’ve already got a Guitar Hero game/controller and have no intention or pursuing the whole ‘band’ thing, you’re better catered-for with World Tour, than with a solus copy of Rock Band. If you’ve already got Rock Band, then you’ve already got all the gear to play World Tour, so it’s a no-brainer if you fancy another 86 tracks to play. If you don’t own either… well, World Tour has superior instruments, while Rock Band has a better multiplayer mode, so you might want to consider getting the full World Tour set and, if you find the multiplayer a bit lacking, consider hunting down a solus copy of Rock Band as well. If you’re rich, I mean.
If you’re not, just get World Tour with the guitar. It’s really good.