Since its inception the Guitar Hero series has been credited with creating a phenomenon of gamers jamming out to plastic instruments in the comfort of their own home. When it first appeared on the PlayStation 2 back in 2005 a lot of people (myself included) simply wrote it off as a fad that would fade away eventually. Well here we are three years and six games later and the franchise is still going strong. Last year original Guitar Hero developer Harmonix upped the ante by introducing the whole band experience with Rock Band and now the folks at Activision and Neversoft have fired back with the biggest box of plastic instruments ever thrown into retail space with Guitar Hero World Tour.
First let’s talk about the new instruments. Anyone who is a fan of these types of games knows that comfortable instruments and functionality are the two most important ingredients when it comes to the hardware. Guitar Hero has always had the better guitar in my opinion and with World Tour they once again raise the stakes. The new wireless axe comes with some much needed improvements while still retaining that classic GH feel. The buttons have been pretty much left along, which is good because they feel reminiscent of the Explorer and SG models. There is a new touch pad that can be used for finger tapping certain notes, usually solos, in any given song.
This new feature of tapping notes probably sounds good on paper, and if you ever get good enough to rock some of the songs without having to look at the note highway this can be a cool way to show off, but most players will likely ignore it much like the solo buttons found on the Rock Band guitar. The new strum bar has also received an upgrade and is now longer and more firm than previous efforts. I did notice some squeaking when strumming fast parts, but I imagine it will work itself out over time.
Another new addition is a Star Power button right below the strum bar that can be activated with your palm. This is a great addition for anyone who has issues tilting and keeping their notes straight during complicated parts. The whammy bar has been placed in a peculiar spot that seems the developers did not consider the idea that some players play left handed. It can be obtrusive when playing the guitar southpaw.
The biggest addition to World Tour though is the new drum kit, which is significantly different than the competition. For starters as soon as I got it out of the box and began putting it together you can tell it is much sturdier. The base feels more substantial and has a significant amount of weight to it. The pads are also much bouncier than I was used to keeping the annoying sounds of hammering drum sticks to a minimum.
The biggest difference with the World Tour drums is that instead of having four pads and a pedal it actually comes with three pads, two cymbals and a bass pedal. Factoring in this new note into your repertoire takes a few songs to get accustomed to, but once you get the hang of it gives off more of a realistic drumming vibe. If you want to use the Rock Band drums though the game recognizes you have them plugged in and simply reverts back to four notes seamlessly.
Of course the biggest topic of discussion when it comes to games of this nature is song selection, and this is again all about preference. Guitar Hero World Tour nearly starts the cycle all over again because outside of Metallica’s newest album all previously downloaded GH tracks do not migrate into the new game. This is extremely disappointing considering Rock Band will have over 500 songs (between disc and download) by the end of the year. However what is here is a set list that contains a lot of long-time requested bands and some obscure artists that are likely to appease some fans.
The biggest additions are certainly Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. It seems nowadays that both games are fighting for specific artists’ exclusivity and these two have been on the request block for some time. Some obscure mentions worth noting are bands such as NOFX, Lost Prophets, Muse, Michael Jackson and of course the much touted Tool three-song set. The diversity found in this set list is one of the best I have seen. You will also have the standard bands making an appearance such as Ozzy, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers and Van Halen’s classic ‘Hot for Teacher’. All of the tracks are originals and all sound great including the live tracks.
So far the DLC for World Tour has been consistent with new songs each week and the pricing structure has been modified to match that of Rock Band, so only time will tell if the songs keep rolling in. The key to keeping a game like this successful is new content regularly which is something past GH games have struggled with.
Probably the most prominent new feature for World Tour though is the music studio. Here you can create your own tracks and upload them to a service appropriately dubbed GHTunes for other users to download. This is by far the most intriguing portion of the new game because it opens the doors for a seemingly endless stream of new songs to play. As of this writing I have seen some truly spectacular works including renditions of classic Mega Man songs, AC/DC’s Back in Black and even some classic Nintendo tunes that will likely be removed before this review is posted.
When you first jump into the music studio things will likely feel daunting unless you have messed around with at least one form of music maker on a PC before. You can set up loops for continuous melodies, use pre-set music for fill-ins and even customize effects for your instruments to give various sounds. There is a limit on the length of your song and the sound quality is far from professional, but what is here works extremely well for a first effort. If you can find time to dedicate to learning the ins and outs of the music creator the only limit is your imagination. Except of course on vocals as they are not available in music creation mode for obvious reasons.
All of the traditional modes make a return for World Tour including quickplay, online and single-player mode; the biggest difference now is of course the ability to play with up to four people. The single-player outing sends you down a path of venues containing new songs that get progressively harder. This is very similar to previous Guitar Hero games and not quite as dynamic as Rock Band’s World Tour mode. This can be both a good and bad thing as you will not play the same song twice (unless of course you fail), but you will also never have random set lists or much interaction with the way you progress.
As far as the actual note charts anyone who played Guitar Hero 3 should know what to expect. Granted everything has been toned down and songs are no longer ridiculously impossible to complete, but the forgiveness the game permits is much larger than Rock Band. One thing that has changed though is that each instrument has been upgraded in one form or fashion adding a new layer of complexity. Bass players now have an open note that is simply strumming the bar without holding down any buttons. This sounds simple at first, but you will learn quickly it simple adds more to remember during fast charts. Guitar has the new touch buttons which simulate finger tapping and hammer-ons and pull-offs, but it also has added notes that string together. For instance you could start a holding green note, and then combine it with red and finally yellow for only massive string.
Drums on the other hand feel very similar to Rock Band outside of the extra pad and the fact that Star Power is activated by hitting both cymbals simultaneously. There are also times where you will get a free play mode where you can fill-in with your own style and actually earn points for it. Vocals are about what you would expect, but again feel very lenient on their forgiveness to hit certain pitches. Overall all of the instruments feel good and work very well together.
Customization also makes a triumphant return with the ability to create and tailor just about everything in the game to your liking. You can create a rocker from scratch with the new editor, which is amazingly complex giving you tons of options to create a personal avatar. You can also create custom logos that can represent your band and even be placed on your newly designed instruments. World Tour gives you the option to create guitars and drum from scratch right down to the strings and pickguards. Almost everything in the game can be customized and it really gives you a sense of personalization, I just wish the career mode had more focus on your band instead of feeling like a glorified single-player affair.
Guitar Hero World Tour manages to do a lot of things very well, but the problem arises when you realize that with so many options it is hard for one of them to stand out. The song list is excellent, but suffers now because of not being backward compatible with previous games. The music studio is an excellent first effort, but hurts from sound quality and complexity. The instruments are certainly the highlight of this package and in that regard they are surprisingly well done and will likely become my default instruments for all rhythm-based games. If Neversoft continues to improve this game much in the same way Harmonix is doing with Rock Band I think this is going to be a great year to be a fan of music games. Only time will tell if the market is strong enough to support to plastic instrument-based party games in the living room though.