Guitar Hero World Tour: Rock!

November 3, 2008

The Guitar Hero/Rock Band story is a long, convoluted one, but the long and short of it is that the folks who actually created the Guitar Hero franchise are now behind Rock Band, and Guitar Hero has been handed off to the people responsible for the Tony Hawk franchise. So, while the Guitar Hero name has been around for quite a while, the people now making it are relatively new to the group scene. This year, Activision’s musical Simon Says is stepping up for the full band treatment, and while it’s an admirable first effort, it’s obviously a first effort.

There are 86 songs by the original artists in World Tour, and unfortunately, no option to import more from prior games. When compared to the total number of tracks available for Rock Band 2, it falls way short. Considering the anemic download support, we’re still not sold that Activision can keep up with the competition. The selections themselves are solid, if a little dull. There’s a little too much music for people in their ‘40s for our liking, not enough indie stuff, and like Rock Band, there still aren’t enough songs that girls like to sing. Music is certainly based upon tastes, so judge for yourself accordingly.

You begin by creating a persona with a full-fledged character generator. No pre-fabs here. The options are the best in the genre, with the ability to place and orient each element of the human face. Instrument customization is also impressive as you can select every last piece of hardware that goes into building each one.

As you might imagine, there are some drastic changes to the structure of the game now that it’s about more than just guitars. Even though Activision has had a chance to watch the mistakes that were made with Rock Band, it hasn’t managed to capitalize on much of it. Some issues the first Rock Band had are present here.

In Guitar Hero World Tour you have to play through the band career to unlock songs for everyone to play. Strumming through the individual instrument careers only unlock songs for those specific instruments. So if friends come over, you’re going to have to look for a code to unlock all the songs. It’s also a little too archaic getting everyone ready to go, which can be a problem when casual players spill out to your place for a night cap.

The career mode itself is a little different from what you’re used to with Guitar Hero. Songs are grouped into gigs, so you’ll play sets of songs, and if you perform well enough, you’ll have a random encore to play. Once you complete a gig, several others are unlocked, giving you much more flexibility in how you progress. Duels against famous artists have returned, though it’s a standard tug of war setup as the powerups have been removed. It’s hard to become too invested in the career mode since it’s ultimately just playing through the entire track list in the order of your choosing. There’s no extraneous element to it at all.

Aside from the career, you also have head-to-head duels, quickplay, and a suite of online options. Here you can snag extra players to fill out your band or go head-to-head with other virtual groups. It’s not a bad start, and the tipping point is the music studio.

Some people like to say that electronic artists don’t have any talent, but after they tangle with the music studio in World Tour, they’ll have a new appreciation. It’s quite possibly the most complicated user-creation app ever included in a console game. Just working through all the tutorials can take over an hour, and you better pay attention. The problem is that no matter how good you get at it, the sound quality will be subpar. You can also not add vocals to any songs you create, though we have no rational idea why. We’re sure someone will create some songs worth playing, it’s just probably not going to be us.

For a freshman effort, Guitar Hero World Tour has a nice list of options. It’s behind the competition in several regards, but the inclusion of the music studio pushes the genre forward—albeit in a complicated direction.

Buying World Tour is a big investment, so the instruments had better be up to snuff. The big story here is the drum kit. Adding cymbal-like fans to strike adds a huge level of authenticity to playing. You actually feel like you’re rocking a trap kit versus a series of bongos with sounds assigned to them. The problem is that they don’t really work. We had numerous signal drop-outs, dead drum heads, and the cymbals constantly have to be tightened or they won’t register hits. The drums do feel great to play, so here’s to hoping that you get an issue-free set or that Activision has a timely replacement policy.

Playing the drums definitely takes some getting used to if you’ve been weaned on the Rock Band setup. Just like real drums, the game forces you to cross hands when using the high hat, but it’s all worth it when you reach up to crash one of the cymbals and feel like Neil Pert, if only for a brief moment.

The mic looks to be from the same exact manufacturer that makes Rock Band mics, and it has more than enough sensitivity. The guitars are an improvement over prior peripherals. The strummer is a cross between the mushy Guitar Hero axes and the clicky Rock Band ones. We love how it plays. There’s also a slider section on the neck that you can use to tap out solos or slide your hand along for a wah-wah effect. You never have to use it, and that’s a good thing because it’s difficult to get a feel for finger placement. Bass guitar has added the open string for increased realism, but with just one strummer there’s not much challenge involved. There’s also an alternate overdrive button you can press at the base of the virtual strings instead of yanking the guitar up.

These games attract a lot of casual players, so they need to be made with this in mind. The Rock Band camp got smart and included a no-fail option for those late nights with brave friends, but in World Tour it can be brutal. If one person fails the group fails, and there’s no saving band mates.

Note tablatures have traditionally been a strong suit of the franchise, but some songs are disappointing here. They’re certainly more difficult than those from Rock Band, but some of them simply don’t match the music. You’ll be asked to hit notes when there are none, or not hit notes that are there. It makes the game feel much more rigid. The song selection also plays into it, as there are far too many songs with dead portions where you just stand there and play nothing. At least the learning curve when you jump from one difficulty to the next isn’t as severe.

The biggest issue with playing Guitar Hero World Tour is poor build quality of the drums. Yet, when they actually work, they feel much more realistic than the competition. They even have a midi out port so that they can be integrated into a studio. The note tablatures could definitely have used some more TLC, but just like Rock Band, the feeling you get when four friends are rocking in unison is hard to put into words.

World Tour definitely has some extra sauce in the presentation. There are tons of different venues to play in, and when an encore is requested, the entire place will transform with some elaborate cinemas. The characters have been toned down from their iron-jawed predecessors, likely to fit in with the character creation tool. There’s no story, really, but the flimsy premise is moved forward by hand drawn art reminiscent of a Gorillaz album cover. Animation is solid, with the real rock stars pulling off their patented on-stage moves and the generic players accurately playing their instruments or singing to the music. In the case of the Tool gig, there’s no stage at all. Instead the visuals are representative of the band’s previously released album artwork. Overall, it’s a decent looking game, but who has the time to gawk at the visuals, anyway? With 100 percent master recordings, the sound quality is about as good as it gets.

Guitar Hero World Tour
is a valiant first effort. It has some wrinkles that you won’t find in Rock Band 2 and the drums have some durability issues, but when everything works and there are four people playing together in the living room, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two games. The song list is short in comparison, but the music creator softens the blow a bit—even if you’ll have to spend a lot of time figuring it out. Another viable challenger has stepped on the stage, but we’ll have to wait until the next tour before it becomes anything more than a warm-up band.