Release Date: October 26, 2008
It's hard to believe how far the Guitar Hero franchise has come in only a few short years. When the IP launched in 2005, many hoped it would be the next big thing, but few were convinced. After all, developer Harmonix had already made two tremendous rhythm games in the form of Frequency and Amplitude, yet no one noticed. For all we knew, Guitar Hero would just be another underappreciated game that would gain a small cult following but never achieve mainstream success. Boy, were we wrong. Now, three years later, the series is gearing up for its latest run in the form of Guitar Hero World Tour, finally bringing the full band experience to the franchise. The only problem is, Harmonix, the progenitors of the genre, have already surpassed Activision and Neversoft with Rock Band, and try as it might, Guitar Hero just can't seem to close the gap.
By now pretty much everyone is already familiar with the basics behind the game, so the bigger question is what's new, and how does it affect the overall experience? The answer, as it turns out, is that quite a lot has changed since last time, both in the instruments themselves and how the game functions overall. The good news is that the gameplay innovations really could have paid off in spades; however, the bad news is that all of these great new ideas are held back by shoddy hardware, which is prone to failure and underwhelming performance.
First up, since this is meant to be a full band experience, World Tour has opted to include a microphone and drum set for the first time. The mic is nothing special, just your standard USB unit that tracks pitch and translates your dulcet tones on-screen. The drums are something else entirely, offering a new twist on what we've come to expect from plastic instruments and kicking the whole thing up to 11.
The World Tour drum set features five pads (plus a bass pedal), as opposed to Rock Band's four. Even better, the kit is divided into three pads on the main body, and two "cymbals" elevated above the rest of the rig. It's a simple change (and one that Rock Band will be copying soon), but the inclusion of cymbals in a two-tiered drum set go a long way toward enhancing the overall experience. It's really quite impressive how a seemingly inconsequential design tweak can make the whole experience that much more immersive.
While the design of the drums is great, their function is sorely lacking. The kit I used for review had a lot of sensitivity issues, with the red pad barely registering any hits at all and the yellow cymbal reacting to the pounding of any pad on the whole kit. Thankfully, Red Octane has provided a method to somewhat fix the issues, but it is both cumbersome and anything but foolproof. Soon after the game was launched, the company announced the creation of a PC app that would allow you to tune the sensitivity of each pad independently, meant to alleviate issues such as mine. Unfortunately, in order for the changes to take effect, users need a MIDI USB cable to transfer the data, not something most folks have lying around the house. Red Octane will provide one free of charge, but you'll have to wait on it, and in the meantime some might find the drums near unplayable. I managed to tune my kit to a respectable level, though the set is still, as a whole, faulty. While I appreciate any steps taken to help gamers solve a problem short of sending the whole set back in and awaiting a replacement, it would be far better if the instruments worked out of the box like they were supposed to.
Aside from the vocals and drums, World Tour also features the guitar and bass parts we've all come to know and love from the franchise. Those playing lead will now notice a series of ghosted notes that appear during sections of some songs, indicating that you can play the notes using the new touch pad situated on the guitar's neck, just below the regular fret buttons. This innovation is great for mimicking slides up and down the strings, as well as allowing gamers to finger-tap through those impossibly hard solos in later songs. It's a cool innovation, and one that had potential to be great, if not for hardware issues mucking it up once again.
Yes, much like the drums, the guitar is a victim of faulty construction as well, with some major issues arising in the touch neck. Not long after I started playing, I noticed the lanes on certain parts of the sensor failing to register, or others flashing in and out of existence even though my finger was firmly planted on the spot. Making matters worse, since the sensor also doubles as a strum bar, there were some moments where it would continue to register input long after my hand left, causing me to miss notes and nearly fail out of songs. Sadly, I abandoned the touch pad nearly as soon as I found it, quickly retreating back to the safety of the fret buttons.
There is one new mechanic that works perfectly well, and funnily enough, it is for the benefit of everyone's favorite unsung hero, the bassist. Every so often, bass players will be confronted with a purple bar running the length of the fret board, not unlike what the drummer sees for a bass kick cue. This is the new "open note," which is played by simply strumming without holding down any fret buttons whatsoever. It's yet another one of those little things that when you see it, you think to yourself, "Why hasn't anyone tried this before?"
On the instruments and functionality front, World Tour has made some bold moves in order to compete with Rock Band, but unfortunately, nearly all of them come up short. While the bass's open note is pretty nifty, all the other new wrinkles are stifled by faulty hardware. Once Red Octane works out the bugs and provides us with some consistently reliable instruments, things might really liven up, but for now, it's caveat emptor, and no crying when something breaks and you're left wondering if it's worth it to send away and await the replacement or just press onward and not utilize the game to its fullest.
Even though World Tour can't keep up with Rock Band when it comes to instruments, the game still does some things better than the competition, and one of them may just be the set list. While musical taste is a purely subjective thing, it's easy to applaud Activision for really diversifying their musical portfolio and including bands that were long overdue for a featured spot; we just didn't know it. In addition to acts we all expect, like Tool and Van Halen, there are some surprise appearances from the likes of Steely Dan, Willie Nelson and CCR. The game also manages to effectively get out of the franchise's '80s metal funk, presenting a wide variety of songs from the past three decades, including a fair number of modern hits. In all, the game features over 80 master tracks and amazingly, there doesn't seem to be a single dud among them.
Another area where World Tour seems to get it while Rock Band struggles is the career structure. Previous entries in the Guitar Hero series would present you with a group of songs that you had to play through one by one in order to unlock the next, harder batch. This resulted in a sometimes irritatingly linear and frustrating affair, forcing you to play through the music in a set order, often causing you to get stuck at one particular song that blocked your access to the next five simply because it was just too hard. This time around, though, the game has divided the gigs into three to seven song sets, each performed at a different venue. Each set you complete unlocks another somewhere along the line, and right from the start you have some genuine choice about which songs to play next. This method effectively combines the structure of previous Guitar Hero games with the freeform exploration of Rock Band to create a very satisfying compromise.
The final issue that must be addressed is that of World Tour's much-publicized studio mode. This section allows you to dabble in your own special brand of music creation, with mildly satisfying results. One thing the studio does exceptionally well is provide you with the freedom to let your imagination run wild and create just about any piece of music that pops into your head. You can freely record parts for rhythm and lead guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, layering them all together into a magnum opus of sound. The ability to change scales, octaves, pitches and effects on the fly all lead to a nearly infinite number of possibilities, and in the right hands, it's possible to concoct some truly impressive pieces.
Despite its merits, however, not too many folks are going to ever really dig into the studio, and even fewer will be fully satisfied with the results. Even though World Tour offers extensive tutorials on the studio mode, it's still rather daunting and requires you have a fair amount of songwriting skill and previous musical construction knowledge to even get started. I'm not saying you couldn't sit down with the studio and, given enough time, figure it all out and create some amazing tunes; I'm just saying that most people likely don't have the patience or musical understanding to make it work.
Even if you do know all about scales and arpeggios, there's still the matter of sub-par sound quality coming out of the studio mode. Due to the fairly generic base notes that lie underneath all of those fancy effects, the songs never manage to sound quite right, and the results still sound consistently amateur, no matter how professional the work. I'm thoroughly convinced that a major rock band could go into the studio to recreate one of their own original songs, and even with their knowledge, it still wouldn't sound right when it was finished. On top of all that, you can't record any vocal tracks whatsoever, so singing along is completely out of the question. While the studio offers nearly unlimited creativity, it still doesn't stack up to Rock Band's near limitless supply of professional, pitch-perfect downloadable music.
With Guitar Hero World Tour, it's obvious that Activision is trying to regain some of the mojo that it lost to Rock Band. While the game does a few things exceptionally well, such as a very smart career structure and an incredible track listing, it lags sorely when it comes to instrument quality and downloadable content. It seems as though the two franchises are taking divergent paths at this point, with Rock Band catering to the social, party crowd while Guitar Hero strives to win over serious musicians and the more hardcore gamers. As of right now, World Tour puts on a solid show, but when the next game comes around, we're going to be expecting one hell of an encore.
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