Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Preview
I know. You're sick of music games. You've played hundreds of tracks, and they always play the same way. Little gems come down the screen, and you hold a button and flick a thingy for each gem that reaches the bottom of the screen. But the developers at Neversoft and Vicarious Visions are quite aware of how many people are tired of it, so they're trying to encapsulate that basic gameplay with new features, modes, and some excellent music choices for the sixth major Guitar Hero game, Warriors of Rock.
Some people noticed that something like nine Hero games were released last year across all platforms, and by the time we got to the end of the year, Activision had to practically give Guitar Hero: Van Halen away just to get the discs out of the warehouse. You'll notice that there are only two Hero games coming this year: Warriors of Rock on September 28th, and DJ Hero 2 in October. (Ok, three: an iPhone version was released this last June.)
At an event in San Francisco, we got to play with a pretty-much-final version of Warriors of Rock in a bunch of ways, and play with the new instruments, the wacky new story mode (which follows the plot of a good heavy metal album cover more closely than it does some fake cover band's tour schedule), and the Wii/DS connectivity options that will have eight people in one room playing at once. Oh yeah, and we played some fantastic new tracks that focus on a love of the instruments and the bands that are playing them.
My first impression was that this year, the developers were very careful in choosing their songs. For example, The Cure's "Fascination Street" has a powerful, driving bass rhythm as well as a drum track that's predictable so you can play it without guesswork, yet it's also fun and exciting for its loudness and prominence in the song. The devs could have chosen just about any song from that era for The Cure, but they chose this one, and I think it was a great pick. You'll find that many of the rest of the songs follow this same route: when played in a setlist, these tracks from different artists complement each other, but they're also favorite picks from the actual fans. Harmonix doesn't always find that balance in Rock Band, and often, for some reason, picks unpopular songs from otherwise great bands. There's obviously a lot more to putting music in a video game, including licensing issues, degradation or loss of original master recordings, and the fun factor for everyone in a potential band playing, but no one I know loves more than half of any given music game's on-disc tracks - even after having played every track in the game. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock may change that.
There's always been something a little more nerdy and less cool about Guitar Hero over the years. Let's face it: while Rock Band had you playing Weezer's "Buddy Holly" in a little club, Guitar Hero had you playing Dream Theater on a viking ship flying in the sky. But this year, I think the developers are putting a lot of effort in to embrace both: heavy metal and Rush's 2112 are in there for one group, while "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Aerosmith's "Cryin'" are in for another. I don't know if that means we'll see Guitar Hero being played more often than Rock Band 3 at parties this holiday, but that does seem to be an aim.
Speaking of parties: Party Play mode, which in my opinion was the best feature Guitar Hero has ever added, is back and in great form. I think the only thing I wish we could do at this point is be able to choose a specific song to switch to without killing the music entirely. You've still got great features like two or more people being able to play the same instrument (move the coffee table and couches out of the way, fellas - four drum sets at my house this weekend!), vetoing songs to have the game move on to the next, automatic no-fail mode, and switching difficulty on the fly. Of course, Guitar Hero has always been more about the technical aspect of flawless solos and trying to 100% songs than Harmonix' more mainstream-friendly cousin was, and that's all still here in the Quickplay+ mode as well.
The new hardware isn't drastically different than the previous stuff. Touch panels are gone off the guitars, and the "wings" on the guitars can be removed and replaced with new pieces if you really feel the need to express yourself through your video game controller. The drums are very similar to what we've seen before, but now there's a removable drum brain that you can plug a real electronic drumset into via the MIDI interface. That's a feature I expect few to actually use, but for those who are real drummers, it's nice that both GH and Rock Band this year will have MIDI support for those real musicians that still want to play the video game with their non-musician friends. The important part is that all the hardware I tried feels solid and works great, and I think it's a testament to the quality of the Guitar Hero hardware in that I've had so many fewer issues with it than I have had with the Rock Band hardware of the last few years. (Ok fine, the feel of the GH drums still pales in comparison to the nearly-impervious ION Rocker set, but then again, those drums cost more than a full band GH kit has cost in past years.)
The Wii version of the game has the expected drop in visual quality in non-HD modes, but the sound is just as good as on the other console editions - something I confirmed with good quality headphones. The menus and song selection system have lower-quality music, but it's crisp and sharp when you get in game. Other than that, there's a matchmaking interface for online multiplayer on the Wii without friend codes, which is apparently a first. There's also some DS connectivity where players can get into cooperative and competitive modes with little stylus-based mini-games via their wifi-connected DS's (presumably without cartridges). A feature like this may not appeal much to the grown-up parties, but it looks like a good way to get the kids involved. And all the GH peripherals will still require an inserted Wiimote, which would be fine, except the Wii versions of the hardware isn't usually offered at much of a discount compared with the other consoles. Considering you've got to buy and insert your own Wiimotes, it can get expensive. Maybe that'll change this year.
In talking with the Guitar Hero developers, I could see a passion for the music that, in some ways, may not have been there in past years - or at least, maybe it wasn't as evident in actually playing. The disappointment of music game sales in 2009 hit these guys hard, so now they've got a renewed sense of what makes these games great. And it's clear after seeing the Rock Band 3 presentation at this year's E3 that Harmonix has them beat on adding all kinds of new gear and play modes inside the note highway, but the guys behind Guitar Hero are focusing on great music and adding a story (that works outside the highway) to keep people playing. From new challenges for all songs - even imported and DLC songs - to upgrades that let you get to ridiculous 40+ multipliers in the story mode, there's a lot here to get people playing and keep them playing after a week or two.
As someone who played every single Hero game last year, I suppose I'm just a sucker for music games. But even I was downright sick of it by the time Band Hero lurched and fumbled its way onto store shelves late last year. I have to say that after about a year off, I'm ready to get back into what makes music games actually fun, and this next game in the series looks like it'll satisfy that desire quite nicely.