Guitar Hero: World Tour Review
Just after the end of Dream Theater's "Pull Me Under", a friend asked: in what world does the song's last line make any sense? I turned to her with a straight face and answered: "It's the world where our band has Sting on bass and Zakk Wylde on guitar, and we're rocking out on a viking ship flying through the sky being pulled by magical gryphons." It turns out it's actually Shakespeare that was quoted at the end of that the song, but yes, that scene is actually what we saw in the venue we had just finished - gryphons and all.
That whole wacky situation sums up the craziness that you can expect in Guitar Hero: World Tour pretty well. The music franchise that seemed to call out Dance Dance Revolution on being too weird and just embarrassing to be seen playing is back, and this time they've brought a whole band with them. Yep, following in the footsteps of Guitar Hero creators Harmonix, who have since moved on to their own Rock Band franchise, Activision and developer Neversoft have given World Tour the full-band treatment - assuming you buy the full package and use a second guitar controller, that is. But you'll quickly find that while Neversoft has tried to differentiate this new GH from the rest of the pack, their haphazard addition of features is very hit-and-miss.
It's going to be almost impossible to do this review without constant comparisons to Rock Band, considering just how much is similar between the two games. It's not just that you can create your own band members, not just that you unlock rock songs from the past 30+ years and play through them as a career or in a playlist, and it's not just that World Tour shares a good dozen songs out of 80+ with its rival, Rock Band 2. It's also the MTV style, the way notes are played and multipliers are gained and lost, and the antics of band members on stage in the background.
And it's also in the instruments: while World Tour does make a few changes from the Rock Band standard in adding the drum controller and microphone, the biggest one is adding a cymbal to the drum controller and then raising both cymbals up, giving the player a total of 5 pads to hit plus the bass pedal. Oh, sure, the guitar has some new touch panel that allows players to slide their fingers up and down in special parts of a song, but I find this feature rather gimmicky and I only wound up losing my multipliers; thanks, but I'll stick with the five fret buttons for those notes. Singers and drummers can now also activate Star Power whenever they want, which is a pretty important change for Rock Band players who are used to being told when they can activate Overdrive, but there's very little difference on the bass and guitar.
All that said, the drum kit is just plain fantastic. The raised cymbals add a much-needed element of realism to the whole thing, and the pads are large, quiet to hit, and very accurate. My RB2 drums suffer from a serious issue where hitting a pad a certain way will cause a double strike and force the game to dump my multiplier (this can happen many times in a row, too). GH:WT's drums are much better, and I also like having no crossbars on the bottom of the kit, giving me the freedom to slide the bass pedal away from me much more. If you're serious about video game drumming, you owe it to yourself to at least get a few minutes on one of these kits (yes, even if you've got a $300 ION Rocker kit for RB2). There have been some fairly major issues with the instruments reported , but considering how my living room has become like a graveyard for cheap plastic game instruments, it's not like this is the first time I've had issues with these things - I'm on my fourth drum kit across three games now, and have cast off at least three guitar controllers as well.
World Tour has also included some original content, like adding real musicians to the game - Billy Corgan, Sting, Ozzy Osbourne and his guitarist Zakk Wylde, Jimi Hendrix, Ted Nugent, and, well, Tool (sorta - it's very much in their own reclusive style). It's kind of weird because while Billy Corgan comes out for Smashing Pumpkins' "Today" and Hendrix comes out for "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Purple Haze (Live)", sometimes some artists will stay with you throughout the gig. Ozzy will stay on stage sometimes and sing songs from other artists, although it's still the original master tracks so it's strange seeing a rather convincing likeness of Ozzy - one of the best of these real-life licenses in the game - singing in the original artist's voice.
Most of the features from GH3 are back, like versus and online play, although one thing that I kind of miss was the ability to cooperatively play rhythm and lead guitar in some of the songs. Here, it's just guitar and bass that are available. Also, it seems to me like the look of the GH "highway", with its round-shaped notes and such, is just kind of outdated and old, being as it's hardly been touched since the days of the first game (and that even dates back to Harmonix' first major game, Frequency, from eight years back). Even Harmonix fixed this by spiffing up the note track in Rock Band, and I think for the next game a serious visual overhaul is in order. Even if Activision feels that this is some kind of "unique" or "distinctive" look, to me all it does is distinctively make the whole franchise feel old and busted. Guitar Hero deserves better than that.
The career mode is pretty simplistic, giving you a no-frills bankroll that you can use to unlock new venues and buy gear for your characters. Beyond that, you get some fixed setlists that you have to trudge through, whether you like half the songs in a set or not, and you are done when you've beaten every song once. This is kind of nice for those who are sick of playing oft-repeated songs like "Drain You" and "Eye of the Tiger" in the Rock Band games, but it also lacks a lot of the career-mode depth that one might be expecting as well. But the depth of gameplay is still there - vast changes in the note charts happen in the move between five difficulties (yes, five - there's now a Beginner setting), and playing the same song on a tougher level is like playing a whole new song, much less playing it on another instrument.
Playing together is, unfortunately, not really that fun for four people. The game has too much interface clutter, yet if someone gets in trouble, you can't figure out at a glance who it is that's failing - nor can you do anything to save them. If one person loses, you all lose, and sometimes you might even get into a disagreement over who it was that failed first if more than one person was in the red. It's just a frustrating experience; the game seems to want you to play at whatever difficulty is easy for you, so that you don't keep losing the song for the whole band while trying to make through a tough part. Challenging yourself puts an undue strain on everyone. Neversoft needs to go back to the drawing board for the next game here and work on their whole-band fun factor.
Singing in World Tour can be a little disappointing at first if you consider the Rock Band percent-based scoring to be the primary measure of your success, as this game is much more demanding and seems to cut up each segment almost into each word of lyrics rather than just a line. This means you'll get more partial credit, and less full credit for a whole line when you actually didn't quite get a few words in it. Hence, your percentage scores will be lower, but remember: it's more important to use your Star Power when your multiplier is high and contribute to a high score and star rating anyway. Overall, singing is pretty different here, but it's still got the same system for detecting tone and octave and then purposely forgetting about all that when it wants you to bark or scream at the top of your lungs as well.
World Tour includes a music studio portion that lets you sequence and create your own tracks to upload - others can download and listen to them, and yes, play them like a song. Lyrics aren't included in this system at all, though, so don't expect to get much out of this mode if you mostly sing. The issue here is that guitar-based music just doesn't come through well when set up electronically, so while the serious sequencer software for PCs and Macs can make great electronic and dance music, not even those can do much for a rock song. Don't expect much from the studio build into Guitar Hero, even if you spend the hours needed to master its rather cumbersome console interface and high learning curve. I expressed my doubts about this whole feature in an earlier preview for the game, and after listening to Neversoft's included songs made using this that are on the disc as well as hearing a few built by users, I have to say that they're just not much fun to listen to or play. This feature either needs some major work or should just get the axe for next year.
There's one final major difference between World Tour and Rock Band: downloadable songs. Harmonix has a nice easy lead now, with around 500 songs available in the Rock Band franchise and all of them can be imported, one way or another, into the second game. World Tour also has downloadable songs, but it doesn't import music from previous games and has far less content available online in total. So while it's cool to have Billy Corgan come out on stage, it's even better to have more of his music actually available to actually play. In this respect, Rock Band has the clear edge and will be enjoying it for a while unless Activision does some serious catching up.
Guitar Hero: World Tour has some interesting pluses - the drum kit is excellent, and there are a few gameplay perks to be found here and there. But to me the touch panel on the guitar is a bust, the mic is still wired (even though that Microsoft karaoke game Lips figured out how to do a wireless mic), and the game is rather light on content both before and after you're sick of the on-disc set of tracks. The Music Studio winds up being little more than a half-hour diversion for most people, and the look of the game still feels like the Guitar Hero days of yore. For next year, Activision and Neversoft need to really bust out in a new direction and give gamers something that's more oriented towards playing more music together with your buddies, rather than just adding feature bullets to the back of the box. If they can do that, they can overtake Rock Band. Until then, I'll be over here, playing the GH drum kit in the other game.