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Putting the band back together: Guitar Hero World Tour preview October 17, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Impressions.

I’m onstage in the Camden Electric Ballroom… yes, that Camden Electric Ballroom, preparing to murder Bon Jovi. Only figuratively, of course: he’s a lovely man, and I’d be happy to say that to any policeman. Lights above me are whizzing about. The sound system, I’m reliably informed, has been cranked up to eleven.

Tom from Eurogamer is next to me, a figure of intense concentration, clutching his guitar as if he was born to do this. Andy from IncGamers is sat on a stool staring at the drums below him, memorising the positions of the pads, ready to unleash his best impression of a gorilla doing an impression of Phil Collins. Chris, my fellow PSO scribe, coolly stands with his bass in hand, waiting for a decent analogy. And Leon from the Official Playstation Magazine hovers off stage, tapping his feet, itching to get on. Yes, we’ve got people in reserve. We’re that good.

The song starts with the famous bass line and I wait nervously, hoping that all those years in the junior school choir will finally come to fruition. Soon, I’m off and running: “Tommy used to work on the do-o-ocks…” A verse, then the lead-in to the chorus, and finally I’m there with the money shot: “Whoaaaaah, we’re halfway there. WHOAH-OH… LIVIN’ ON A PRAY-ER!” The crowd goes wild. This is, quite possibly, the most ridiculously awesome gaming experience ever.

Of course, we didn’t have an adoring audience (unless you count the lovely PR folk). We didn’t have proper instruments, either, just a couple of becoming-less-like-Fisher-Price-every-year guitars, an electronic drum kit, and a microphone. But for those four minutes, and many more over the course of the day, we felt like rock stars anyway. This is the power of music. This is the power of a mid-life crisis.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is Activision’s answer to Rock Band (though we’re careful to call EA’s series “The Scottish Play” within earshot of the PR people whenever possible), and the need for comparisons is higher than ever. Both games feature the same combination of instruments. Both games offer a large tracklist of hits, as well as ongoing downloadable content. So what’s going to separate them? GHWT has a couple of big things going for it in that regard: the quality of its instruments, and the music studio mode.

The instruments are a long way ahead of the original Rock Band’s. The drums are extremely sturdy, velocity sensitive with more bouncebackability than Iain Dowie could ever dream of, and feature a pedal that doesn’t snap in two if you breathe on it. From a hundred yards away. With chronic asthma. Even Eurogamer Tom’s patented “stamping test” didn’t manage to break the thing. The drums are made up of three pads, with two cymbal pads above them. For veterans of The Scottish Play, it takes a track or two to adjust to the new layout, but going back to “another” drum kit soon becomes unthinkable. The GHWT one just feels a lot nicer.

The guitar, meanwhile, has the familiar green-red-blue-yellow-orange button combination, but sports a redesigned neck, a nicer finish, and a longer whammy bar, as well as a less clicky strum bar, and even a button to activate Star Power for those people who get distracted from the song every time they tilt the neck up. The drums and guitars are wireless, with the microphone being a standard wired USB jobbie. So far, so good, then. Red Octane’s peripheral vision becomes increasingly impressive with each passing year.

The music studio was demonstrated to us briefly, but I didn’t get enough of a look at it to pass any real judgement yet. However, from what I did see, it’s impressively deep. Profound, huh? (More incisive news on this potentially fantastic USP for the game soon, once I’ve had the time to fully delve into my review copy.) A streamlined profiles system makes it much easier to start up a full band game than Rock Band (although we occasionally still had some trouble, probably due to videogames journo ineptitude rather than the game itself), and so for Quickplay purposes, GHWT proves to be far less hassle. Again, there will be more on the proper career modes in the review.

On, then, to what everyone wants to know about regarding the gameplay: the note charts. These deceptively important elements – regarded by many as the main weakness of Guitar Hero III’s gameplay compared to Rock Band’s – are much improved over last year’s version. There are no longer strange note progressions on the guitar parts, and in my time playing tracks on the Hard difficulty level, I only spotted an isolated few of the hated three-note chords. From what I understand, the boss battles from GHIII are out. Hallelujah! (Jeff Buckley.) The drum tracks are well laid out too, and the singing recognition is forgiving enough not to humiliate those who struggle to carry a tune.

The only potential Ringo in The Beatles is that the tracklisting isn’t as mainstream as Rock Band 2’s. This isn’t a problem for the guitar parts – after all, coming across a song you don’t know, and learning to absolutely love the shit out of its riffs, is a big part of the Guitar Hero experience – but it remains to be seen how not knowing many of the songs will affect full band potential when it comes to vocals. We’ll see. There are also questions about how the downloadable content will compare to Rock Band’s, given different strategies about albums, three track downloads, and single track releases.

But those potential niggles aside, which I’ll be able to fully address after I’ve sunk many more hours into the game, GHWT looks like a winner. The full band play is a real match for that of its rival, with better instruments enhancing the experience, and when you consider the music studio mode and the potential for amazing stuff coming out of the community, it’s clear that developer Neversoft has made a giant leap forward in its second year in the saddle. Whether it’s enough to beat Rock Band 2 is still unclear, but it’s certainly going to be a closer and more interesting scrap than Noel vs audience guy.

Huge thanks to Simon and Anna from Barrington Harvey for setting the day up for us, and for their overly kind words about my guitar + vocals rendition of “Shiver”.



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