IGN Review of Guitar Hero World Tour
When Activision picked up RedOctane a couple years back and snuggly tucked the Guitar Hero license under its belt, the publisher wasn't planning on letting its investment go to waste. After original developer Harmonix was picked up by MTV Games and went on to create Rock Band, the torch was passed to Neversoft, the folks behind the oh-so-many Tony Hawk titles. The studio's first take on the franchise was last year's Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which was followed up earlier this year with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, a side project of sorts for the series (Guitar Hero: Metallica is also on the way for sometime in 2009).
And now we have the "true" sequel to Guitar Hero III with Guitar Hero World Tour. For the first time in the series, the game will offer fans the ability to play the drums and sing as well as rock out on the guitar and bass. This scenario clearly sounds an awful lot like Rock Band, and in some ways the game is extremely similar to Harmonix's band simulator. However, as much as it's tried, Neversoft hasn't been able to catch up to Rock Band quite yet. And yes, I'm talking about last year's game, and not even Rock Band 2.
Let's start with the good bits. If you've been following the game's progress, you'll already know how impressive the set list is. From Van Halen to Jimi Hendrix to Joe Satriani to Tool, the lineup of included tracks is mighty impressive. There are even a couple surprises on there, such as Willie Nelson's live rendition of "On the Road Again", which actually turned out to be one of the most fun tracks on the disc.
One pretty interesting bit about the track listing is that Activision and Neversoft managed to sign on Tool to contribute three songs. Fans of the band (including myself) are obviously pleased by this, but what's really worth noting here is that Neversoft worked with the band to create something unique and different than the other content from the game. The songs are originally played in a Tool-specific venue that blends art and content from some of the band's more recent album work and videos. You don't even see any band members -- it's just the pulsing, undulating and flowing artwork and the note highways. It's very cool to see that Neversoft was capable of working with the band so closely and that it was able to portray the art and mood so well.
We've gotten to the point with music titles where the downloadable content winds up being just as, if not more, important than the stuff included on the disc. Like the Rock Band titles, Guitar Hero World Tour features a store built right into the game, allowing you to purchase new tracks without having to quit out and purchase them through the Xbox Live Marketplace or PlayStation Store. One TBD bit about this whole part is that since World Tour is a full band experience, content that you downloaded for GH3 won't transfer over (with the exception of Metallica's Death Magnetic). So right now, there isn't a whole lot of stuff available, and the store works fine. When it starts getting packed with content, there may be organizational issues as the setup is pretty simple right now, but again, we'll have to see how that turns out as Neversoft could certainly patch and update the store as it grows.
The game's progression has changed this year. In previous iterations of Guitar Hero, you'd get a handful of songs at a time, be able to play them in whatever order you wanted, and then once you'd beaten them all you'd unlock the next (and more difficult) set. This time around, the "chunks" are broken up by gigs. You browse through ads and show flyers posted on a wall that show you your available options. Each gig has a handful of songs and usually an encore, and when you choose a gig you have to play through and beat all of the songs in order. Beating a gig will always open at least one more gig, and usually more than one. It gives the game a much more non-linear feeling than the previous titles as you can skip a gig if you want, though you won't know what the encore songs are going to be and may miss out on something that you really want to play.
For playing by yourself, this is a respectable if very basic setup, though it doesn't really cut it in full band mode. You don't gain fans, hire anyone, play special gigs of any sort (like to win a bus or what have you) or anything along these lines. I'm not saying that the game needs to be set up the same way that Rock Band is, but there should be something more at this point. Perhaps you could have signed record deals and had a limited number of takes at recording each album, and then you'd track its success on the Billboard 200. Whatever the solution, there should have been more than just playing all of the songs one by one until you're done. Really, you will have just as much fun simply rushing through the songs on your own, and then playing on Quick Play when you have friends come over.
Speaking of playing on your own and in a band, it's worth noting that your character's cash, clothing and all that will carry over, but your song progress won't. Even if you pick a custom set list, you won't be able to choose from the songs you've beaten by yourself, only what your band has earned.
My issues with the full band mode don't end with the very basic gig setup, however, as there are presentation issues all over the place. Firstly, there's no dedicated band management screen. When you choose to play as a band, you assign someone as the band leader, and then that person's band information applies to everyone else. This seems fine, except that the band info is attached to the character, and not the band. So if I want my character to play solo shows and band shows with my friends with me as the band leader, my band name and logo will be the same in both places. Also, since there's no band management screen, you simply choose "Band Info" on the character select screen to set your name and logo. The confusing thing is that everyone can do this, with everyone having a unique setting, but only the band leader's actually matters when playing as a band. Make sense? Probably not.
The presentation issues continue... When someone in your band is doing poorly in a song, you're alerted in two ways -- said person's note highway (the thing the notes cruise down on) will flash red, and the rock meter will of course be in the red. But, it doesn't play a sound, flash on your spot on the screen or anything like this. So unless you have a habit of looking around at other parts of the screen, which is no good on the faster songs on higher difficulty levels, you won't know you're about to fail out unless the person who's struggling tells everyone else in time. Unlike Rock Band, you can't save someone if they fail -- as soon as anyone does, the whole band loses, which makes this entire scenario even worse.
There are some positive elements in the presentation department, however. One is that when you choose Quick Play, you can create a set list to play of up to six songs. A nice feature here is that you're able to skip a song in the set list if you decide you don't like it, if you keep failing or what have you. This is especially nice with regards to the created content, which I'll be coming back to.
Also, Neversoft has added some pretty good customization features this time around. You can create your rocker from scratch, setting his facial structure (with sliders even, and not just predefined heads), hair, clothes and so on. Much of the clothes and whatnot are unlockable, so you'll open up more as you play, but everything looks pretty good. There aren't as many options here as what you'll find in Rock Band, but you do have a good assortment to work with.
Aside from that, you can also customize your instruments. For guitars, you can choose from different bodies, necks, head stocks, bridges, hardware, knobs and even strings. For the body and headstock, you can even go in and apply your own custom decals with full layer editing at your disposal. Drums are similar, though you don't have quite as many options. You can edit the logo/artwork on your bass drum if you'd like. Very cool stuff all around here.
As far as the actual play mechanics go, there are a few new elements in World Tour. One is that bass players will now find a bar going across their note highway, just as drummers do for the kick drum. When this happens, you simply strum without holding a fret button. It gives the bass player a sixth note to deal with, but it doesn't really up the difficulty since playing no frets is, well, a piece of cake. It does add a lot to the experience and makes it more realistic, and it's something I'd like to see added to the guitar as well. Some of the faster songs are actually easier to play on a real guitar since you can change chord positions while playing an open string, while with these games you always have to have a fret button pressed.
There are a couple other additions here and there, with the biggest change coming in the form of a blue-ish line during some guitar sections. When these bits appear, you can either play these notes as per usual with the fret buttons and strum bar, or you can use only the new touchpad on the World Tour guitar. Located on what used to be the "empty" part of the guitar neck, between the fret buttons and body, you'll find a new touchpad that lets you do a handful of things. One is that you can play these guitar sections by simply touching the pad in the corresponding location, and then slide up or down to subsequent notes.
You can also tap the bar to strum a note, which you can do to fake a tapped solo, or you can hit it with your thumb like you're slapping a bass. While you're holding a sustained note, running your finger down the touchpad will cause a wah-wah effect.
While there's a lot you can do with it, only some of it is actually useful. The wah-wah stuff is fine, though I still greatly prefer to use the whammy bar on sustained notes, but that's a matter of opinion. Tapping it to play notes instead of strumming works pretty well, but it's not quite as accurate as the strummer, so you'll want to stick with the real thing for perfection. Unfortunately though, using the touchpad during the solo sections is really difficult. While it works, it's very easy to lose your hand position and play the wrong note. I'm sure that some folks will master it and be able to nail some sections with it after memorizing the hand placement, but it'll take some work. There are small crevices between each piece of the pad, but there isn't a solid placement marker like the tab on the yellow fret button to help keep your hand in place. Also, the colors on the pad are inset in the guitar, so you can't really see them when looking down on it.
What's possibly the most unfortunate part is that I had issues with the touchpad thinking I was touching it when I wasn't. It was worse on one of our guitars than the other, but I still had problems with sustained notes dropping off and that sort of thing on both models. It was somewhat rare, happening once every half-dozen songs or so, but it did happen. The worst instance was when I started a song and I just heard the "clink clink clink" sound like I was messing with the strummer and I immediately failed, even before any notes hit the screen. I wasn't even touching the guitar when this happened. Now, since this is worse on one of our guitars than another, it's possible that this particular one has some aggravated issues and that yours won't be as bad, but obviously this is something that needs to be pointed out.
Fortunately, the older guitars work perfectly fine with the game and you'll be able to do the same stuff in either case. Perhaps the only notable loss here is that you wouldn't be able to easily palm mute notes while recording a song (the new guitar's Select/Back button take the form of the guitar's bridge, and you can depress it to palm mute), but that's a small loss.
Since we're on the subject of hardware, let's talk about the drums for a second. While the Rock Band kits feature four pads on a "flat" surface, the Guitar Hero World Tour kit has three drum pads plus two cymbals, as well as a kick pedal, of course. Coming from Rock Band, it takes a little while to get used to playing them, but I like the set quite a bit overall. Having the cymbals raised above the other pads feels much more like a real kit, which is cool. It's also very quiet, and there's a good bit of bounce to it. Unfortunately, there isn't a bar that runs between the stand's feet, which means the kick pedal has nothing to cling to, so it can slide around quite a bit. It is covered with a sticky surface on the bottom, but I still had problems with it moving around on me, and in one case turning sideways mid-song.
On the whole, I prefer the wider timing of the last few Guitar Hero games than what you'll find in Rock Band. You don't have to be as accurate timing-wise, which means that solos and longer note runs are easier to hit. It feels more like playing the real instruments to me, which is obviously a good thing.
However, I am sometimes frustrated at the accuracy of the note translations. There are sometimes extra notes that shouldn't be there, or you'll have to play two fret buttons when the actual guitarist is playing a single note, making the song more difficult than it should be. This isn't the case for every song, and some passages are worse than others, but it's definitely an issue for me. I also don't really dig some of the very extended hammer-on sections where you can strum once and play 50 notes. I suppose it's fun on some level, but the purist in me wants the game to force you to strum when the actual musicians do.
Regarding vocals, they by and large work exactly as you'd expect. You're given the option for both flowing and static lyrics, which is nice. There is one issue though in that with songs where you just rap or scream, like "No Sleep 'Till Brooklyn" for instance, where the note bar just sits in the center of the vocal chart. With Rock Band, it drops to the bottom to let you know that it doesn't matter, but that's not the case here and it's confusing as it looks like the game just wants you to be monotone. It also doesn't do a good job of telling you if you actually get the word correct, which means you'll often be left wondering how you're doing until the song is over.
While the on-disc and downloadable licensed content is obviously the bulk of what most people will play, Guitar Hero World Tour also offers the ability to create your own music. That's right -- you can lay down your own drums, guitar, bass, solos and even keyboards right into the game, and then upload your creations for other people to play.
To download other folks' creations you head to GH Tunes, which is essentially the equivalent of iTunes within the game (though obviously not nearly as expansive). From here, you can search by genre, top artists, most highly rated, and so on and so forth. When you choose to preview a track, it'll actually download to your system and then play for you (the file sizes aren't very large, making this feasible). If you like it and choose to save it, it'll keep it in your play list. Otherwise, it'll just trash it as you move on. Once you have a few tracks downloaded, then you can jump into the game and the songs will show up just like anything else.
The creator itself comes in two parts -- the Recording Studio and GHMix. The Recording Studio is where you will likely do most of your live recording. Four people can record at once, and you can patch in at any time (meaning you can play and then switch to record on the fly). The controls here are mostly basic -- pressing Start will bring down a menu where you can switch instruments, change effects, set your scale and so forth.
The only complicated part here is the Play/Stop/Record/Rewind controls. To rewind, you press left on the D-Pad. To play, you press right. That's fine, but to record, you need to press right then left. There's unfortunately no hint anywhere on the screen to tell you this, so if you don't jump in the studio for a while, or try going in without watching the tutorials, you may have a hard time just figuring out how to get the thing recording.
The Recording Studio mostly works as expected, though you don't have as fine of control as you might hope for, but that's what GHMix is for. Unfortunately, there is one major issue with live recording -- there's lag. While it's well under a second, it's still very significant and will certainly throw you off the mark. Really, it's pretty inexcusable that the lag exists at all as music is as much about timing as it is pitch.
Heading to GHMix (you could do the whole song here if you wanted), you have much more control over your recording, though it's a solo job here so your band mates will have to wait for their turn. Here, you can copy and paste sections, delete and replace individual notes, slide sections around to add in parts and more. GHMix is reasonably powerful overall, though it's not even close to approaching full-fledged recording products like Sonar, Pro Tools or even Garageband.
While it doesn't take long to figure out what GHMix is capable of, the interface is convoluted enough that you'll constantly need to reference the on-screen button help to figure out what to press. For example, you always press the green fret to choose an option, but then when you want to paste content, you press Start. But at most any other time, Start brings up the options menu. It's also sometimes hard to tell if you're working within the editor or are scrolling around the editing options bar. It's just not nearly as refined an interface as it could be, though the effort is good for a first take.
I have three major issues with the music creation library and what you're capable of outputting. Firstly, you can't attach vocals to your song in any manner. I can understand why you aren't able to record your voice and upload it -- file size reasons aside, you could jack straight into a CD player and upload trademarked music, and then add your own note markers over it. But why can't you type in lyrics and then sing and record a pitch bar? If Neversoft and Activision were worried about bad lyrics, they could have gone the LittleBigPlanet censoring route where as soon as anyone marks a song offensive, it gets pulled until a moderator can have a look at it. I can go online in any shooter and yell curse words at anyone I play, so why shouldn't I be allowed to upload lyrics that others can very quickly moderate?
Secondly, you can't customize the note chart without a ton of hassle. In other words, what you play to record a song is going to be the same that the players have to play, which oftentimes isn't good. When you set up a scale, you'll need to press multiple frets to play some notes. This isn't natural for the person creating the song, but making art requires some sweat so that's fine. But the players who download your song will also have to follow suite. If I'm playing the theme to the Smurfs, I don't want to press two fret buttons every third note when the song is audibly only played on a single string -- it just doesn't feel right.
You can get around this by editing the scale you're working with on a note-by-note basis, but that would require you to place a note, press Start, edit the scale, place the next note, and so on and so forth. It's a giant pain to work this way. What should have happened is that the "play" notes are different from the "record" notes. They would be identical when you first record something, but then you would be able to go in and overwrite the "play" notes to make them more natural if you wanted to. This doesn't seem too hard to me.
My third issue with the recorded tracks is that they sound like crap (and I'm not just talking about my impossible-to-play death metal attempts). In order to simulate different instrument, amp and effect sounds, Neversoft licensed technology from Line 6. I'm a big fan of the company's products and actually own both a POD 2.0 and POD XT Live (plus a Line 6 shirt). The technology part here actually sounds great and winds up giving you a ton of options for what you want your rig to sound like, so that paid off in spades. The issue is that the base notes that get modified by the Line 6 stuff are limited. It sounds like there's one sample per note, and Line 6's stuff is left to modify it. Notes are all played at the same velocity (strength), so repeated notes just sound sort of like a skipping CD. Drums parts can have varying velocity, but they have to be recorded with a drum set -- you can't set the velocity if you record the parts with a guitar.
The end result is that the songs sound only slightly better than a MIDI song, and I don't know how much of that I could take over the long run. Yeah, it might be funny to play a new wave version of the Smurfs theme song, but I doubt anyone will take any music recorded here seriously since everything winds up sounding like a ringtone.
What I really would liked to have seen out of the editor is more samples per note (perhaps both soft and hard plucks with short and long samples), and a MIDI-based note editor with a separate "play" note tracker. This would allow you to place notes by hand on a chart rather than having to play them with the guitar, which almost always requires that you manipulate the scale a bunch of times and can be awkward for super-complicated songs. This option might not be for everyone, but the hardcore fans that want to recreate Beethoven's Fifth would find it way faster and more precise to use.
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