Sunday, November 16, 2008

Guitar Hero World Tour: First Look

As a longtime fan of the Rock Band platform (well, the year it's been out - and yes, this is a platform, not a game series, as it's branded and sold) I approached World Tour, or GHWT, with a bit of both skepticism and wonder. Skepticism, because Rock Band had taken the basic idea of Guitar Hero and taken it to a whole new level. Wonder, because the track list is completely amazing. The Doors, Steve Miller Band, The Eagles, Korn, Jimi Hendrix, Tool, and others - bands not seen anywhere on Rock Band. For the average gamer, it's pretty much a win-win situation. You can buy both games (GHWT and Rock Band 2) and they'll both work on just about any drum set, microphone, and guitars you hook up to your console; provided, of course, that they're rated for that console. However, from the business-minded perspective, however, one wants one to prevail over the other and all the music on one platform - if the music can't be available on both/all platforms, of course.

A note about platforms. When I was a kid, you played music on 12" vinyl disks called records. They had to be placed over a spindle (much how blank CDs come, actually) and onto a rubber turning table, and you had to carefully place this arm with a sensitive head onto a track on the record you could barely see. Doing so, it was easy to damage the head. The grooves in the record spiraled inward, and the head moved inward on its own, following the track. Some albums used two or three records, and both sides were used. Singles came on smaller records called 45s (the bigger ones were called 33s). We didn't ask why, though I'm sure the information's up somewhere. Then they came out with tapes. Quality wasn't as good but they were portable and convenient. And then CDs. Much better quality, just as portable, but less durable. Now we've got Mp3s. Can music get any better? Of course you have lossless filetypes like FLAC, which offer marginally better fidelity, and your 5.1 DVD audio, but what could we possibly do to improve music? We can't - we've reached an impasse. We're as good as we're going to get with listening to music. Oh, sure, one day we could maybe make a holographic environment where you experience a concert in person in your living room, but that's a century or more off. What about today? Today, Mp3s have traditionally been the best way to experience music, and Apple has made a killing selling them with iTunes. Guitar Hero and its predecessors were fun games, but Rock Band was the first viable way to experience music from the musician angle - you can sing (karaoke), play guitar (Guitar Hero), but you can also play bass and drums, and you can have four people doing all of this at once in a virtual band in your living room, and on top of that, they're selling songs - not songs you listen to, but songs you can interact with in the same way. So while these are games with game-like functionality, at the most basic level, they're the new Mp3s. The Rock Band store is the new iTunes. And, granted, while someone who's tone-deaf (like me) will stink at the actual game, that's just one element they're going to have to work on (and I've no doubt they are) to make this medium accessible to all, like Mp3s are.

The Rock Band 2 interface is very simple, largely improved upon from Rock Band 1. I tend not to think of 2 as a sequel to 1, but rather an upgrade. Like going from Windows 2000 to Windows XP, or more appropriately Windows Media Player 9 to WMP 10. While there are new features that make unlocking all the songs a fresh experience from the previous game, the game mechanics are really the same, just polished over. You select an avatar - a character to represent you. There are a couple dozen to choose from - equally men and women, various styles and attitudes represented, from tough to emotional, normal to very weird. It would be rather hard not to find a favorite avatar, and if you really want to, you can make your own, and customize his or her name, hometown (only about half a dozen choices), build, hair, face, eye and hair color, and clothing and accessories, even tattoos. You pick your avatar (and this is where you form your band, if you haven't got one established - those who want to play simply pick up the instrument of their choice and choose an avatar with it), you pick the song (or build a playlist - unlimited entries in RB2, six in GHWT), you pick the difficulty, and you play.

The gameplay is simple. All the vocalist needs to do is sing at the pitch and tone indicated by a line above the words. For the drummer and guitarists, a series of colored notes come down a road towards a stationary "hit bar", and when they pass under it, you do the corresponding action. For the drummer, a red note means you just tap the red drum pad. Two together, both of those pads. An orange line across the road means to hit the kick pedal. For guitarists, when a color comes down (say, green), the player holds the equivalent button on the neck of the guitar, and when the note crosses, they hit the "strum bar" (where you'd play the strings on a real one). Of course, this is much harder than it sounds. For the vocals, the system is very sensitive. If you can't sing, you simply can't do this. You can pass on easy if you know the song, but at harder difficulties, it requires much higher precision. A drummer must focus on three separate rhythms which are constantly changing. The guitarist (lead) must deal with complex riffs, power chords (more than one note at the same time - as many as four of the five), and solos. The bassist must often play the same note in rapid succession to keep the beat with the drummer. While the gameplay is simple in theory, mastery of the concepts is no simple or trivial task.

Consistently good gameplay is rewarded in the form of points - each note is worth so many points. If you do ten in a row, your multiplier goes up - they're worth double points. Another ten, they're worth triple. After thirty, you're at 4x. Bassists, for some reason, can get up to 6x (50 note streak). Additionally, there are white notes which give you a different score: Overdrive. Deploying this doubles your scoring on top of any multiplier you have, and if you're in a band, multiple bandmates in overdrive raises a band multiplier. Two members in overdrive means a 4x score. All four - 8x. So your bassist can have a 6x personal multiplier; your vocalist, guitarist, and drummer 4x each, and the whole band making 8x that. On top of all this, the math nerds at Harmonix have determined what you should be able to get points-wise, and as you rise up through the rankings, you get stars depending on how you rank against what they think you can get at your difficulty level. One star is easy - you will probably fail a song if you don't even rate two or three stars, anyway. It goes up to five stars, six if everyone's on Expert, but there's no sixth star, the five just become gold. At the end of the song, in addition to seeing your final star rating and points, everyone is shown their percentage of notes hit and highest note streak (phrases for vocals).

So, what does Guitar Hero World Tour do, if anything, to improve on this tried and true formula? That's the real reason we're here - not to pat Rock Band and Harmonix on the back for revolutionizing music, but to see what Rock Band's first real competitor brings to the table, and what it's worth. Some would argue the table belonged to Guitar Hero to start with, but even if that's true, Rock Band added three places to what would have basically been a table for one, and in any case, the field is much more even now. Both games offer a game with singing, drumming, two guitarists, and band cooperation. So, how do they measure up?

First things first, we had to watch the intro movie. Rock Band starts with a montage of a band playing atop a moving car, then a semi, and then a bus, falling from the last and miraculously landing on the next, all playing to "Highway Star" by Deep Purple (which is playable in the game). Rock Band 2 steps it up with 2 bands dueling atop 2 cars and playing chicken, to the music of "Hello There" by Cheap Trick, also playable. So I expected something awesome out of GHWT. We get a guy coming out on a rock stage with a flute; he plays and the audience starts to fall asleep, so this guy pages a rock band, and the four members are at different places, and all have a watch or phone or something which blinks with the Guitar Hero "GH" logo when they're supposed to jam. They take over the show and rock everyone's socks off. This video seems to go on about a minute longer than it perhaps has to and lacks the awesomeness the Rock Band videos brought. But don't take my word for it, watch all three, courtesy of YouTube:

Watch the Rock Band 1 intro:

Watch the Rock Band 2 intro:

Watch the Guitar Hero World Tour intro:

But OK, it's just an intro movie. And I'd like to point out that they all look and sound embarrassingly bad compared with my TV and sound system, but you get the idea. Let's get started with the actual game.

For about ten minutes, we all sign in. At first we were just going to jam, but it confronted each one of us with the prompt to sign in. Bad timing. We have the new Xbox Live Experience, and we got it from the leak, so we can't get online. So the logins took twice as long as they usually would. This isn't GHWT's fault, though, it's Microsoft's - releasing faulty operating software early has finally extended to the Xbox. But, we have word it's supposed to unscrew itself on the 19th. So we all sign in. Once each of us signs in, we're prompted with a question asking where we want to save our save data. There's only one choice - the hard drive. So we all go through the motions. I remember this being equally stupid on Rock Band 1, but not so much Rock Band 2. We were all a little unnerved that we had to spend 10-15 minutes getting from the end of the intro video to the setlist. (And, for the record, my wife and I were the only Rock Band faithful there - her brother and his friend started with Guitar Hero 2, when it first came out for the Xbox 360. And then they went on to GH3, not "jumping ship" to Rock Band but rather, following the evolution. They didn't rent GHWT, but rather rented it - used to the RB system, I guess they were wanting to decide whether to buy GHWT so soon after buying RB2.)

The setlist... Ah, so many good choices. The biggest problem that faced the early Guitar Hero games and the first Rock Band game was the old chicken and egg problem. The copyright holders of the biggest names in rock were unsure of this new technology. They didn't want to put their bands' names on something that was unproven. Smaller bands and up-and-coming bands, and classic rock acts afraid of being forgotten couldn't wait to get on board, and while I don't want to label anybody, it was these braver people who tested the waters and paved the way for the bigger bands in later games. Whether the best rock band(s) is/are in Rock Band or Guitar Hero, and ultimately which game has the best setlist, depends upon who you like. If you're with me and agree that Led Zeppelin is the greatest popular music act of all time, then the best is yet to come - Led Zeppelin have songs in neither game franchise, as of yet. If you favor The King, keep waiting. Elvis isn't in either of them, either. But if you prefer The Beatles, run out and get Rock Band 2, because they've signed with Harmonix. But don't rule out Guitar Hero - their list of exclusives is pretty impressive. It includes Korn, Steve Miller Band, The Eagles, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Tool, and others. Harmonix's exclusives include The Beatles and AC/DC. Guitar Hero also has Metallica, but Metallica released three songs as downloadable content and one song on each Rock Band game *before* going over to Guitar Hero. If you like classic rock and you have no intention of paying to download additional songs, I must rule that Guitar Hero: World Tour has the better soundtrack. And I love some good classic rock. Including DLC (downloadable content), Rock Band and Guitar Hero are evenly matched. Most of what I've chosen almost equates our Rock Band setlist to GHWT's. While our 190 songs total on RB is impressive, we don't have Hotel California by The Eagles. We don't have Purple Haze or The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix. We don't have Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd - though we do have Gimme Two Steps and Simple Man. But we don't have Sweet Home Alabama, which is only the best song they've ever recorded. We don't have Band on the Run by Wings. And while we don't have Up Around the Bend by Creedence Clearwater Revival, we do have Fortunate Son - but we had to pay extra to get it - and it's a cover. But the setlist isn't just kind to a classic rock fan like me. Jen and her brother picked Freak on a Leash by Korn, Misery Business by Paramore (only the song that made them - RB only has their second single, Crushcrushcrush, and a B side nobody cares about), The Middle by Jimmy Eat World (also on RB2, oddly enough), and a couple others that are similar to or by artists on RB. Korn aside, when it comes to modern music, I think GHWT and RB are more evenly matched. Throw in DLC, and it goes to RB's favor.

But how about the gameplay? That's what it really hinges on, how well the game plays. It's pretty much the same as Rock Band. The vocals are still on top, and the drummer is still in the middle. However, Star Power (GH's Overdrive) is now shared by all and accessible by all. So if you have a slacker in your band, the rest of you can earn and your slacker can use the star power to save himself. This is important, because while in RB, every band member has three "lives" (after failing the first two times, they can be "saved" by someone else deploying Overdrive), in GHWT, there are no second chances, and there are no individual failures. While everyone's individually rated, if one person goes out, the whole band fails, and that's it. (Also, Star Power no longer runs until it burns out, it has a set limit - it's like 20-30 seconds.)

There are a couple of new features, and they're interesting. First of all, the game has a child's mode. I saw it first at the demo at Walmart, and didn't understand it at first. It's nothing but purple bars across the screen. And they mean "do anything". In beginner mode, as it's called, you can literally play any note you want, as long as you time it with the purple bars. I thought I'd seen the end of them, as the bassist. I was wrong. I'm playing (on Medium), and all of a sudden one comes at me! So I just play it like the note before it, and I "miss". It takes me a dozen such "notes" to learn that a purple bar on bass not on beginner means you strum without holding ANY neck buttons. Who woulda thought of that? Our drummer could never figure out how to deploy Star Power until asking on GameFAQs. Bunch of rude, self-righteous (and mostly underage) pricks who spend more effort telling you to just search than they would just answering your question and being done with you, as if searching helped, but anyway. We found out the drummer must strike the two middle drum pads at the same time to deploy. We never did figure out how to make the singer deploy Star Power. Our fault for not going through Training; the game's fault for not being as helpful as the previous ones (GH2 and GH3, or one of them anyway, would prompt you, in the middle of a song, with a drawing, to tilt the guitar up to deploy star power if you had it built up and weren't using it). For the guitarist (and to a very lesser extent, the bassist) occasionally two or more notes will be connected by a thin purple line. These notes can be hammered on (if you don't know what that means, nevermind). The vocals looked easier, but if you ask Jen about it, you'll get a lot of dirty four-letter words. She was getting 78% on songs she can get 100% on on RB due to the way GHWT tracks the vocals. She was consistently the weakest link in our band when in RB she's up among the best. There was nothing wrong with the game she brought, it really was a difference in the tracking of the tone and pitch. I'll have to look more into this myself, but she said she's asked around and has found people with similar experience and opinion of the GHWT vocals.

I think the best part of the game is actually after each song. You can pull up a detailed stats sheet that shows each band member's performance on each part of the song. Following that, you can see why each band member got paid what they did. You get bonuses for all sorts of things, some stupid stuff, too. Like you get a $10 bonus if you never used star power. You get bonuses for four and five star performances (both if you got five stars). There are so many things that contribute to your pay. Seeing a bandmate getting paid for something you didn't encourages you to try that on the next song. And of course, like with RB, the money goes to customizing your virtual rocker's apparel and accessories. This is superficial offline, but if you're playing online, and you're really proud, you can put all that money into some pretty special stuff and show it off online, and people who know what that stuff costs will recognize it for your accomplishments.

All in all, I really like Guitar Hero: World Tour. It's not as good as Rock Band 2 - which has had the benefit of a prior game and has shown that it's learned from its predecessor's mistakes. GHWT shows none of this. Maybe they saw a couple things that didn't work in RB and avoided them, but there are some real pitfalls in GHWT itself that I think should have been caught in the beta testing phase. This game could be so much better, but it feels like it's relying more on the Guitar Hero name than a solid foundation. I think, as a recommendation, whether you should buy this game depends solely on what you think of the set list. If you're looking at the set list and you're nodding your head, excited by what you see, go ahead and buy it. Especially if you have Rock Band or Rock Band 2 already and the instruments. It's worth $60. It also comes in three bundles I've seen. You can buy it with one guitar, with two guitars, or with the drums. If you have the Rock Band 1 instruments, it might be worth it to buy GHWT with the drums, as the drums are better (and you get 5 instead of 4). But if you have the superior RB2 drums (well, they're better than RB1 drums) stick with those. GHWT will modify the drum track based on what drum set you have plugged in. If the setlist doesn't impress you though, stick with RB. GHWT has some cool features that bring a lot to the world of interactive music, but overall the platform is severely lacking. And while there are a couple DLC tracks for GHWT that are worth having (more or less depending on your taste, but I'd only get 1 or 2), there are a heck of a lot for RB. As I say, we have 190 songs. When we get LIVE back on Wednesday the 19th (stupid Microsoft) we'll get the free 20 Harmonix released a couple weeks ago, and we have enough points to get another 10 or so, so we'll be up to around 230. Two hundred and thirty tracks playable from one game is pretty damn impressive. (Note that this includes 55 of the 58 songs from Rock Band 1, you can export them for use in RB2 for $5. But it's still a lot!)

Thanks to Wikipedia for the encyclopedic links (every link in this blog entry) and YouTube for the videos.

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