Every so often, a video game concept is released that makes most normal people tilt their head slightly to the side and comment "what the hell?"
The original Guitar Hero was such a title, although to be fair it was almost inevitable that the idea of mastering an instrument without actually learning it would be popular.
There aren't too many teenagers who haven't secretly harboured the desire to be able to pick up a guitar and wail out some impressive tracks, usually culminating in some kind of outrageous solo where amplifiers are kicked over, and guitars are smashed to pieces on the stage. Adults, too, weren't immune from the rollercoaster success of the silly plastic guitar game, so much so that the franchise has generated over US$1.6 billion dollars to date. With figures like that, in less than five hundred years Activision might be able to fix America's banks.
The Guitar Hero franchise simply introduced, then further tweaked the fundamental concept of imitating notes and chords through a controller. The first two iterations, Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II were really just a warm-up session for the mind-bendingly intense game that was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. This title, on Expert setting, was known to bring people to tears and had absolutely no sympathy for a lack of skill. Indeed, those who actually managed to finish the game on Expert are few and far between, as the notorious combination of Slayer and Metallica generally saw off any pretenders who considered beating Knights of Cydonia an accomplishment worthy of bragging rights.
Guitar Hero World Tour is the latest from the creative combination of RedOctane, Neversoft and Activision, and for the first time includes a drum kit and microphone, and support for up to four band members. From the outset, and speaking to those who have really invested time in Guitar Hero previously, World Tour may look like Guitar Hero III with a couple of new peripherals and some new songs, but if you look closer you'll discover a game that actually bares little resemblance to any former title in the series.
Naturally, you can buy the software separately for whatever platform you desire, and depending on the platform you choose you can even use the Les Paul Gibson controller from Guitar Hero III, along with the earlier wired controllers too. You'd be best to check on compatibility before doing so though. If you're prepared to shell out for the full band experience, you'll receive a surprisingly heavy box complete with a redesigned Gibson guitar, drum kit, and microphone, and as these form the basis of the title it's best to pick each apart and check for potential annoyances;
Wireless Guitar Controller
RedOctane have made a number of changes to this new controller, the most obvious being the size. It's significantly larger (by about a quarter) and feels heavier and more refined than the previous Les Paul model. The whammy bar has been extended, as has the strum bar, and a large palm-operated star power button has been installed. The neck is still detachable, albeit with a much better electronic connector to prevent those frustrating dropped notes, and for the first time features touch-sensitive pads located roughly halfway along its length. These pads are designed to be used with a new type of note; a sort of translucent gem which is usually found connected in series to other gems. More about these and other new features in the software later, however.
Another change is that the strum bar is significantly softer and quieter than before. It retains an accurate movement, however this is cushioned somewhat and during testing I found this to be detrimental in fast solos. I can understand why RedOctane have done this though - it's to encourage alternate strumming as the defacto method, which is commendable but frustrating to seasoned players who only really use this method on particularly fast tracks.
The wireless synch button has inexplicably been raised atop the "D" pad, which means syncing up requires a bit more concentration to depress and hold the button. A minor quirk, but I don't recall the previous model having any issues in this area, so why change it?
There's a lot to like about the new guitar, but invariably the real requirement to use it will be based on how successful the touch-pad integration is, along with the need for an easy-to-reach star power button. Despite the fact that star power activation has been responsible for many off-colour remarks in the heat of battle when it completely fails to activate no matter how wildly you shake your damn guitar, and can even result in a failed song from time to time, it's hard to say that this will be enough of a reason for people to prefer the new controller. Also, time will tell how successful the connector redesign between the neck and body has been, but kudos to RedOctane for addressing a problematic area.
Wireless Drum Kit
This is one major area where Guitar Hero World Tour sits firmly ahead of its competition. It's little wonder too, RedOctane have had over a year to get a solid R&D advantage over Electronic Art's Rock Band, and it shows. Boasting five pads to Rock Band's four, each covered in a sound-suppressing foam material and all held together with a sturdy aluminium frame, this drum kit reeks of quality. Two pads have been raised to emulate cymbals, and the foot pedal (despite being free-floating) has a layer of grip tape that fixes it firmly to pretty much any surface.
Throughout our testing, the kit has displayed accurate feedback, and exhibits relatively quiet gameplay. This makes it a lot easier for your "band" to concentrate, especially for beginners, as loud out-of-time drums can often disturb an entire set. I can't really level any criticism at these drums, they're pretty much as idea as you can expect for a product of this nature, and (barring any dramatic reliability concerns yet to materialise) gain full marks.
Nothing much to see here - just your average USB microphone as seen in popular titles such as SingStar, Karaoke Revolution, even Rock Band. It's configured with a conventional controller of course, but then, you knew that already. Just like any microphone, your perceived ability to use it is dramatically enhanced by the consumption of alcohol.
So what about the software?
As expected, you're going to find a good number of changes this time around.
To start off with, you now have a much more comprehensive ability to modify your avatar. Personally, I've never understood the attraction with this feature. Due to the over-zealous issuing of traffic infringement notices, I now look at my speedometer more frequently than the road, and this holds true for any Guitar Hero game as well - if you pause to appreciate the view, you'll miss a bunch of notes and end up having to repeat the song. For those that pay attention to the cut-scenes, or simply appreciate the ability to tweak, you're going to love the level of customisation available to you. Everyone else will just keep hitting the green button until a song comes on.
Initially not all tracks will be available to play, but unlike earlier Guitar Hero titles you still have a comprehensive stack to choose from. Of course, the first thing you'll want to do is unlock more tracks, and this is where the Career mode comes into play.
You can embark on your career either as a solo artist, or as a band member, and each band member can have their own profile stored within the game. Initially you'll kick off with some pretty basic tracks, such as Nirvana's About a Girl, and Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer, and these are contained within the guise of a gig you've volunteered to play somewhere in the world.
Each gig contains a set list, usually comprised of three or four songs, and you must complete all of the songs as well as an encore to progress. Pretty basic stuff here. Naturally, songs aren't the only thing you can unlock - you can get additional guitars, avatars, straps, knobs, buttons, amplifiers, thingamabobs and other such nonsensical objects (see my thoughts re: customisation above).
Whilst this method of progression works well, I can't help but think Rock Band managed your career with a bit more class. At least, if I cared about my career over simply unlocking more songs, that is. At least World Tour has finally done away with the ridiculous, baffling and completely unnecessary boss battles that added absolutely nothing to gameplay and generally made you want to set fire to your console. The battles are still there, but they're a tug-of-war format, which is much more appealing and less likely to inflict aneurysms.