A three-frame comic strip greets first-time players of the new "Guitar Hero World Tour." The first frame shows an ordinary person, looking ... well, ordinary. In the second frame, said individual is given a pair of drumsticks, a toy guitar or a microphone.
The third frame reveals a startling transformation: The ordinary sap, armed with a fake instrument and a little magic, has suddenly morphed into an animated rocker — complete with leather pants. And "Guitar Hero World Tour" does, in fact, have the goods to make any old average Joe feel like a bonafide rock-and-roller.
If this concept sounds familiar, it should. "World Tour" is the direct competitor to "Rock Band," which upped the ante on the "Guitar Hero" series last year by adding singing and drumming to the existing guitar and bass roles. And while ”Rock Band” still has some things it does better, “World Tour” has the potential to become our new favorite live performance game. “Potential” because the pre-release version we played didn’t have the critical mass of online players to test a lot of the community content Activision has touted so loudly. (Stay tuned for our head-to-head comparison of "World Tour" and "Rock Band 2" next month.)
First things first, though: A music game is only as good as its set list, and in this regard, "World Tour" does not disappoint. My favorite songs to play include “Hot for Teacher,” by Van Halen, “Beautiful Disaster” by 311 and “Are you Gonna Go My Way,” by Lenny Kravitz, but there's a ton of other original recordings from a ton of other artists. The list goes on and on, but includes the likes of the Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Idol, Coldplay, Bon Jovi, Interpol and a whole lot of scary-sounding metal bands.
Plus, "World Tour" snagged Paul McCartney, the first Beatle ever to appear in a rhythm game (although before you get “Revolution” on the brain, it’s Paul McCartney from his Wings phase).
Then there are the instruments, which are wireless this time around. The drums deliver a noticeable improvement over "Rock Band" gear in that they are quieter, feel more like authentic drums and feature two raised cymbal pads for greater awesomeness. The kick pedal is also more responsive and is less taxing after long periods of play, resulting in a more realistic experience over "Rock Band" drumming.
In addition, "World Tour" drums can be played on expert mode without having to look at the screen, thanks to more authentic tabulature. I tried it on a song I already knew in real-life and was thrilled to find that it worked. It's a great feature for real drummers who were frustrated by the inconsistent drum notes in "Rock Band."
While "World Tour" guitars are uglier than the Fender replicas used in "Rock Band," they are heavier and more tactile than the latter, making you feel better prepared when hitting incoming notes. The guitar controllers also feature a nifty touch pad high on the neck for stringing together solos during designated parts of a song. It's a demanding but convincing effect that's sure to encourage a greater level of mastery from aspiring face-melters.
As with previous "Guitar Hero" games, note detection is more lenient in "World Tour," making you feel like a better player than you really are when compared to "Rock Band," which is more of a stickler. And oft-forgotten bass players have something to be excited about too: Activision has added a new open-strum bass note, which adds another layer of dynamics to those already familiar with the series — and is another improvement over “Rock Band.”
A wired USB mic is also included in the "complete band" version of the "World Tour," and it too does its job. Better still, singing has a cleaner sound in "World Tour" than in "Rock Band," which distorts vocals more than it should.
Let's address the elephant in the room: Do "World Tour" instruments work with "Rock Band" games? The answer is "yes" for the Xbox 360 and the PS3, says Activision, but "no" for the Wii (sorry guys). I reviewed the Xbox 360 version of the game, and sure enough, "World Tour" instruments work with "Rock Band 2." On the flip side, "Rock Band 2" instruments will work on all versions of "World Tour," including the Wii version, says developer Harmonix.
There are other welcome innovations and improvements in the latest "Guitar Hero.” One annoyance with "Rock Band" has been that after you restart a paused game, you're immediately kicked back into the song you left, which means that you’re likely to miss those first few notes. "World Tour" uses a convenient countdown timer on a paused resume, so you can take a potty break without being penalized for it.
Setup is also quicker on "World Tour," thanks to auto calibration with flat screen TVs. While "Rock Band" often requires significant finagling to synchronize on-screen notes with audible music, "World Tour" did this with no calibration whatsoever on two different HDTVs of mine. A calibration utility is included for sets with any problems, but I was surprised that I never had to use it.
Rounding out the improved gameplay is the online multiplayer and head-to-head instrument modes. While the competitive guitar and bass modes worked without a hitch, I was unable to test the online band mode due to reviewing an early retail copy of the game. If last year’s “Guitar Hero III” is any indication, this mode should perform just fine in the days to come as users make their way online.
In terms of replayability, the real-promise of "World Tour" might be found in the music creator, which lets players record a live, improvised song as a band or program one using a five-track mixer (no vocals, however, only instrumentation). Players can then publish their creations to the Internet for others to enjoy.
I produced a cover version of "Everybody's Changing" by Keane, a favorite of mine, and was impressed by the results (if I do say so myself). The sound of recordings is a bit flat, but I'm still anxious to see what the "Guitar Hero" community comes up with in the coming weeks.
As with any game, “World Tour" is not without some shortcomings. Unlike "Rock Band," it's difficult to tell which band member is failing at any given moment. As a result, you may find yourself wailing as a group, and then, suddenly, fail. Worse still, a performing band member is unable to save another if they have failed, an effect that gives "Rock Band" the edge when it comes to chemistry.
Perhaps the biggest offense, however, is that "World Tour" on Xbox 360 and PS3 ships without an in-game store for downloading new music. Activision promises to patch the store later this week. Keep your fingers crossed.
I played "World Tour" with a group of four couples last weekend, and it was a hit, much like “Rock Band” before it. My casual-gaming friends were immediately drawn to the improved drums (particularly the cymbals and kick pedal) and tighter guitars. They also observed that the round notes are easier to see and hit when compared to the skinny notes of "Rock Band."
In the end, "Guitar Hero World Tour" improves upon the already solid experience that "Rock Band" pioneered. If you haven’t made the jump to virtual rocker yet, this is a great first game. And if you already enjoy "Rock Band," there are enough innovations and new songs here to make "World Tour" worth your while.