[7 December 2008]
If Rock Band and its sequel simply didn’t exist, Guitar Hero World Tour would truly be a triumph. Expanding the Guitar Hero formula into a game that actually allows for up to four-player bands, incorporating drums, bass, and even vocals, would be seen as a major step forward for the rhythm game genre. We would be talking about whether Guitar Hero World Tour could actually help you learn to play the drums and marveling over the fact that Neversoft actually put aside enough time to implement a song creation mechanism (no matter how clunky). We might even be debating the question of whether “Hot for Teacher” or “Satch Boogie” should be considered the new “Through the Fire and Flames” pinnacle of Guitar Hero difficulty.
The problem, of course, is that we’ve seen the top of the mountain. We’ve been playing Rock Band for over a year now, we’ve been playing Rock Band 2 for a couple of months, and the concept of a four-instrument rhythm game model is old hat at this point. By trying to take the innovation that Rock Band offered and apply it to Guitar Hero, Neversoft has turned the mechanic into an awkward experience that is surpassed by the Rock Band franchise in almost every way.
Perhaps the most egregious of the issues has nothing to do with the game itself; rather, the hardware that you use to play it is showing some serious need for quality control. Activision posits that only the first run of Guitar Hero World Tour hardware is showing the sorts of problems—particularly those with the drums—that have message boards worldwide exploding with angst. As someone who is reviewing the game, it surprises me that even I would be sent defective hardware. My wireless drums didn’t have a battery cover, and the yellow cymbal stopped working a mere two days after I started playing it. The blue pad, for its part, only half works.
How is this acceptable?
Most gamers are not patient. Most gamers get upset when they think they’ve been swindled. Anyone who drops $189+tax on a Guitar Hero World Tour special edition bundle is going to rightfully feel a little gypped when they’re told that they’re going to have to fill out a form and wait a week for the midi-to-USB converter that’s going to allow them to hook their drums up to a computer so that they can use the program that they downloaded to tweak the pad sensitivity. Granted, kudos should be offered to Activision for even offering such a tool, as it has apparently helped a number of people with their double-hit issues already, and it keeps people from having to deal with the inconvenience of toting a giant box to UPS to return their defective equipment, but it’s still a pain.
By the time these hardware issues are resolved, there’s a good chance that player X is just going to grab the perfectly fine Rock Band kit and bang away. All the in-game suggestions that the player isn’t getting the full experience if that player isn’t using the Guitar Hero-brand drum set are going to fall on deaf ears if that set is just plain broken.
Harmonix, with its extra year of experience, has been through all of this already. They’ve been through a year of broken kick drums and double-hitting pads and microphone interfacing that causes too much delay. How many complaints have you heard about the new Rock Band 2 hardware? A few, I’m sure, but not nearly the flood of complaints that existed for Rock Band last year. Nor is it nearly as large as the flood of complaints that Guitar Hero World Tour is weathering now. A year of ironing out the kinks can do wonders for the perception of technology.
Cracking open the game itself does no favors for Guitar Hero World Tour. The approach taken to incorporating the non-guitar instruments looks as though a ten-minute brainstorming session was held, and all of the first ideas were immediately accepted. It’s as if the guitar mechanic is so well-established that it was impossible to think of any system other than that for the other instruments. Adding an extra double-cymbal hit to activate star power utterly removes the suspension of disbelief that you give to the game; you suddenly go from imaginary drummer to plain old gamer by adding a cymbal crash in a place where you never would if you were actually drumming. Adding point values to freeform sections, in both vocal and drumming, also seems like a good idea in theory. In reality though, it doesn’t reward skill so much as it rewards how fast you can hit notes and vary your vocals.
One can concede that some of the innovations on display in Guitar Hero World Tour are actually good things. For one, the presence of an “open” note in the bass sections adds a layer of complexity that actually separates it from the “guitar, except easier” reputation that bass players have endured up to this point. Having raised cymbals at all does add to the realism offered by these plastic toy drums (when they work, of course). And although I’ve found the slide bar to be more nuisance than boon to the new guitar (which is otherwise very well constructed), the purple hammer-ons which require no strum at all are a neat idea.
Despite my suspicion that Rock Band was a better overall product last year, it was Guitar Hero III that kept me coming back to the Xbox again and again. Something about it felt more like a game, where Rock Band was more of a toy. The linear progression, the utterly unrealistic hammer-on/pull-off mechanic, the impossible difficulty of the trickier tracks…it was all indicative of a product that was comfortable in its own skin, something that didn’t necessarily strive for realism as much as it tried to present a challenge to gamers willing to take it on. Rock Band always won out at parties, but on my own time, I’d take a session with Guitar Hero III over any other music game out there. World Tour, in trying not to be left behind by Rock Band, has quit being a game and become a toy itself.
One can’t help but think something was lost in the process.