Guitar Hero: World Tour preview Xbox 360/PS3

Mike Jennings gets hands-on time with the new Guitar Hero game. This makes him happy...

Guitar Hero: World Tour. This might set you back a few quid...

Up until the emergence of Rock Band, the Guitar Hero franchise has had something of a free reign on the mainstream rhythm, music and party game markets: what better, when you have some friends round, then cranking up the volume and blasting out some classics.

The arrival of Rock Band – and the forthcoming Rock Band 2 – has upped the ante, however, by including a drum kit and microphone to replicate the entire band rather than just guitar-based instruments. Activision, publishers of the Guitar Hero franchise, has responded with World Tour – the latest instalment of the series that includes a drum kit and microphone alongside the usual axes.

So, how does it play? We’ve had hands-on access to the new game to see if World Tour can top its predecessors and, more importantly, topple its rivals.

The instruments are the big changes this year, so it’s only fair to talk about them first. The drum kit, for instance, immediately looks different to its Rock Band counterpart: for a start, the row of angled pads is augmented by a pair of cymbals, and the pads are now pressure-sensitive and, as such, far more responsive in play. Rock Band 2 is set to offer premium drum kits that look even better, but expect to pay through the nose for these extras – the original drum kit will remain largely the same, with clip-on cymbals sold separately. 

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While the cymbals and other enhancements do mean that the drum kit is arguably more realistic than the set offered by the Rock Band franchise, it does mean that the drums are the hardest instrument to pick up and play – it’ll take a few failed songs before you get the hang of the basic rhythms required and, in our experience, it was the toughest instrument to get the hang of.

The guitars are broadly similar – five buttons at the top of the neck, a strum bar and whammy bar for showing off. It’s the same size as the Guitar Hero 3 unit, too. Towards the body of the guitar, though, is a new pressure-sensitive area for particularly enthusiastic solos: in the middle of a solo, if an entire fret glows a certain colour – rather than just the note – it’s a signal that you can wave your finger up and down the touch-sensitive pad to create customised solos.

Our hands-on time with the guitar revealed that any changes were minor rather than sweeping. The buttons felt a little tougher and less liable to break, as did the whammy bar – there’s a bit more resistance, now, but this just makes the plastic guitar feel that little bit more real. It’s especially important when you’re prancing around the living room trying to be Eric Clapton. The guitar is still wireless, as is the drum kit. The microphone still needs a USB connection, but any USB microphone will work with the game.

Singing works in a manner similar to that of the hugely successful SingStar franchise – evidently, developer Neversoft (of the Tony Hawks games) has obviously decided to not fix what isn’t broken. While the three instruments scroll vertically at the bottom of the screen – lead guitar, drums and bass respectively, from left to right – vocals travel across, horizontally, with the pitch of the notes attached. It obviously helps to have a voice that’s vaguely in tune, but it’s really just like singing karaoke, although with the obvious benefit of having the backing band in the room with you.

Our time with the game – on Xbox 360, although we expect all the major console revisions of the title will follow the same formula – revealed that the core gameplay hasn’t changed much. Career mode will have the usual raft of new venues, and there are a few new musicians (including a Mod-type rocker and more) that should add a bit of variation to proceedings.

The same criticism can be levelled at World Tour here, though – if you’re in the midst of a solo you’re just not going to notice the intricate animations that are going on behind the fret boards. While the graphics retain their usual cartoonish charm, they’re somewhat wasted when you always have to concentrate on other things.

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Quick play mode now includes the option to build a short set of six songs that will play in order, saving you having to go back to the menu and pick again every time you finish a song. It’s a small touch, but one that endears World Tour to groups of wannabe Rock Stars who just want to get playing. Bands of players don’t have to play at the same skill level, either – when you’ve logged in and selected an instrument you can then select the level of difficulty you want to use.

In-game, World Tour was polished, professional and a ludicrous amount of fun. We tried a variety of songs – including Slide Away by Oasis and Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi – on a several difficulty levels (there’s now a new ‘beginner mode’) and found that the note charts were spot on, accurately representing the song we were playing at the time.

This was true, no matter what the instrument, too – although some are harder to hear than others, with some songs drowning out the bass a little to favour the guitars. This meant that it was often obvious when a guitar note had gone wrong thanks to the loud clunky sounds, whereas it was more difficult to tell when you’d screwed up the bass.

So, the instruments are spot on and it’s a stunning party game – but the success of World Tour lives and dies, arguably, on its track listing. While it’s always going to be a somewhat subjective choice, there’s no denying that the latest instalment of Guitar Hero offers plenty of quality songs, both classic and modern. Hotel California and Livin’ on a Prayer sit alongside What I’ve Done, by nu-metal whiners Linkin Park, and Misery Business by the emo-lite Paramore.

The track list – which spans some 86 songs – covers the gamut: The Enemy line up alongside Nirvana, System of a Down and Michael Jackson. The list of artists involved is mind-boggling. Ozzy Osbourne, Blink 182, The Eagles, Steely Dan, Korn, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, The Doors, The Cult, Jane’s Addiction, Stone Roses, Motorhead and the Sex Pistols are all involved, as are dozens more. Every song is a master recording, too, which is a huge bonus compared to the original game’s covers – as good as they were, they don’t sound too great these days. If you’re interested in the full track listing, you can see it here.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is released over here on November 7th, and we’ve been assured that you’ll be able to buy the disc and instruments separately, as well as everything together in a big pack. If you’ve not got room for a drum kit, then – or have no rhythm – you can just buy the game disc and the new guitar, or keep the guitar from the third incarnation of the game to use instead.

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One of the best social games you’ve ever played, then? Certainly. The instruments are tough and a joy to play, and the Guitar Hero formula has been refined so that everything feels spot on. The new instruments – drums and vocals – have been incorporated tremendously well, and the track listing, while open to debate depending on your tastes, features a huge number of stone-cold classics and covers a wide enough range of genres that everyone will find something they like. Ignore Rock Band, its high prices and low availability – soon, this will be the best way to feel like a rock star without, necessarily, having the skills of one.