Reviewed: June 22, 2008
Released: June 22, 2008
Guitar Hero has invaded every facet of our existence and the fever isn't letting up anytime soon. Karaoke Night at the local pubs has been replaced with Guitar Hero competitions; kids will stand in line at store kiosks to rock out with germ-infested guitars to the delight of onlookers, even though they have their own game and guitar at home. The infatuation has gotten so bad you can even play a 3-fret version of the game on your cell phone.
So when Guitar Hero was finally announced for the NDS I probably wasn’t as surprised as I was puzzled that it took this long to arrive. I also had my doubts about how well a game that relies solely on the tactile immersion of a guitar controller would work when you remove the guitar. No offense, but that cell phone version really sucks.
I've just spent the past week with the final shipping version of Guitar Hero: On Tour and I have to admit, it was time well spent. Vicarious Visions once again proves they are the indisputable masters when it comes to creating original and entertaining games on the DS, and I can say without a doubt, this is one of the coolest games you will ever play on any handheld system. Admittedly, it takes an add-on device nearly the size of the game system itself to make the game work, but I don't see any 360 and PS3 "heroes" complaining about their guitars.
Guitar Hero: On Tour works surprisingly well thanks to several key factors. First, the song selection is as strong as any of the console versions, both in quality and quantity of music. Secondly, the core gameplay doesn’t change from what we have all come to know and love. You still strum and finger the frets just like you always did. Third, the game features a robust multiplayer mode for versus and co-op and a bigger and better battle mode with all new attacks that make use of the unique features of the DS.
A few sacrifices had to be made when redesigning Guitar Hero for the DS. The orange button had to go. Even though a 5-button expansion prototype was created and used with moderate success it was ultimately decided that the 4-button device worked best. Once your hand slips into the adjustable Velcro glove you don’t have the freedom to slide your fingers to that fifth button – they are pretty much locked in place.
Playing Guitar Hero: On Tour takes some getting used to. I’m sure veterans of the console versions who tear it up on Expert will come into this game thinking that the lack of the fifth button is going to make the game “too easy” or something for the kiddies, but nothing could be further from the truth. On Tour is extremely challenging, even on the Medium setting, and there is a nice progression of difficulty as you rise through Hard and Expert levels. The note streams become extremely advanced with some notes so close together the circles actually overlap.
The first challenge is finding a comfortable fit for the glove. Ideally, you are supposed to slip four fingers through the Velcro strap and curl them around the fret expansion that fits in the GBA expansion slot on the front of your DS. If your hands are too large or too small you will have to experiment to find an alternate grip that works. I ended up just hooking my thumb through the loop so the strap wasn’t pinching the top of my hand.
Another issue is that you slip your hand into the strap in the opposite direction that the expansion device plugs into your DS. This means that you will most assuredly push the fret expansion out of the DS as you put your hand into the strap if you aren't careful. If this happens during the game you may lose your progress, since the DS must be restarted.
You cradle the DS in your hand in the 90-degree book rotation. Notes will stream down the left screen and you strum on the right using the realistic pick-stylus. Initially, the pick cramped my fingers so I had to experiment with just how much pressure to pinch the pick with, as well as the angle of my wrist in relation to the strum screen. I eventually found a combination that worked and can now play for hours on end. The one thing I did love about the new pick and the strumming feature is that it is far easier and intuitive to strum “both ways” on the guitar. To this very day I have never up-strummed on the console version of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but I was strumming in both directions on the DS during my very first song, and it really helps hit those fast succession of notes.
On Tour makes great use of the DS special features, especially in the creative new battle mode attacks. You can set the other player’s guitar on fire and watch them blow out the flames by blowing into the mic. And instead of furiously tapping a fret button to restring your guitar you actually have to make the realistic motion of replacing a string. You’ll even get to sign autographs in mid-concert using the pick (or stylus), and just wait until you see what the fans want you to sign.
You also invoke Star Power by yelling “ROCK OUT” into the mic (or tapping a face button if you are in public). Actually, you can whistle, blow, or make just about any noise into the mic to invoke Star Power. The one problem I had was I was using an external amp/speaker for my audio output which was loud enough for the mic to pick up and trigger Star Power as soon as the meter filled to the half-way mark. And if you are playing multiplayer and talking to your opponent, any conversation will almost certainly trigger Star Power.
Guitar Hero: On Tour doesn’t stray far from the game modes or presentation of its console cousin. You still pick your rocker and choose your guitar. The guitar you pick is used as the background art for the right screen, and the strings and whammy bar animate realistically. Once you have your performer equipped you can head to the Career mode, Quickplay, or rock out wirelessly in any of the challenging and fun multiplayer modes.
The Career mode takes you through the traditional series of venues, even if the venues themselves are a bit unique. You'll start off rocking in the Subway then move to the Rooftop concert followed by a guest appearance in a Parade. You'll then move on to the Greek Arena before you play to a group of rowdy sailors in a top secret concert on the deck of a Battleship. Each venue has its own track list that you must complete to unlock the encore song and the next venue. Earn cash to buy more clothes, guitars, and custom paint jobs for those guitars. It’s classic Guitar Hero in the palm of your hand.
Guitar Hero has never been about the graphics. Even on the 360 and PS3 the game maintains a more subdued visual style boasting colorful stage shows that take place in interesting venues, awesome stage lighting, MTV-style camera work, and an eclectic group of animated rockers that are heavily stylized and usually come off as a parody of various stereotypical performers from heavy metal, to classic rock, and even a bit of country.
What the games lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity with multiple costumes per rocker and multiple paintjobs per guitar. There is an amazing and vast assortment of guitars and these are nicely animated on the touch screen even to the point where you will see the corresponding strings vibrate and you can wobble that whammy bar in real-time.
The graphics really light up when you play the battle mode and start launching attacks at either the computer or another human opponent. There is a blinding flash photography effect, scorching fire that will consume your guitar until you blow it out, broken guitar strings, and an odd assortment of items that will get shoved in your face for autograph signing.
The only downside to the entire visual experience is that, just like it's console brothers, the person playing doesn't have time to appreciate all these nice added touches, and unlike the console version, there isn't much room or screen size for spectators to enjoy the show.
As you make your way through the career mode you will travel to five venues and play four songs in each. After you complete the four-song set a fifth encore song will be unlocked. The music selection is quite remarkable, both in diversity and quality, although the DS version is rated E10 so expect some subtle edits in the lyrics. I'm guessing the rating also influenced the final song selection as well. I was amazed that the DS cartridge was able to not only hold all these songs with both lead and bass tracks, but also full vocals, all the while maintaining a respectable sound quality...when properly amplified.
Here are the set lists you can expect to encounter in the career mode:
Do What You Want – OK Go
All the Small Things – blink-182
Spiderwebs – No Doubt
Are you Gonna Be My Girl – Jet
We’re Not Gonna Take It – Twisted Sister
This is definitely one of those games you’ll want to output the sound to either a stereo amp or powered headphones. I like my rock and roll loud and On Tour, even on maximum volume sounded a bit weak, both on the DS speakers and using un-powered headphones. For rocking around the house I ended up breaking out my old Thunderbox Amp 28r from The Ant Commandos. This was an extremely cool peripheral I reviewed more than a year ago for the console version of Guitar Hero. As fun as the amp was, it was not a practical substitute for my home theater sound system, just as my home theater isn't practical for use as external speakers for my little DS. But with the portability of the Thunderbox Amp I can really go ON TOUR with Guitar Hero and my DS.
With only 25 songs, On Tour might sound a bit thin when compared to the console versions, especially the ones that allow for downloading even more songs, but once you factor in the two guitar styles (lead and bass) plus the learning curve of playing the game an entirely new way, plus the countless hours of multiplayer fun you are going to have, Guitar Hero: On Tour is a steal for the $50 price tag, especially since that includes the hardware necessary to play the game on the DS. While there is obviously no downloadable content, it's most likely that future song packs will become available at a later date.
It takes about 90-120 minutes to finish a career path on any given skill setting. Your replay value will vary depending on your obsession with earning high scores and five stars on each song. There is also a single-player Duel mode where you can practice your battle skills versus an unseen computer opponent before you hook up wirelessly for the real thing. And as expected, you have Co-op, Face Off, and Pro Face Off modes that will consume you for weeks and months to come.
Also worth mentioning is that somebody must have realized everybody didn't upgrade to the new DS Lite, so inside the On Tour box is a small plastic piece that will allow the Guitar Hero peripheral to fit the old-style DS systems. Kudo's to the designers/marketing people for not forsaking the old-school gamers who don't jump every time Nintendo releases a new product.
Guitar Hero: On Tour is a clever and challenging way to experience the music game that is taking the world by storm. There are a hundred ways Vicarious Visions could have screwed up bringing Guitar Hero to the DS. Somehow, they managed to avoid them all and created an entertaining and challenging game that recreates the Guitar Hero experience as best you can without actually holding a guitar.
What impressed me the most was the quality of the music. While not as pristine as you'll hear on a Dolby Digital console, the DS boasts some impressive quality, and if you pipe it through a home stereo (or a Thunderbox Amp) you can really punch up the bass and immerse yourself in the concert experience. So enjoy these cool screenshots and start booking your tour dates.