Hands-on impressions: Guitar Hero: On Tour

When the peripheral attachment for Guitar Hero: On Tour was revealed, most people’s first reactions (including my own) were that it (A) looked extremely uncomfortable, and (B) didn’t simulate playing an actual guitar like the console versions. Many predicted that it would fail spectacularly as a quality title, while lining Activision’s coffers with even more franchise-whoring cash.

Two days ago, members of the press (including yours truly) were given some hands-on time with the upcoming DS iteration of the million-selling rock star simulation franchise, which will be out on June 22nd. So I got my rock on at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, and I’m here to tell you all about it. Follow me, dear readers, to the jump!

Guitar Hero: On Tour screenshot 1

As you can see above, the DS is held sideways while playing Guitar Hero: On Tour (à la Hotel Dusk: Room 215). The game brings the series’ core gameplay to the DS by having the fretboard of notes scroll on the left, while the touch screen on the right is used for strumming to those notes. While the game only features four fingertip-sized buttons (green, red, yellow, and blue) due to size constraints, trust me: it’s plenty difficult as it is. I’ve played on Expert for all the past Guitar Hero games, and I failed the first song I tried on Expert in On Tour. Apparently, most people will start on a difficulty level that is a step down from where they play on the console versions.

That’s because of the guitar peripheral that the game ships with. The bundle will include the game, Guitar Grip peripheral, and wrist strap. The Guitar Grip was designed by RedOctane, just like all the official instruments in the Guitar Hero series to this point, and it is a fantastic piece of equipment. We were informed that they went through 23 revisions of the hardware, and it shows. I was apprehensive about the game’s comfort level — as you can see below, my hand looks somewhat cramped (and believe me, I have small hands) — but while there is some discomfort after playing for long stretches, it’s not too bad. However, I was playing in a hunched over position, with my head tilted downward so I could see the screen, and craning my neck like that began to hurt after a while.

Guitar Hero On Tour photo 1

Overall, the Guitar Grip is a truly innovative peripheral. Not only is it solidly built, but making it compatible with the original DS as well as the DS Lite was a stroke of genius. The transition requires a small screwdriver to unscrew two screws and pop off a part of the Game Boy Advance slot attachment, but then you’re good to go.

Vicarious Visions, the developer of the game, figured out the electronic side — that is, how to allow input from the GBA slot while playing a DS game — and RedOctane came up with the aesthetic design. The pick-shaped stylus is another awesome piece of the puzzle; it’s guaranteed not to scratch the touch screen, and it snaps in nicely to the rest of the apparatus when not being used. It feels great, and one of the developers mentioned that he now uses it in place of the stylus that came with his DS; it’s simply more comfortable in his hand.

On Tour features a six-person cast of characters: Axel Steel, Pandora, Johnny Napalm, Judy Nails, Gunner Jaxon, and Memphis Rose. The latter two are exclusive to this game; Jaxon is a grungy fellow, while Rose is a southern rock chick. Each character has a number of outfits that can be purchased with money earned during the career mode, and there are also different guitars available, as usual.

Guitar Hero On Tour screenshot 2

As for the song list, twenty tracks had previously been revealed, and the version I played included tiers 3 and 4 — with some tunes that were unannounced until now. The songs available to me were: “Heaven” by Los Lonely Boys, “Helicopter” by Bloc Party, “China Grove” by The Doobie Brothers, “Rock and Roll All Nite” by Kiss (covered by Line 6), “What I Want” by Daughtry, “Jet Airliner” by Steve Miller Band (covered by Wavegroup), “Black Magic Woman” by Santana (covered by Line 6), “Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats, “La Grange” by ZZ Top (covered by Line 6), and “Youth Gone Wild” by Skid Row (covered by Wavegroup). According to Karthik Bala, CEO of Vicarious Visions, 20 of the 25 tracks in the game are new to On Tour, while the other five will be favorites cherry-picked from the prior games in the series.

While the five-tier career mode is, as expected, the meat and potatoes of the game, Vicarious Visions hasn’t skimped on the multiplayer aspect of the game at all. While Wi-Fi play offers the standard Face-Off, Pro Face-Off, and Co-op modes, the focus is on the Guitar Duel portion (the Battle Mode from Guitar Hero III). Just like in that game, you duke it out with your opponent by hitting strings of notes to gain power-ups, which are activated by clicking icons on the left side of the touch screen.

Vicarious Visions have really outdone themselves here. There’s all kinds of craziness; along with the old “Difficulty Up” and “Amp Overload” power-ups, there’s DS-specific insanity, like “Sign the ____”. Something (like a purse, paper, or even a fish) will pop-up during play, and you’ll have to scribble an autograph before you can resume play. Then, there’s the “Screen Flip”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Like an idiot, I attempted to strum on the left screen, but of course, that doesn’t change; the touch screen is the right screen, so even though the “note highway” moves to it, you keep strumming there. I wasn’t a fan of the Battle Mode in Guitar Hero III, but it works here for a reason I can’t put my finger on. It’s fast, frenetic, and fun — and there’s a lot of strategy involved for upper-level players, thanks to a “Shield” power-up.

Guitar Hero On Tour screenshot 3

Bala also explained that the On Tour isn’t a mere port of the console versions or a quick cash-in scheme. “We’re not gonna replicate the console; that’s not the point,” he said. But the irony is just how much of the non-portable versions they were able to cram into this game. It’s really quite impressive. Aside from the obvious input differences, the mechanics in this game are essentially identical to the console versions.

For example, just like you can strum up and down on the guitar controller to hit successive notes, you can quickly strum with the pick left and right to hit quick sections of notes. To use the whammy bar, simply wiggle the pick back and forth while holding a note (the whammy bar of the guitar on the touch screen actually animates, too!). Star Power is engaged by yelling into, or blowing on, the DS microphone — hilariously, one of the journalists at the event kept loudly saying cheesy phrases like “Rock on!” to activate his Star Power.

Graphically, the game looks wonderful. It’s appropriately colorful, and it’s impressive considering the DS hardware — there’s a lot going on at all times, like a literal subway train occasionally passing by the note highway. And there are 100 minutes of music in the game, which is obviously compressed pretty highly, but that doesn’t take too much away from the game. It’s not like the songs are barely identifiable or anything. Bala told us that there were three streams of sound: the guitar, rhythm/bass, and “the rest” — which includes the rattling of the subway car.

Guitar Hero On Tour screenshot 4

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Guitar Hero: On Tour. I wasn’t expecting much going in; I assumed the peripheral would be very uncomfortable to use, and I’m getting somewhat tired of the old Guitar Hero formula by now. But On Tour makes fantastic use of the DS’ unique capabilities to great benefit, and while the tracklist may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a completely subjective thing. Vicarious Visions already seems to have impressed Nintendo, as they’ve created a special Guitar Hero-branded DS which will be bundled with the game and available separately from the standard game-and-peripheral bundle — and that’s the first time that a custom-made third-party DS will be available. I can safely say that they’ve impressed me, too.

Samit Sarkar