Pew! Pew! Preview!: Guitar Hero: World Tour (Part 1)

Alright, so look — it was around this time last year that I proclaimed Guitar Hero as we knew it to be dead. You see, I had played this other game. You know, the one with all of the instruments that just fit so nicely with a few drinks and a room full of friends. It’s not like I didn’t like Guitar Hero III; quite the opposite in fact. (I personally gave it an 8.5 out of 10.) It was just that the other game was so fresh, so new, so … good.

I didn’t need industry-insider insight to conclude that it was the future. Clearly, Activision and Neversoft were thinking the same thing that I was. So when they announced the multi-instrument evolution of their franchise, Guitar Hero: World Tour, no one — especially not me — was surprised.

A lot of you had the same reaction I did — “I already have one game, and I don’t need another drum set in my house.” Some of you also jumped to conclusions about the title and used expletives that I probably shouldn’t reprint. Well, now that I’ve gotten a first-hand look at the game and the new peripherals (including a newly designed guitar), I’m throwing away a coffee table and a couch to make room in my house for the game’s Fall 2008 release. 

Hit the jump for some of the first details and find out why.

“There’s a lot of innovative s**t we’ve done with this thing,” World Tour’s project lead, Brian Bright, told us as we sat and watched a game demonstration at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.

He’s referring to the new iteration of the instrument that got us into this mess in the first place, the guitar. At first glance, the new peripheral is a bit bigger, but not much different than the original Guitar Hero design. The now-iconic colored five-button scheme makes its return, as does the whammy bar (which is slightly longer, making it easier to reach). Although it was hard to see because of the guitar’s all-black finish (which will likely change before it ships, and even has changed in the pictures provided to us), the direction pad is now designed to look like a knob, with the PS3 home or Xbox 360 guide button in the middle. The bridge of the guitar, a small silver bar, now serves as the “back” button as well as a secondary way to activate “Star Power.”

Slight tweaks in look and feel probably would have been fine for even the most hardcore Guitar Hero gamer, but Neversoft and Activision weren’t content to simply rest on their laurels. Further down the neck sits a new feature that will significantly change how you interact with the game — a touch-sensitive slider. Not merely a gimmick, Neversoft demonstrated a number of ways in which this addition would work with World Tour.

Any notes that appear on screen can be tapped out on the touch pad instead of strumming, for instance, which may help with particularly fast solos or if you’re a bassist looking to “slap.” With longer notes, the touch pad can be tapped to tweak sustain and to alter your guitar sound in other ways. As far as how this ties directly into game, it was noted that the slide pad was perfect for certain songs that featured slide guitar or more synth sounds, and because of this, a new gameplay mechanic was added.

There will be sections where notes will run down the on-screen fret highway; by sliding back and forth, you “catch” the notes, a mechanic that Neversoft likened to the old Activision title Kaboom!. While it’ll still be possible to play the game in a more traditional manner, Neversoft promises that this type of creative playing will be rewarded with higher scores and unlockables. And it should be noted that all of the old Guitar Hero instruments will work with World Tour, despite this redesign … you’ll just miss out on some of the new functionality.

While the additions to the guitar peripheral and game are surprisingly impressive, it’s likely most people are going to want to sit down behind the new addition to the Guitar Hero franchise: the drums. While they weren’t letting us get our hands on the sticks (all of the instruments being demonstrated were prototypes, quite possibly the only ones in existence), the look of the set itself and the features are certainly impressive. Immediately noticeable is that the pads for the cymbals (hi-hat and crash) are elevated above the other three pads (snare, high tom, low tom), giving it that “real kit” look and feel.

“One of our mantras coming out,” Bright told us, “was that if you know the drum parts and you’re a drummer, you can almost close your eyes and play. There’s no tweaking the pad orientation [to fit game] for the songs; it’s like you’re playing a real drum kit.

Mission accomplished: the live demonstration had Neversoft designer Andy Gentile, a drummer himself, behind the kit. During a hot and heavy performance of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” I noticed Andy was paying more attention to the kit itself than the notes on screen. When asked about it later, he said he was having trouble seeing both of the screens that were set up for the demo, so he just played what felt right as a drummer. He aced all of the performance on Expert.

Another thing I noticed while listening to Andy’s playing was that some of the notes being hit sounded louder than others. This was later explained — all of the pads are velocity-sensitive. In layman’s terms, this means that the harder you hit the pads, the louder the sounds you’ll hear coming from the game. The results are subtle, but noticeable; the idea is to deliver a more realistic drumming experience. Like the touch slider on the guitar, this feature finds its way into the gameplay. Certain notes that appear on the screen will have an “armor” on them, making them “accent notes.” By hitting these notes harder than your last few notes, you’ll get extra points. It’s small additions like this — giving players ways to eke out extra points — that have Neversoft hoping that World Tour will be the competitive music game of choice.

Construction-wise, the kit is looking solid. As Bright told us, they’re “not pinching pennies” when it comes to the design, with liberal use of silicone in the drum heads and raised cymbals. Again, we didn’t get to hammer away at it, but the 8-inch drum heads supposedly have a bit more bounce (allowing for flams and rolls) and should be quieter than “competing” peripherals. The drums will also be completely wireless, powered only by a few batteries.

For the final piece of the band puzzle, the vocals, there’s not much to report. Neversoft has partnered with Logitech on the simple black USB microphone which is said to have a nice, substantial weight to it. Unlike the other instruments, the microphone will be wired, simply due to the fact that Neversoft “didn’t have time to make [it] wireless.” This shouldn’t be a huge issue — any singer worth his or her salt knows that swinging the microphone is a key element of proper rock star showmanship and posturing.

When all of this comes together in-game, the results aren’t that surprising. In fact, if you’ve played Rock Band, prepare for a serious case of déjà vu. The on-screen setup is just like Harmonix’s title, with three note highways for guitar, drums, and bass, and scrolling lyrics and a pitch bar on top of the screen. We did notice some of the new gameplay elements in action, including the new “open” string pick mechanic for the bass, where you’ll strum but won’t hit any buttons (this essentially adds an extra “note” for bass players). Visually, the game retains the slightly-more-real-than-real look of previous Guitar Hero titles. Fortunately, the game’s animation has been given more attention this time around, and we’re glad to report the drummer no longer looks like a wind-up toy monkey.

So while on the surface the game seems like — dare I say it — a “Rock Band clone,” Neversoft really does seem to be building a product that they can call their own. We doubt they’d admit it publicly, but it really seems like they’ve been watching their competition and taking note of both its failures and successes. This is highly evident when you start looking at the game modes and options they’re putting in World Tour, starting with the game game’s career mode.

World Tour will contain five distinct career paths for guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and a full band career. Unlike previous games, each career is not a linear progression. Instead, each will contain a series of gigs that you can play around the world at your own discretion, unlocking new venues and shows as you advance; at any time, you may have three or four gigs to choose from. The huge news, especially for fans frustrated with Rock Band’s local-only band career mode, is that World Tour allows you to play through a band career both online and off. It’s entirely possible in World Tour to start a band offline, and then continue progression online with completely new members.

Other online modes include the standard versus modes (Face-Off, Pro Face-Off) as well as the battle mode introduced in Guitar Hero III. (It should be noted that the arcade boss battles found in GH III will not be making a return in single or band career modes; instead, head-to-head battles with unnamed “celebrity musicians” will play out in a call-and-response fashion.) Regardless of what mode you’re playing, cash can be earned that will carry over into all game types. Neversoft are also promising detailed statistics tracking and leaderboards, similar to that seen on

For those frustrated with the steep difficulty of GH III, Neversoft have heard your soft sobs in the night, and have tweaked World Tour accordingly. They’ve done a lot of work over the past few months balancing difficulty, so there’s a more linear ramp; you’ll first notice this when Guitar Hero: Aerosmith ships later this month. But in World Tour, they’ve taken it to another level, adding a “Beginner” difficulty for babies and your grandma. When playing guitar at this difficultly, you’ll simply have to strum in time with a single colored bar on the screen; when playing drums, just hit any pad; when singing; simply make a noise. Not quite that bad, but still unsure of your skills? Don’t worry; the career progression will allow you to change difficultly as you advance, so that you’ll never get “stuck.”

If Neversoft were to stop here, it’s likely they you’d probably already be writing them a blank check for their yet-to-be-priced title. But they didn’t stop, and there’s more. A lot more. World Tour’s exhaustive feature set also includes full rocker and instrument customization, a mind-numblingly deep custom track creator, and an online song sharing service called “GH Tunes.” But for now, we’ll give your brain a break. Check back later today for more details, and the rest of our first-look coverage of Guitar Hero: World Tour.

Nick Chester