So it occurred to me as I was rocking out this weekend that perhaps I could use some of my copious free time to get back into this, and what better way to do it than to highlight Neversoft's two newest entries into the fake band genre, Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero Smash Hits.
When MTV hooked up with Harmonix to create Rock Band, quite possibly the greatest move in all of video game history (how's that for hyperbole?), Activision tabbed Neversoft to step in and replace Harmonix. Easy task, right? "Okay, here's the deal. We've got this great franchise, only the people who built it took off and are working on another project, so we need you to take this and make it cooler and better, except don't make it too much like what they did or they'll get mad and sue us."
So Neversoft did their best and predictably failed. Guitar Hero III was not a full-band game – in fact, it was still just a guitar game, seeing that you couldn't yet play a career on bass – and with the release and massive success of Rock Band, that was clearly what people wanted. (You may explain Guitar Hero: Fill-in-the-band however you like. I can't.) Neversoft did what they could to move the franchise in a different direction, but by forcing in stupid boss battles in a game that had always separated solo and versus play, and increasing the difficulty levels from "pretty darn hard" to "I don't believe that's physically possible," they shrunk the group of people willing to play the game to a reasonable percentage of completion down to about nothing. (Check out the achievements. This is about a 150-point game for good players.)
Apparently they realized this and knew they had to move to the same format. World Tour was their attempt to match Rock Band; Smash Hits built on the World Tour all-band format, but used songs from previous Guitar Hero games (including I and II, which is impressive considering that those were originally set up by Harmonix).
Both games use the Rock Band format: play solo as bass, guitar, vocals, or drums; play as any combination of 2 or more for a band. Solo and band mode are separate (unlike Rock Band 2).
In World Tour, everything is a set. Unlike its predecessors, you no longer get to choose the order in which you play the songs. Instead, you must play all songs in a set to proceed. (Fortunately, you can save your progress after every completed song. That's something not even Rock Band allows.) Complete a set and you unlock one or more other sets ... you don't necessarily have to play through all the sets to unlock the final one, which is good, because most of the sets have mediocre songs. Like GH III, GH:WT leans toward metal and (I guess) modern-ish rock, meaning "not a lot of songs people over 35 will recognize". When you get to the later sets and have to play through five or six of these songs ... no wonder real bands sometimes see touring as a grind.
Smash Hits combines the set theory (ha ha, math joke) from GH with the free play of Rock Band 2. Each locale has a certain number of songs available (including an encore song if you complete all songs there), but if you collect enough stars, you unlock the next locale whether or not you've completed the current one. Sure, there aren't any "make your own setlist" gigs, but it's a start. Add that to the fact that these songs come from the previous games, and you get gigs that are frequently worth playing. Major points for GH:SH.
The obnoxious, stupid, worthless "battles" from GH III that bled over into WT are thankfully gone from SH. (And to WT's credit, rather than pulling all that crap with "broken strings" and stuff, the battles simply consist of you trying to "outplay" the AI. Still sucks, just not as much.) That was a terrible idea that they should never have done in the first place, and kudos to Neversoft for removing it.
As Rock Band does, both games show a track for each instrument: vocals across the top, guitars on the side, drums in the middle. Unfortunately for drummers, if you have a World Tour-compatible set, your track looks a lot like the guitar tracks, which can cause problems if your drummer looks at the wrong one. (Yes, this happened to us once. I was not the drummer.)
Thankfully, they adopted the Rock Band convention that allows you to build Star Power even while you're using it. In band mode, each band member can use a certain amount of the band's total. I'm not quite sure how that part works yet. Guitarists still activate by tipping or pressing the appropriate button (the World Tour guitars have a long button that almost looks like part of the guitar; nice, but still hard to find). Drummers hit the yellow and blue pads at the same time – unconventional, and not really helpful. What ends up happening is that you get the occasional break in the rhythm that Rock Band adds, but instead of being able to play what you want without messing up, you either hit the correct pads or break your streak, and then either way you go immediately back into the rhythm. Vocalists just press the Y button on the controller. You're supposed to be able to clap near the mike to do it too, but that's not going to work if you're holding it.
WT introduced the tap bar, five flat "frets" on the guitar that work like the Rock Band solo buttons. Unfortunately, because they're flat, it's really hard to see where they are on the guitar and to determine which ones to hit. (Hey guys, these aren't real guitars. Stop trying to make them look so much like one and focus on how they work.) Fortunately, during a section where you're able to tap, you can tap on the regular buttons instead of the tap bar and still get the same points. (Harmonix, take note.) Of course, you can't use "tap wah", whatever the hell that is.
Vocalists and drummers also have "free play" sections ... but vocalists are scored by matching ... um ... kind of the rhythm and pitch of the song that you aren't singing. I can't really explain it because it doesn't really make any sense. Also, there are sections where if you make noise, the crowd will "respond", meaning that if you have a half-full bulb in your Star Power meter, it'll fill.
The overall difficulty of WT is comparable to GH III: hard guitar is very difficult, expert is nearly impossible. Expert bass can be done on most songs, but the speed metal songs are tricky. Surprisingly, vocals are much more difficult than in Rock Band: you're apparently supposed to have perfect pitch and maintain it throughout each note for 100%. Drums are somewhat difficult, especially when you get to expert and get the double-kick notes that go with the double kick pedal that you don't have.
In SH, however, the difficulty is much more reasonable. In fact, if you have the original GH games, you may run into problems the first time you play a song on the same difficulty level in SH ... you might find yourself trying to play notes that aren't there. There are certainly challenging songs in SH, but not to the point that you should be tearing your hair out.
Once again, Neversoft has innovated here, and in a couple of ways that are pretty cool. On the bass, you now have open notes, which appear like the kick pedal on drums (a solid line across your highway). Funny how all this time we've been playing guitars and up until now had never played an open note ... anyway, on vocals, instead of completing Star Power phrases, everything is a Star Power phrase. Knock one out and build your meter; hit enough and you can activate Star Power ... repeat until song ends. (Vocals are the exception to the continuous Star Power rule, which makes sense: a good vocalist could sing almost the entire song with Star Power running.)
At long last, GH:SH displays your star progress during the song. No more guessing if that was good enough for five stars: you see it right there, complete with a progress meter that shows you how close you are to the next star. Once again, points for SH.
Streaks are still calculated with chords counting the same as single notes. Dumb. Obviously chords are more complicated ... band streaks are also reduced to the lowest common denominator, so if the guitarist and drummer are playing 12 notes per measure, and the bassist is playing 2, you're going to add 2 notes per measure to your streak.
WT and SH have their own versions of Big Rock Endings. (Well, at least WT does. I haven't seen one in SH that I recall.) You know, freestyle sections at the end of songs where you build up killer points that you collect if you hit the last note or notes.
Well, not quite. In WT, they're actually real notes that count just like the other notes. Sounds like an '80s joke. (In Soviet Rock Band, Big Rock Ending plays you! Ha ha!) Yeah, not so cool.
Neversoft seems to have realized that clownish graphics and comic-book actions during songs really kill whatever immersion you were experiencing. In both WT and SH, band members look something like real people, and during the songs, it actually looks like they're playing the songs. Better yet, in SH, because each song is a separate set (and thus the "house band" is different each time), if no one is on vocals, then SH will use a vocalist that is the right sex for the song ... and in many cases is similar in appearance to what I know as the actual vocalist. I mean, if you're playing Message in a Bottle, Sting isn't actually out there, but the guy they use looks a little bit like him.
The crowd will sing along in SH if you do particularly well, although not as noticeably as in Rock Band, probably because there aren't as many songs where you really want to hear the crowd singing.
In a neat little twist, you can actually build your own guitars and drums using custom components, rather than being limited to standard (and whimsical) instruments. Of course, the vocalist is still trapped in a boring world ... both games also use a color wheel for items that can be colored, which is very helpful. It's much easier to see the different options here than in Rock Band's horizontally-scrolling list of colors.
World Tour is, hopefully, the last attempt by Neversoft to be noticeably different from Rock Band. The two franchises were able to reach an agreement about songs that enabled us to play the ones we like in both series. Perhaps Smash Hits may foretell an era where the franchises borrow the best from each other to make their own games better.
World Tour is possibly worth a rental, but you aren't missing much if you don't play it. It's better than GH III, but still tedious unless you really like speed metal or are in that top 1% of players who can actually play Through the Fire and Flames.
Smash Hits is definitely a return to quality for the series. While it doesn't offer near the DLC that Rock Band has, and you don't get the create-your-own and random setlists that incorporate DLC so well into Rock Band, it does stand on its own (ironically enough) as a strong competitor. If you have to buy one, buy this one.