Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero, Round 2

You wanna rock. But between Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour, there's a bona fide battle of the bands going on as the holidays approach. Both games promise arena-filling rock-god dreams, and both are good--so let's take a look at what makes each game tick. (I evaluated the Xbox 360 versions of these games, but both are also available on the PlayStation 2, PS3, and Wii.)

The latest Guitar Hero offers many new features, but you have a couple of big questions to answer before taking the stage: Do you invest $180 dollars to form a Rock Band, or do you spend 190 bucks to go on a World Tour? Which game offers the better selection of songs? Which has the better instruments? We had a jam session with Activision Blizzard's newest gig, so we can give you a detailed, hands-on breakdown of what you'd get for your money and how it compares to Rock Band 2.

The Gear

Used to be, you had to own more plastic toy guitars than Eddie Van Halen's kid to play all of the music games out there. But those days are gone: Guitar Hero peripherals still work in Rock Band; and Rock Band controllers now work in Guitar Hero. I tested peripherals back-and-forth between the two games--and they all worked as advertised. That interoperability raises a big question: Which game offers the better controllers?

The drum kits
Rock Band 2: At launch, the original Rock Band required roadies to be on call 24/7. Guitars would arbitrarily stop working--and not as a result of ritual smashing after a show. Springs snapped, sensitive switches broke and...well, EA learned from its mistakes. So for Rock Band 2, it produced gear that's a lot sturdier and much more reliable. The design of the wireless guitar changes little: The controller remains whisper quiet, and its faux wood-grain finish helps it make a better go of looking like the real thing. Meanwhile, the sturdier, quieter five-drum kit lets you hear the music--and not yourself banging on the skins. Also, an aftermarket upgrade kit will soon be available for the drums through Mad Catz (one cymbal for $20 or a three-cymbal set for $40). A drummer buddy of mine found that Rock Band's drums were just a hair more sensitive (but more on that in a second).

Guitar Hero World Tour: Adding drums to a game called Guitar Hero? That's the big, obvious change. A six-drum kit, consisting of a kick-pedal, three toms and two high hats is the headline grabber. But it looks as though GHWT is running into a few technical difficulties with the first units out the gate. According to reports, the drum pad sensitivity is off--a problem that, hopefully, a good support policy can help solve. I'm a fan of the pressure-sensitive pads and cymbals, though I wonder how long the kit will last if I start acting like Animal from the Muppets. And anyone who has played drums for real will find it a little disorienting to have the crash cymbal positioned in the middle of the note chart while playing. My first instinct is to bash something toward the far right.

The Guitar Hero axes are definitely more toylike, thanks to distinct colored buttons and an obnoxiously audible click with every note. The bonus, I guess, is that you can pull off an unplugged acoustic set. On the plus side, I really like the addition of a series of slide-guitar-like buttons toward the bottom of the neck. It adds a new dimension to guitar riffs as you slide and tap your way through songs.

Interestingly the new Guitar Hero game can detect the presence of a Rock Band controller and adjust the buttons accordingly (since the RB guitar has fewer features and the RB drums have fewer pads).

The Set Lists

An head-to-head critique of the two games' set lists would be highly subjective (though I could make a pretty strong case that GHWT's inclusion of "Beat It" is prima facie evidence of distinctly un-rock-god-like tendencies.) You can find a complete set list for all Rock Band games on the associated Web site, and similarly you can check guitarhero.com for that game's songs. Some tracks, such as from the Foo Fighters, appear in both series, while battle lines are drawn with exclusive offerings by other musical acts. Missing something? You can always buy more tunes retroactively at the games' online "stores."

The Ozz man cometh
Rock Band 2: Think iTunes for the gaming world. This slickly packaged marketplace hosts a huge selection of full albums and tracks that you can download into the original game or into this year's sequel. In fact, one recent release, AC-DC Live, is available as a stand-alone concert disc that you can play. And though the result will technically not be a Rock Band game, Harmonix (the developer) announced this week that it's working on an untitled Beatles "experimental journey" that will follow the band's entire career. We don't know whether there will be any connection between the two franchises...but I just had to throw that bit of info out there for any Beatles fans in the audience before the journey launches in Q4 2009.

Guitar Hero World Tour: Guitar Hero is still working out some of the kinks--which is to say, songs you bought in previous GH games don't carry over here. There are some popular song choices, but not nearly as many up front. However, GHWT trumps all in user content. Rock Band may be iTunes-ish, but Guitar Hero follows a YouTube model that invites players to record original tracks in Recording Studio mode and upload them for sharing with the community. Then, users download and rate submitted songs. The potential for this feature is fantastic--limited only by what people produce. Me? I'm waiting for someone to re-create Chocolate Rain.

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