It packs in a sleek new wireless six-piece drum set with fan-like cymbals, a slap-strum pad on its 25 percent larger sunburst guitar, a stunning 86 master recording track list, and absolutely nobody, I repeat nobody, dies in this game. I'm talking about Activision Blizzard's Guitar Hero World Tour, of course, aka Take That, Rock Band !, an Extreme Instrumental Makeover for the series that launched a thousand armchair shedders, and it'll be available day one for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo Wii owners anywhere.
In case you've yet to rock out with a plastic piece and you're wondering what's up with this "music video game" thing, a word about Guitar Hero. Think back to when you were a kid and shameless, ready to bop and disco while your favorite song boogied in the background, plucking invisible strings on ethereal air guitars or upending empty ice cream buckets to slap along with the beat. Now imagine three or four buckets pinioned to a stand and that air guitar reified in plastic homage to Les Paul with a few colorful buttons poking out of the neck to trigger notes as they pop up on a TV screen and you're in the concert hall vicinity of what this whole faux rocker craze is all about.
Craze? Without a doubt. The Guitar Hero series alone has sold over 23 million units worldwide and cashed some $1.6 billion in retail sales since it debuted in November 2005. By comparison, the Halo trilogy of games has sold around 20 million copies worldwide, and it's been around since November 2001.
Guitar Hero World Tour marks the fourth entry in a series that until now has been Strictly Guitars, allowing at most two players to cooperatively tackle guitar and bass parts or square off in head-cutting duels. That was plenty for the first waves of living room rockers -- until November 2007, anyway, when MTV Games released Rock Band, which audaciously added a drum set and microphone to the mix.
Guitar Hero purists balked at Rock Band's simplified gameplay and softer soundtrack, but the casually curious quickly climbed onto couches and enthusiastically plonked folding chairs in front of TV sets to group-jam songs like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly" and Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." What's more, Rock Band offered roles for everyone. Guitar too complex? Try bass. Bass to easy? Try drums. Not rhythmically inclined? Grab the microphone, set it on "easy," then belt your ever-lovin' heart out. Plop spectators on your flanks singing backup and beer and pretzels on the coffee table and you were golden.
Guitar Hero World Tour amounts to Activision Blizzard's year-later group-friendly riposte, an attempt to one-up the Rock Band series with more sophisticated play modes and a full complement of streamlined instruments. For starters, the redesigned guitar's whammy bar has been extended to make it easier to grab and hammer, and the strum bar is both wider and quieter so you can theoretically rocket through power-rhythm stuff like Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" or Joe Satriani's "Satch Boogie" without burying the music in a blizzard of teeth-juddering clicks. Top that off with a tap pad that lets you play notes straight or "tap-strum" like you're slapping strings on an electric bass.
And then there's the drum set, which adds a whole new splashy vertical dimension. Rock Band's drum kit was four pads and a kick pedal, but World Tour adds cymbals to the mix along with velocity sensitivity (how hard or fast you strike the pads) so you can actually vary the sounds the drums make.
Even more intriguing: The game's newfangled "advanced studio" mode lets you actually create your own music from scratch. I don't know if you're familiar with Apple's GarageBand, but it's the same basic idea, a simplified compositional tool that captures MIDI data (and in the case of the PS3 version, you can even plug in a MIDI-compatible computer) as entered, either note-by-note or in real-time.
"Great," you're probably saying, "but what'll that set me back?"
You've actually got a few options here. You can spring for the whole caboodle and take your wallet for a white-knuckle $190 spin. You can opt for just the "guitar kit" version for $100 which comes with, erm, just the guitar. Or you can grab the game all by it's lonesome for $60 and not a penny more if you don't mind using your existing plastic axe. That's right, World Tour is backwards compatible with older Guitar Hero peripherals (and even a few Rock Band and Rock Revolution controllers, or so rumor has it).
As for the track list, think...mellower. Who really wants to group-fumble through DragonForce's "Through the Fire and Flames" or Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" anyway? In World Tour, you'll be jamming to more tuneful stuff like The Guess Who's "American Woman" and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and Bob Seger's "Hollywood Nights." Somehow even Michael Jackson ("Beat It") and Wings ("Band on the Run") made it in.
Not to worry, the downloadable content's already stacked to the gills with Metallica and Ted Nugent and Oasis tracks, so it's not a total pop-fest, but then you wouldn't catch me dead listening to Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl," but I absolutely cannot wait to play it. Oh yeah, take note Wii owners, this is the first Guitar Hero game to finally support Wii download functionality.
Will it sell? That'd be where you come in, but it certainly looks like a deal-maker on paper, bound to ratchet up the profile of a rapidly growing idiom that's become a kind of second-market-for-musical-oldies phenomenon.