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Guitar Hero vs. Rock Band

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Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell
Rock Band from Harmonix & MTV

Last week I detailed the ethereal magic of the current music game trend, this week I thought I'd get down to the more tangible issues; namely which of the two competing band simulators is the better.

Before continuing I should probably disclose a couple of things. Firstly, I'm not a trained musician and as such can't really vouch for how well any of the instrument controllers actually represent their real world counterparts, beyond the most superficial elements.

Secondly, I've spent a disproportionately larger amount of time with Rock Band than I have Guitar Hero: World Tour (which is the first title of the Guitar Hero series to incorporate the drum kit and microphone accessories.) This isn't necessarily out of preference as much as circumstance -- it’s a very particular breed of gamer that can not only afford both of these costly sets, but fit them both in their living room.

So, having now explained exactly why I'm not equipped to judge such a contest at all, lets move on to calling this fight between the entertainment industry’s two biggest musical releases of the past year.

The Instruments

Game development team Harmonix and publisher RedOctane teamed up in 2005 to create the first Guitar Hero game, birthing the first console guitar controller and igniting a fire in the hitherto largely ignored world of music games. After belting out a few successful sequels the two companies went their separate ways; Harmonix teamed with MTV to produce Rock Band and RedOctane were taken under Activision's wing and created Guitar Hero: World Tour.

Considering their shared linage it's hardly surprising that both companies have produced fairly similar guitars for their respective games. Rock Band's control is modelled after the Fender Stratocaster, and the World Tour guitar is a larger version of the Guitar Hero III Gibson Les Paul.

While they both work that wonderful magic in making one shed the usual living room inhibitions to make a prancing fool of oneself, the two guitars do have their differences.

The Rock Band model features, in addition to the five regular fret buttons, an additional five, smaller buttons further down the fret. These are used to play various solos as they occur throughout songs, simulating fancy hammer-on and pull-off techniques. The addition of these solo sections helps to enhance the immersive feeling of actually playing the song, not to mention being a lovely bit of ego stoking for the accomplished virtual player. The Rock Band model also features a switch that allows you to select different guitar effects, such as wah-wah and echo.

The World Tour guitar distinguishes itself through a small touch-sensitive pad just below the five regular fret buttons. This pad allows the player to play notes in the traditional manner or to play via a tap strumming technique that more closely simulates the slap bass method. The touch pad also incorporates the ability to slide your finger along the virtual strings for specific sections of a song.

Both guitars make excellent developments upon the older Guitar Hero models in their new additions and in improving the old elements, such as longer whammy bars or quieter strum bars. Ultimately I have to give the win to the Rock Band controller, with the addition of solo buttons being a much more substantial asset than World Tour's slightly gimmicky touch pad. It also makes for an overall quieter play, with its solid strum bar emitting far less noise than the competition -- those aggravating little clicks really do ruin the fragile illusion of Rock and Roll supremacy.

Easily the most exciting addition to our lounge-based band repertoire was the inclusion of drum kits in both titles. To be fair it should be remembered that, in most right-thinking territories, Rock Band was released well ahead of World Tour. It was only in our backward little land of terrible release delays that the two came out near simultaneously. As such Rock Band was the stumbling pioneer, highlighting pitfalls for World Tour's later kit to avoid. Naturally the results are a little one-sided.

The Rock Band kit features four drum pads, representing snare drum, toms, and cymbals depending on song context, and a bass peddle. Using drumsticks players thrash away at the track’s drum sections, dropping in freestyle drum fills as required, and (much to my continued exasperation) trying to time the bass kicks along the way.

The World tour drum kit ups the ante with five drum pads, including snare, two toms, and (unlike Rock Band) two cymbals raised above the three main pads. The two cymbals definitely make for a more realistic, and therefore more immersive drumming experience; though limiting the main pads to three does seem a little more restricting than necessary (apparently it's a more realistic take on a drum kit setup, so I'm told.) The kit also features MIDI input that evidently allows you to plug in a real electronic drum kit, though I have no idea how well that would work out, game wise.

The drum kit winner is unquestionably World Tour. With it's velocity-sensitive pads emitting different noises based on how hard they are hit coupled with the drum pads’ silent silicon construction (the clicking of the guitar strum bar can be annoying, the pounding of the Rock Band drum kit can by damn near deafening) there's really no competition. And the World Tour kit is even wireless (though all of these points have already been absorbed into the Rock Band 2 version of the drum kit.)

There's really not a lot of actual competition going on as far as the microphones are concerned; both editions are basically identical and function just as well as the supremely well-made SingStar versions. So we shall call that one a draw.

The Songs

By my count that's one win for each of the contenders, so it all comes down to the music -- as it should.

On mere statistics World Tour has the upper hand boasting 86 songs - all of which are original recordings, an impressive feat to be sure. But quantity can never make up for quality, while Rock Band only delivers 58 songs on the disc developers Harmonix have an unblemished track record for soundtracks that are well-balanced, varied, and pleasing to as diverse a crowd as possible.

In the end it comes down to personal taste, and since I've never been much of classic rock guy I have to give the win to Rock Band. The original track list contains a healthy dose of punk and new wave, which tickles my fancy, and a host of new indie bands I've never even heard of, which keeps the ever-visiting hipsters satisfied (be warned, get any of these games and prepare to have your television permanently hijacked by guests.) And while both games offer a library of extra songs that you can download for an almost-reasonable fee, the collection assembled for Rock Band outweighs the meagre World Tour assembly by a wide margin.

The Result

I'm truly sorry, but I'm going to have to take the road most lame and call this a dead heat, as I can't in good conscious give Rock Band the win based on my own (admittedly somewhat esoteric) musical taste. I do like that Rock Band shares its focus across all three instruments more so than World Tour’s still very guitar-focused approach; but there's just no denying the technical superiority of much of the latter’s offerings.

So what would I advise a perspective purchased to do? Well, after much bitter press releasing, both companies have made sure their instruments are compatible with the other’s software; so no matter which way you go hardware-wise you'll be able to sample both games' software. However, if you want a hard and fast answer my advice would be this; wait. Wait for Rock Band 2, a title that will apparently incorporate all the necessary changes from that which went before. The rest of the world are already happily thrashing away on that baby as we speak, though our dismal little corner still hasn't received a release date (we just recently got the first one, for crying out loud.)

If you just can't handle such uncertainty or desperately need to rock out now, now, now, then I suggest checking out both track lists and going with what sounds best to you, because both titles truly offer some fine hardware and an intoxicating experience hitherto unknown on the home console.

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