Guitar Hero: On Tour
If there's one thing that's made the Guitar Hero brand great up to now its how effortlessly they create the illusion of actually playing a musical instrument thanks largely to the lovely guitar shaped peripherals you get to play with. Unfortunately, what makes GH World Tour on the DS painful (literally) is how it spectacularly fails to create any kind of instrument-playing illusion, thanks largely to its incredibly awkward clip-on guitar grip.
Its failure really is that simple, the specially designed guitar grip that World Tour insists you play using ruins what, at its core, is an otherwise perfectly competent GH experience. To be fair Guitar Hero and handheld gaming were never going to be a natural fit, but it's a shame the desire to push the brand onto every possible format wasn't tempered with a dash of common sense when someone first suggested the idea.
First impressions of the gadget that causes all the problems are actually positive, it's a solid enough piece of kit that slots into the GBA slot of your DS clasping the underside of the touch screen half of the console. Its four fret buttons peak over the other side making it look like the bottom of your console has been gripped by some sort of GH branded plastic hand.
The idea is that you slip your hand through the provided strap, thus holding the DS flat in the palm of your hand, your fingers lining up fairly naturally with the buttons. So far so good, the problem comes when you realise the in-game action is actually displayed in portrait (Brain Training style) while the fret buttons are positioned as if for a landscape view. This means you're forced to hold the DS at an awkward angle to play it and keep the screen the right way up, a position that doesn't take long to become arm-aching.
Imagine having an exercise book strapped flat to one hand but at an angle where the lines ran parallel to your fingers, now twist your hand 45 degrees so the lines would be angled properly left to right and easy to read. Next imagine holding that position while trying to write on the book and wiggling your fingers for any length of time... exactly!
The fact that the buttons are at the side of the on-screen action rather than above it also manages to make it more confusing to play. I'm no expert but while playing GH in the past I've never found myself having to think which finger was associated with which on screen note, in On Tour however, it seems much less instinctive. With practice it does become easier, although never feels completely natural, and I admit this is perhaps just a personal gripe and other, more nimble fingered gamers may not experience such problems.
Unfortunately it doesn't get any better once you start to actually play. To strum the notes you slide the provided guitar pick-shaped stylus (a nice touch) over the strings of a guitar displayed on the touch screen, a system that sounds fair enough on paper but which in practice is anything but. Half the problem comes from the lack of any physical feedback, when playing GH using a proper guitar controller you flick the strum bar and know without looking you've hit it because you can feel it. However, with the touch screen system on the DS it's much less intuitive. Annoyingly the guitar fills up no more than a third of the screen leaving a lot of room for inaccuracies which becomes even more of a problem as songs get more frantic and you'll find your hand moving around as you try and do things quicker and quicker. Since looking at the touch screen to check your strum position obviously means you have to take your eyes off the falling notes on the other half of the DS you can see where problems can arise just at the points in songs where you need accuracy.
To be honest, it's a perfectly natural idea to try and take advantage of the DS hardware in this way but with such obvious problems you'd have thought someone at some point would have thought to include an option to use a button as well as the strum bar. It would have solved a lot of problems.
There are other issues too; the grip doesn't seem to sit all that firmly in the GBA slot causing it to regularly get dislodged during frantic songs. The sound quality is dire even through headphones and there's simply no way of holding the game that makes reading the screen, pressing the buttons and strumming all comfortable at the same time.
The annoying thing is the actual game itself, in terms of design and content, its as great as ever. There're twenty six tracks in all, including 'Helicopter' by Bloc Party, 'Breed' by Nirvana and 'All the Small Things' by Blink 182, not to mention songs by Jet, No Doubt and Lynyrd Skynyrd among many others. The game structure remains familiar with a career mode seeing your newly formed band making their way through the set list playing at bigger and better venues as they get onto the harder songs. There's also the normal quick play option as well as various characters and guitars to buy and unlock as you go.
New to the DS is the Guitar Duels mode which allow you to play against an AI (or human via Wi-Fi) opponent in a game where stringing together certain groups of notes awards you power ups that can be used against your opponent. Power ups come in a variety of flavours including undoing one of the other players guitar strings (meaning they have to re-attach it using the touch screen), setting fire to their guitar (they'll have to blow on it to put the fire out) and the classic screen flip which is always fun.
The loss of one fret button (4 rather than the normal 5) obviously makes a difference to the difficulty curve but its absence is handled well and quite honestly is the least of your worries considering the other problems. With no whammy bar to hold down you're forced to rub the touch screen to bend notes, an effect that actually works rather well. The lack of any motion sensing in the guitar grip means you're now forced to blow into the DS's microphone to kick off Star Power. It's an understandable compromise but not ideal since moving the DS to your mouth tends to make the already awkward strumming that much harder to maintain. If you're playing in a noisy environment it's also possible to find background noise activates it sometimes, which can be a pain.
Guitar Hero: On Tour is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but probably should never have got past the concept stage. It's horribly awkward to play, causes genuine pain after a while and thanks to the limitations of the DS cartridge has horrible sound quality. If you can get past important issues like those then the game itself is nice enough, but that's a very big if.