Inside Pulse 12

Review: Guitar Hero: On Tour (Nintendo DS)

Guitar Hero: On Tour
Developer: Vicarious Visions
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Rhythm/Music
Release Date: 06/22/08

Ever since the Guitar Hero franchise exploded on to the scene in 2005, music games have been getting all kinds of attention. Why shouldn’t they? Each game in the series has sold millions and millions of copies, and there’s even enough demand for Rock Band to sell millions and millions. However, despite the fact that these companies are sucking up cash with a high powered vacuum, there was still an arena untouched by their games. That is portable.

The Nintendo DS is the perfect choice for trying to bring the series to gamers on the go. It has a wide open GBA slot to plug in a peripheral and a touch screen for a pick that might just confuse some gamers into believing they’re actually playing Guitar Hero. So they handed off the idea to Vicarious Visions and dared them to create a new game that every little kid in the store would beg for. Here we have it: Guitar Hero: On Tour for the Nintendo DS.

Can this possibly be any good?

Modes

Like GH3, On Tour has a bevy of modes for you to play around with. First up is career mode, which gives you five groups of five songs to play through on any difficulty level. After you complete the first four, you’ll unlock the fifth as an encore song. Once you beat that, you’ll unlock the next group until you’ve finished them all. Completing each song nets you cash that can be used to buy new guitars, costumes, and characters for use in the game. After you beat each level, you’ll earn bonus cash, as well as unlock new character outfits and venues.

There’s no “story” this time around. Rather, you’ll just be a faceless up and coming band trying to become a group of rock gods. Each venue is set up by your new CD release, which starts off as low key demos and ends up with you releasing the most anticipated disc of they year. The nicest touch comes in the form of album reviews. Your first CD will draw negative reviews, but the last will have the writer claiming that every song is a classic and will end up in the next “Guitar Rocker” game. Ha! You’ll also be able to play any song you’ve unlocked in freeplay mode to max out your score.

Next comes Guitar Duel mode, similar to battle for GH3. However, this time, you and your opponent (either AI or Human via wireless network) will both play through the whole song whilst throwing battle items at each other. These range from a camera flash to blind you, a fire that you’ll have to put out by blowing into the mic, an autograph you’ll have to sign with the stylus, to bombs that greatly decrease your score if you hit them. Most of these are silly and just get annoying, which has always been the problem of this mode. You want to play the song, not worry about when the sound is going to drop out when the computer decides to mess with you. You’ll also have to play these in their own challenge mode, meaning you’ll have to unlock all the songs here as well, but with no rewards. Lame.

Thankfully, if you play with anther person, you can jump right in face off, pro face off, and co-op, just like in past games, although co-op career is missing.

To round things off, you get a practice mode, which once again is accessible after you fail a song, as well as on the main menu. This is the perfect chance to practice using the new peripheral and touch screen controls. You’re going to need it, as you’ll see soon enough.

Graphics

The least important feature of any Guitar Hero game, the graphics for On Tour are surprisingly good.

The left screen shows the colored gems that correspond to the fret buttons on the peripheral. They fall at varying speeds, but the frame rate never falters. For a game where timing is everything, this is most assuredly good news.

Above them, whichever guitarist you’ve chosen rocks out with the same band as in GH3. You won’t get too many different animations, but each member of the band is well detailed. You’ll never scratch your head as to what you are seeing. The environments can be a little dark and lacking, and there’s no crowd to speak of. Plus, the singer’s lips don’t sync up with the words of the song at all. These are a few problems it has, but stuff you’ll mostly only notice when someone else is playing the game.

On the other screen, a guitar is presented that you’ll have to strum to play notes. The guitar is just a picture, with the only movement coming from the strings as you strum. Beyond that, your power meter, score, and multiplier all show up on this side. During guitar duels, you’ll also see a battle meter as well as whichever battle items you currently possess.

There’s nothing spectacular, but you won’t be complaining too much about the visuals here.

On the other hand….

Audio

The DS isn’t exactly known for its aural capabilities. In fact, every song here is not only compressed to all hell, but also sounds tinny coming from the DS’s speakers. I wouldn’t want to listen to a song on that system if you paid me to. Headphones help, but not enough. Various instruments and vocals sound muted and guitar parts in particular never seem to fit. I’m no sound or music expert, but if they put this kind of thing on a CD, there would be riots.

You have twenty five songs to choose from. Five of these have already been seen in GH3. That baffles the mind. Who would want to play these on the DS when you can play them with the actual guitar controller? Anyway, most of the songs are master recordings from the bands themselves. There are a few covers, but they sound pretty good. (Well, apart from being on the DS.) They range from classic rock, like La Grange by ZZ Top, to more modern stuff like OK Go and “I Don’t Wanna Stop” by Ozzy. The game does seem to focus on stuff from the eighties and upward a bit more than previous entries and there are a few songs that could be better described as pop (“All Star” and “This Love”), but its a nice mix altogether.

Apart from that, you’ve got standard sound effects and those annoying screeching sounds every time you miss a note. The music is bad, but those are worse, so at least you’ll still try your damndest not to miss.

Gameplay

I’m going to go right out and say it.

The Guitar Grip peripheral sucks.

For one, it doesn’t like staying in place too well. At first, you think it fits in nice and snug. Go to put your hand in though, and the thing will start to slide right back out. If, god forbid, you happen to let it get too loose during gameplay, you’ll be rewarded with a message that says you’ve been rocking out too hard. You’ll then be required to restart the DS. DUMB.

Also, the “adjustable strap” is a sham. It never feels right. Too loose or too tight, it always makes you feel uncomfortable. Speaking of which, how in god’s name are you supposed to hold this thing without hurting yourself? You need to hold the grip and DS with your right arm pointed towards you and you need your left hand perpendicular to it at all times in order to strum the notes on the guitar screen. This may not sound too bad, but once you’ve got the system in your hands, it starts to feel unwieldy. Your arms were simply not meant to stay that way for long periods of time. The game even tells you that you need to take breaks during long session, knowing full well that the grip can be painful.

The mic is way too sensitive. You’ll be asked to yell in it to activate star power, but it also gives you the option of just blowing into the mic. However, if you’re near any people, and they happen to be talking, the mic will hear it and promptly activate star power, even if there are no notes on the screen at the time. You CAN turn the mic off and push any of the buttons on the DS to activate it, except for the shoulder buttons. Now seeing how your left thumb will be practically sitting on the right shoulder button the whole time, this is confusing. All of your other fingers are tied up. Your right ones are on the grip pressing the fret buttons, while your left fingers are concentrating on holding the pick and strumming along. If you need to hit star power, you’re going to have to STOP PLAYING in order to reach up the buttons! The same goes if you want to pause! This is one of the worst designed things I’ve ever seen.

The classic GH gameplay is here. You’ll have colored gems flowing towards you to music playing through the speakers. You’ll need to press the corresponding fret at the same time you strum on the touch screen, which serves as the guitar. The touch screen offers some surprisingly responsive controls here, although there will still be times that you seemingly hit a note right on the money, only to have the game count it as a miss. It isn’t deal breaking, but it can be pretty damn annoying. You’ll need to strum back and forth to hit quick series of notes, and this is where the challenge comes in. Finding your rhythm here can be painstakingly tedious, but it is something we all had to do the first time we played GH, so I can let it slide. Using the whammy bar is as simple as running the pick back and forth. This works like a charm, and I have no complaints.

More problems arise during battle mode. When you earn a battle gem, you’ll have to activate it by tapping it on the touch screen. These are on the upper left hand corner, meaning that once again you’ll have to stop strumming the guitar to activate them. Since they are used to hurt your opponent, one would naturally assume they would have to ill effect on you. One would be wrong.

In the end, if guitar grip wasn’t so god damned user unfriendly, the game would be a ton of fun. As it is, you’ll be spending too much time trying to hold the game right to have any at all.

Replayability

You have four difficulty levels to play through: easy, medium, hard, and expert. Since this is a new way to play the game, let’s say you play on medium the first time through. It won’t take you more than two hours to play through everyb song, unless you die a LOT. That means you’re looking at no more than five to six hours to play all the way from medium to hard! There are no bonus songs, and no downloadable content.

If you play with friends, the experience will definitely be lengthened, just like with the real Guitar Hero games. Of course, you won’t get the experience of playing in front of a group of people. The only thing you’ll get is the feeling of someone watching over your shoulder.

Of course, if you really like the game, you can always come back for some quick play, which allows you to play any song you’ve unlocked to max your high score. Thank god for that, otherwise the game’s replay would be nonexistent.

Balance

It seems one of the good things Vicarious Visions did is to not mimic the difficulty scale of GH3. You don’t see a glut of easy songs, followed by some extremely difficult ones. Instead, on each difficulty level, there is a good curve here. The beginning songs are nice and slow, allowing you to get used to the controls. It gradually becomes harder to hit all the notes, and eventually, you’ll be hanging by a thread, desperate for enough stars to activate star power.

Even still, it won’t take you more than a couple of tries to beat any song. The real challenge comes from getting used to the control scheme and awkward peripheral. Either way, your wrist will be getting a workout.

Originality

This is a hard one to gauge. In terms of the GH franchise, this game offers absolutely nothing new apart from a few songs. However, thanks to the peripheral, I can’t really compare it to anything on the DS.

There are certainly no shortage of music games around on portable titles. Elite Beat Agents has already mastered the craft, even with a crappy song selection. Jam Sessions also provides a guitar simulator, albeit without the fret buttons. I’ll give it a few points for the grip, awful as it is, but there isn’t anything in On Tour that you haven’t seen before in the series’ other four, soon to be five, options.

Addictiveness

There are two strong forces opposing each other here. The urge to keep playing new songs is one. The urge to stop hurting your wrists is the other.

The game does a fantastic job of making you want to push forward during career mode. If you don’t already know the track list, it is fun to guess what could possibly come next. You’ll wonder how all of your favorite songs play out, and if you’ll be able to master them. I was playing the game for fairly lengthy sessions.

Of course, the only reason I didn’t just play it all in one shot is fear of injury. My wrists started hurting after only a few songs, and I know from experience what carpal tunnel feels like. So I was left with a desire to play, but a stronger desire to not need surgery to keep my wrists from killing me every time I pick up a controller. Playing this game is a risk, make no mistake about it.

Appeal Factor

Who doesn’t like Guitar Hero? There are like five of them off sitting in a corner going on about how they play real guitar and that playing with a plastic one is pathetic. There is a reason this series has sold so much over the years. Its fun

Who doesn’t own a DS? With over forty million of the little buggers out there, this game is going to have no problem finding an audience. The only off putting thing about it to the casual player is the steep price of fifty bucks.

However, I think Activision will be ok.

Miscellaneous

Guitar Hero is a game that allows you to pretend you are playing the guitar. On Tour allows you to pretend you are playing a game that allows you to pretend you are playing guitar. Talk about redundancy. There isn’t a single song on the cartridge that I wouldn’t rather play with the actual guitar controller for the console versions of the series. I hope that someday they put out a disc with these songs. Then I can sell this and be done with it.

As a funny thought, one of battle items flips the touch screen and the top screen. You start strumming on the same screen as the notes you need to hit. I found this to be much better, and I didn’t have to worry about making sure I hit any damn strings.

Food for thought, Activision. Just saying.

    The Scores


Modes: Good
Graphics: Decent
Audio: Bad
Controls & Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Awful

Final Score! Below Average Game!!

    Short Attention Span Summary

Guitar Hero On Tour might have been a pretty good game for the DS, if only the sound didn’t suck and the peripheral didn’t cripple your wrists. Still, the core gameplay is great and the challenge is decent and addicting. If you don’t mind the fifty dollar price tag, I say give it a try. However, I’d recommend you borrow it from a friend first to make sure you can hold the thing without cringing in pain. Let’s hope they either give us a new grip, or find a way to have good audio, because this could have been so much fun. It just isn’t.

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