December 8, 2008 After initially shunning the idea of the full band game, Activision caved, and decided to bring the Guitar Hero franchise up to par with the release of Guitar Hero World Tour - just in time to compete with MTV's sequel to Rock Band, the game that brought music video games to the next level last November. We've spent (far too much) time with both games to bring you this in-depth comparison.
While the first Rock Band seemed to depart from the "let's make this as hard as we can" mentality of Guitar Hero, it seems that the practice-all-day music game addicts have got the better of Harmonix and caused a backtrack.
To test this, I chose the only song that is available in both games that I could play on a real guitar, Foo Fighters' Everlong. In both games, Everlong is much harder to play on Expert than it is on a real guitar. One section where you're simply moving an octave chord up the neck on a real guitar requires you to change your fingering multiple times on the plastic one.
It's a shame that neither game caters to people that aren't challenged by Hard mode, but want a more realistic experience instead of the unnecessarily difficult Expert mode. Unfortunately, with archives of backwards-compatible downloadable content that would need a new note chart created, the likelihood of either franchise going ahead with this logistical nightmare is absolutely zip.
Having said all this, if you're after a challenging yet realistic experience, we can recommend playing Expert-level bass guitar on either game - with a hat tip to Guitar Hero World Tour for it's "open" notes, indicated by a purple bar rather than a fret button.
GHWT features a Beginner mode, which only requires strumming in time, without holding any of the fret buttons. Good in theory, but in practice, every person we've set up on this difficulty finds it incredibly condescending, and wants to change to Easy mode straight away. Thankfully, GHWT allows you to change the difficulty of a particular band member from the pause menu, but you will have to restart from the beginning.
A couple of our semi-regular band members find themselves bored by Easy mode, but find the Medium mode easy enough on some songs but frustratingly difficult on others. Rock Band 2 has helped them out considerably by showing how difficult the song is for each particular instrument on the song selection menu.
After extensive testing in alcohol-fuelled environments, we've found that people can't help but underestimate their impairment level when it comes time to select a difficulty level - Rock Band 2 has solved this with it's "No Fail Mode" which can be selected at any time (without entering a cheat code) - you'll forfeit your high scores, but it means that the song will play through regardless of how everyone is doing, and the rest of the party will be saved from hearing the first half of a song three or four times in a row.
It's also worth mentioning that GHWT has atrocious load times compared to Rock Band 2. Whether this "feature" is exclusive to the PlayStation 3 version that we used for testing or not is unknown, but after battling the awkward menu system, sitting there with no music for what feels like minutes (we didn't count) while the track loads sucks - even for the people that are playing.
Winner: Rock Band 2
Unfortunately, both games still make you sit through a "campaign" before you can play all of the tracks that were advertised on the back of the box.
Want to unlock that System of a Down track in GHWT? You'll have to play through La Bamba first...and that's not the end of the ridiculous track groupings. At the Drive In and Bob Seger, The Mars Volta and Lynyrd Skynyrd, even The Doors and Blink 182 are played in the same gigs. It's almost like it was designed specifically to send you completely mental regardless of your musical taste.
Rock Band 2's "World Tour" mode (confusing, we know - but you can blame Activision for that) is far more mature than it's competitor. It's not just a linear progression through gigs - it's a "band simulation" allowing you to hire managers, videographers, promoters and roadies, all with their own benefits, like gaining extra fans or cash for each performance. There's plenty of gigs where you can choose your own track lists, allowing you to use downloadable content (and the Rock Band 1 tracks, if you paid for the export key). If this all sounds a little daunting, you can simply bash through the linear Challenge mode to unlock the tracks (which is the fastest way to do so without using the cheat code).
Winner: Rock Band 2
While GHWT gets some serious props for the visual accompaniment to the three Tool songs that was designed by the band themselves, the rest of the time, you're stuck with ugly, over-the-top, cartoonish avatars that move unconvincingly and never fail to worship the guitarist after the song. Rock Band's lo-fi visuals aren't trying to hard to be cool - they just are.
Winner: Rock Band 2
This time around, both franchises recognized that even a good cover version just isn't the same as the real thing, and their track lists consist entirely of master tracks.
If you regularly play with the same group of people, your sessions with the GHWT will get shorter and shorter - there's tracks like Korn's Freak on a Leash which are incredibly fun to play regardless of what instrument you're on, but the 84 tracks on offer, minus the majority that most of you won't like, plus 55 tracks of downloadable content from 22 bands just doesn't cut it for extended play periods.
With over 500 songs now available for Rock Band and more being released on a weekly basis, even those who bought the first game on launch day last November are likely still playing.
Winner: Rock Band 2
The Guitar Controller
Rock Band guitars feature bigger fret buttons that take up the entire width of the neck, another set of five fret buttons placed higher up the neck which can be used during solos, and a "soft" strum bar that doesn't click when you strum it.
GHWT guitars feature a slide area which can be used for tapping with your right hand to replace the strum bar, or sliding for particular note sections. The bridge can be pushed down with your right hand to activate star power instead of tilting the guitar, which tends to become erratic in older, "well loved" guitars.
While we can understand these games need ways to differentiate, in practice, no one uses the slide area/solo buttons on the guitar. What does make a major difference is the fret buttons and the strum bar. It all comes down to personal preference, but with our setup of one Rock Band guitar and one GHWT guitar, people will always fight over the GHWT guitar, and we've never had a single person say they preferred the Rock Band guitar.
Winner: Guitar Hero World Tour
Out of the box, you have Rock Band's four drums and a kick, versus GHWT's three drums, two cymbals and a kick.
Rock Band has always used the blue pad as a "whatever it needs to be" drum - sometimes it's an open hi-hat, sometimes it's a tom. It's easier to keep track of, and master just four drums and a kick, but ultimately less realistic. The Drum Trainer mode seems like it was knocked out in a week so that the marketers had another bullet point for the back of the box - if you get stuck on a fill, or triplets in general, there's nothing to help you out.
Despite the fact that many GHWT drum kits left the factory with poorly tuned sensitivities, and you'll need to send in for a free USB-to-MIDI cable and download a Windows-only application to deal with that, it's an undeniably superior experience once the kit is properly tuned - except for the horrible kick pedal, which is the low point of the entire package. Even a broken Rock Band kick with a piece of wood gaffer taped to it was better. How Activision let this one slide past drumming consultants Travis Barker (Blink-182) and Stuart Copeland (The Police) is a complete mystery to us.
GHWT's Practice mode leaves a lot to be desired even compared to the first Rock Band, but raised cymbals and far better "feel" to the drum pads make a more realistic experience. Where things get really interesting for those of you who want to learn to play a real drum kit is that the GHWT drum tracks are much harder than Rock Band's, and the fact that you can plug a real MIDI drum kit straight into the back of the GHWT drums. We tested this out with an entry-level Roland TD-3 MIDI drum kit and while things didn't work perfectly straight out, ten minutes with the TD-3's manual had everything straightened out - and believe us, this is the ultimate way to learn how to play the drums.
Winner: Guitar Hero World Tour
While Rock Band 2 takes honors in the most categories, it's inferior guitar and drum controllers are such integral parts of a band video game that we can't give it the crown outright. It's definitely the most polished software, and in terms of the music selection, however GHWT is a clear winner in the hardware stakes.
If you're on a budget, grab Rock Band 2 with the GHWT instruments. If you can afford it, we highly recommend getting both games with the GHWT instruments. This way you won't be disappointed if your favorite band releases a track pack for the other game. This is provided you're on an Xbox 360 or PS3 - unfortunately, Wii owners are stuck with instruments that won't work at all with the competing game. And, speaking from experience, your significant other will most certainly not appreciate having two separate plastic drum kits in your living room.