Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Guitar Hero World Tour Drum Problems

After I wrote my Getting Started - Drums review section, I learned that many people are having trouble with activation and/or sensitivity on their drums.

This is no surprise after the debacle of the initial Rock Band drum and guitar roll-outs. Clearly, early adopters of these games are at serious risk of receiving bad controllers.

I stand by my general feeling about the drum controller. It seems well-designed and solid. Mine appears to be functioning perfectly, but I haven't tried modes where velocity sensitivity is important. I'll make another post once I have had a chance to evaluate the durability of GHWT drums long-term.

Controller production issues aside, GHWT definitely got the drum experience right, and it's going to be much more popular than the Rock Band series among people who are serious about drumming. I will be interested to hear other people's opinions of the 3+2+1 GHWT layout vs. Rock Bands 4+1 layout. I can imagine that novice, casual drummers might prefer the simpler RB layout.

Guitar Hero World Tour Review Part 3: Getting Started - Vocals

I can't prove it with research, but my general impression is that singing as a form of spontaneous cultural expression has been on the decline since the early 20th Century. Records and radio have doomed family sing-alongs, and by extension work songs and praise songs, to relatively small niches of the population. Most people get no vocals training or practice, and when we do sing, our crooning is held up against the high standards of professional studio recordings so polished that many pop singers can't replicate their own music live in concert.

So it's nice to see rhythm games give the music back to the masses by providing a sanctioned framework for being able to sing, developing singing talent, and evaluating your singing. Karaoke has been around for a long time, of course, but Rock Band brought singing to a whole new demographic.

Getting started on vocals is relatively simple, as long as you have a free USB plug on your console, and can stand close enough to it to reach it with the cord. I skipped the tutorial, picked Hard difficulty, and jumped straight into the rudimentary storytelling interface, just like the drum career mode. This time, however, I noticed that you do, in fact, play the first gig of your career in what appears to the be the basement of a frat house, so there is some sort of venue progression as you pay your dues.

In Original Rock Band (ORB), I found that the only way I could 5* hard Hard and most Expert songs was to hum quietly and continuously throughout the song. This seems pretty stupid, until you learn that humming different vowels is how opera singers warm up. It's a good way to develop your head voice and other core aspects of your vocal production. Humming quietly, on the other hand, is incredibly boring, and usually doesn't go down well in band play. That's what Medium is for - it's "Fun Mode" for vocals.

GHWT seems to have replicated the vocals experience from ORB, with a few twists.

There are now two types of sections that give you points or star power for singing whatever you want, and star power is activated by "clapping" rather than singing during a short activation section. I found "clapping" the mic to be extremely unreliable, so I ended up with my mic in my left hand and the Xbox controller in my right, ready to take advantage of the frequent opportunities to activate.

The most interesting difference for me was the way your pitch indicator leaves a long ghost trail that helps you understand how your pitch jumps around as you transition between different notes.

It's not immediately clear whether spoken-word sections are scored differently in GHWT, but my stellar performance on the obligatory Beastie Boys track suggests it's pretty lenient compared to ORB.

There were no tambourine/cowbell sections, which is a bit of a relief, but on the other hand makes those long guitar solos a serious yawn-fest. One of my first songs had an instrumental section so long the controller lost its wireless connection twice before I got to sing again. This is the drawback of singing in rock music-oriented games, at least when you're playing solo. When rocking out with friends of a certain type, you can always leap about and do whatever lead singers do when the axe-men are thrashing.

The GHWT star system seems more liberal than Rock Band's. The combination of the big "You Rock" fanfare, the gushing flow of money, the achievements for trivial performances, and the somewhat liberal star grading made even my most abysmal singing performances seem more like a good night for Pavarotti in his prime. The percentage of notes hit, however, told the true tale.

GHWT's score details, with notes hit by phrase and other metrics, promise to be extremely useful for the aspiring singer. I'm hoping the training mode, which I'll cover in a later part of my review, will allow the singer to start anywhere in the song.

After I sang my two sets, I decided to play around with the non-performance aspects of the game a bit. I was unable to find a song list that showed my score on all songs, the new songs that were available, etc. The "seedy bar help wanted board" interface does give you a number of song options, including build-your-own gig, but there is no central, dedicated song list like in Rock Band - at least not in career mode. I'm sure that once I get around to reading the manual or running through the tutorials, or playing with more savvy gamer friends, it will turn out I've missed something obvious. However, for solo mode, the default behavior of the GHWT interface is very different from Rock Band.

Buying clothes and dressing up is similar to ORB, but lamer (if that's possible). GHWT has awesome face configurability, and good body configurability, but it doesn't support color options for hair or clothes, so you end up with even fewer, even lamer clothing options than those in ORB.

Once again, the non-performance gameplay and metagame seems to be an afterthought for this new generation of rhythm games. However, I'm not up on all the details and latest news, so I'll withold judgment until I can research this more.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Guitar Hero World Tour Review Part 3: Getting Started - Drums

Physical Set-up

I decided to give the GHWT set-up process the old "grilling the steak" test, wherein I try to get everything ready to play the game while trying not to burn a steak on my back deck grill.

I'm pleased to report that GHWT wins a grilling the steak set-up rating of "only slightly burned on one side" at moderate difficulty level (thick steak, medium rare).

Being a drum guy (not to be confused with a "drummer"), I decided to start with the Drum Quick-start guide.  Following the guide, the drums snapped together easily.  The frame is beefy and simple, with more positive connections than the original Rock Band (ORB) drums.  The locking tabs, however, feel very flimsy, and I wouldn't be surprised if they broke after extended use.  Like ORB drums, the stand is height-adjustable, but not width-adjustable.  This means that you have to accommodate the stand with your feet, rather than the other way round.  On the upside, GHWT drums don't have the ORB drums' sprawling plastic base, so you can choose to put your pedaling foot between the two base rods, or to the side (most people will probably choose to the side).  On the downside, the unit feels very unstable on a carpet - it's top heavy, and the base rods aren't nearly long enough to prevent the unit from wobbling front-to-back.  The cymbals pop on a couple of posts, and are secured with a couple of plastic nuts.  They pop up to a fixed height, fairly close to the drum pads.  As usual, the maximum height of the unit isn't near tall enough for me (I'm 6'-3", with long legs). 

The Drum Quick Start Guide contains "tell it to me like I'm a 3 year old", step-by-step instructions for establishing the wireless connection to your Xbox 360.  Since I'm a total console newb, I am often confronted with bemused condescension from my gaming "friends" as I struggle to grapple with basic operations, so I appreciated the "so easy I only screwed up once" hand-holding from the guide.

Game Intro

GHWT's game intro tells a story of a band of rockers being summoned by a nefarious-looking dude with a skull ring to rescue a legion of mesmerized fans from the clutches of a jazz saxaphonist ... with Rock!  It's done in a cartoon style, and it's mildly entertaining, but I couldn't help but be reminded of the "Real America" rhetoric that's been going round lately.  At the very least, it diminishes my hopes of an explosion of music-themed games in different genres.  Jazz Master is apparently out, and I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for Country Cowboy.  I suppose, given the natural affinity between Metal and Opera, Heldenspiel Wagner might be in the offing, but come on - can't we all just get along?

After the intro, the game suggests I "press any key to play", which is reassuringly liberal of it.

Press any key, and the cartoon storytelling theme from the intro continues.  I embarked on a solo drum career with my "Rock Angel" (there's an achievement for this) Styx, a demonic, don't-mess-with me punk suitable for mixing it up in the masculine world of drumming.  The character editor in GHWT allows for complete face customization.  It should be possible to make a reasonable facsimile of your favorite rocker in-game.

On consoles, anything having to do with text is a nightmare, but GHWT drops the ball massively with small, cute, hand written-looking fonts that are completely unreadable on my standard def TV.  Instead of using Xbox's default onscreen keyboard, they opt for the ancient arcade game of scrolling through an endless list of letters.  I never found the capital letters again after I accidentally deleted the first "S", but I think my drummer is named Styx - maybe.

Unlike ORB, GHWT tries to give a sense of verisimilitude to the solo career.  Gigs are found by perusing "drummer wanted" ads posted on walls in some presumably seeded club-type setting.  However, unlike RB band tour mode, there is no sense of progression in the settings.  You start out playing in massive arenas with sophisticated special effects.  At least the songs seemed to be difficulty-scaled, but if there's a convenient song list sorted by difficulty, it certainly wasn't made obvious.  I decided to leave those details to a later section of the review.

So, what about the actual drumming?

Playing the drums is very different than in RB.  Just like in real life, most of the notes are Red (left drum) and Yellow (left cymbal), which represent snare and hi-hat on a real drum kit.  The next most common note is Orange (right cymbal), which usually represents the crash, but is sometimes coopted to be the ride.  I found this very easy to get used to, until a Blue (center drum) or Green (right drum) note popped up, at which point I would flail wildly before recovering my groove for the next big run of snare/hi-hat.  My guess is that, once people get used to the new setup, they will appreciate it more than RB drums, because the trigger you are hitting nearly always matches the instrument you are hearing.  It Just Makes Sense.

For Star Power activation, GHWT uses a simultaneous hit on Yellow and Orange.  This corresponds roughly to hitting hi-hat or ride and crash on a real drum kit.  Most of the time, it's hard to disengage both hands to make these hits, so Star Power activation is limited to certain points where the drums pause or you are already hitting the crash.  I didn't really get the feel for this after six songs, but it seems to yield a gameplay experience similar to RB's - it's just not as obvious how to collect and activate Star Power as it is with RB's Overdrive and drum solos.

The base pedal in GHWT is an interesting experience.  It's been a while since my ORB pedal broke the second time, so I've been using a real base pedal when playing RB.  Moving to Red Octane's new flexi-pedal, and GHWT's very subtle, "did I hit that base note or what?" interface, was a bit frustrating.  The pedal is very sensitive, and seems to be accurate and easy to activate, but who knows?  I'm looking forward to moving back to a pedal with more feedback.

The game starts you out with two-song sets of relatively easy songs.  If you do well, it makes you play an encore.  My encores were "Beat It" and "No Sleep to Brooklyn", both of which seemed more difficult than the songs they followed.  However, the first song in the second set was almost entirely a continuous drum roll on Red, so it's hard to be sure they are upping the difficulty for encores.  I started on Hard difficulty, and scored over 95% on every song despite my problems activating Star Power and hitting Blue and Green, so I'm guessing these are the easiest drum songs.

I didn't notice any drum set wobbling while I was playing, and the pads, played with the drum sticks included with the bundle, were very accurate and responsive during fast playing.  Aside from the pedal, I never thought a missed note was anything but my fault.  I predict these drums will hold up under sustained Expert play, with the possible exception of the pedal.

GHWT drums clearly represent a quantum leap over the drums in any other rhythm game.  They are much higher quality than ORB drums (I haven't used RB2 drums), and they are much, much more realistic.  Moreover, this realism can't be fully duplicated in RB, since that game only supports 4 triggers + base trigger.  Even if you don't care about how a real rock drum set is set up and used, you will find yourself more connected with the music when you are hitting a cymbal and hearing a cymbal, or hitting a drum pad and hearing a snare or a tom.  The only fundamental aspect of the conventional rock drum experience that's missing from GHWT is the hi-hat pedal, which is used on most songs to vary the sound of the hi-hat cymbal (the Yellow pad), creating a tsch-tk pattern.  To make sure you develop all your limbs, I recommend right-handed drummers play left-footed half the time, and, once you have gotten well into Hard difficulty, play left-handed regularly.  Same goes for the lefties, in reverse!  This will beef up your off-hand and help with limb separation.

The biggest problem I have with these excellent "toy" drums is that they don't fit me.  I'm a tall, gangly adult guy, and the makers of these games are more focused on children.  To be able to play really hard songs on my ORB drum set, I had to jury-rig a mount from my keyboard stand, to raise the drums and tip them toward me.  This may be overly picky on my part, but the inflexibility of the new drum controller may be a problem for others as well.  In a later part of this review, barring some horrible disaster with the MIDI interface, I will be comparing the GHWT drums with my Roland V-drum set, which has mesh head drums and is set up perfectly for me.  I'll also be trying out my Omega pedal, which is a real base drum pedal set up as a Rock Band trigger.  And I'll try using the GHWT drums with RB, which promises to be a real flail.

Guitar Hero World Tour Review Will Be Continued

Stay tuned for the rest of my review:

Part 3: Getting Started
Part 4: The Game and The Music
Part 5: Rock Band Compatibility
Part 6: MIDI Drums Compatibility
Part 7: The Music Studio
Part 8: Long-term Impressions

Guitar Hero World Tour Review Part 2: Unboxing

Industrial design freaks have to love this new generation of "toys". The box exterior is rife with typical, cheesy but informative graphics - and there's a LOT of space for details about the game, including descriptions of every instrument and component and a partial track list. Heart-stoppingly, the MIDI in feature is apparently considered too far from the mainstream to mention on the box.

Inside, however, the package design really shines, with all the parts cradled by custom cardboard inserts, including a guitar-shaped cut-out in the slim guitar sub-box. The instruments impress as soon as you lift them from the box. They clearly represent the next generation of realism, quality and sophistication.


I don't play much guitar in Rock Band, so I will leave the judgment of the new wireless guitar controller to the expert thrashers, but it seems solid and sophisticated, and slightly larger than existing controllers. The back is contoured and has two separate lock-out switches, the purpose of which I have not yet determined. The new slider control is intriguing, especially given how it is apparently used to control the music studio. The buttons and switches seem somewhat loose and clicky, however, so it will be interesting to see how this controller stacks up against the classic old Guitar Hero axes that seem to be the instrument of choice for digital Steve Vais.


Once you get the guitar out, you're confronted with the 800 pound gorilla of the music game experience, the drum sub-box. After some lifting and wiggling, it lifts out of the main box, and a few swipes later, the cymbals are exposed, wedged on top of an egg-carton-like cardboard grid that protects the main drum console.

The cymbals are impressive, with an evocative wedge-shaped design and a solid feel. My first impression, lifting them out, was that they would provide a superior playing experience to the last-gen rubber Roland triggers I am using as cymbals on my "real" drum set. We'll see how they really play in a later part of the interview.

Based on feel alone, the main drum console is a revelation. Red Octane seems to have taken the less-than-stellar history of the original Rock Band drums to heart and produced a game controller that is an order of magnitude more solid and well-designed. The drum pads are built into a monolithic, heavy plastic base, not cantilevered precariously like the original Rock Band drums. The controller is wireless, and the Xbox controls are given more room to breath on a large console between the cymbal mounts. The pads themselves are larger, with rubber surfaces and a rock-solid feel that seems to promise more reliable hours of play on Expert songs. The stand components feel heavy and solid, more like they were designed to support camera equipment than a plastic toy. The pedal in a big question mark. It has a solid strike surface that seems like it will be very loud when playing, and it's very flexible. That's right, you can easily bend the pedal with your fingers! I can't imagine that Red Octane, having created a clearly superior drum console, totally punted on the pedal, so I'm guessing - or hoping - that the flexible design is their solution to building an affordable pedal that won't crack just behind the strike point and at the pivot point (like my original Rock Band pedal did).

Finally, to my great relief, there's a MIDI in jack on the back of the unit!

Overall, I my initial impression is extremely positive. I have not seen or played the new Rock Band 2 drums, so it will be interesting to compare these controllers, but the GHWT drums clearly win on realism, with 3 pads + 2 cymbals vs. Rock Bands 4 pads. GHWT drums are supposed to be RB-compatible, so it will be interesting to see how the different layout and extra pad crosses over.


The mic, tucked away in a corner of the drum sub-box is a standard wired USB mic, so nothing new there. We'll see how the singing implementation stacks up to Rock Band 2 in a later part of this review.

Guitar Hero World Tour Review Part 1: Purchase

For those gamers who have any interest in participating in music (or pretending to), the new generation of full band experience rhythm games have to be some of the most satisfying game purchases available. Online downloads are wonderful for their convenience and ability to deliver cheap indie games that would never see the light of day at Gamestop, but those of us old enough to remember when games came in fancy boxes with tome-like manuals and handcrafted maps yearn for something more tangible. Now we can rejoice, for what computer game is more tangible than a Rock Band or Guitar Hero World Tour full-band bundle, which comes in a box big enough and heavy enough to throw your back out if you've gotten a little too sedentary and don't bend your knees lifting it.

As a Rock Band devotee, I've been following Guitar Hero World Tour for a while now, and I've been intrigued by their claims they wold raise the stakes with a full in-game music studio and more realistic and innovative controllers. What sealed the deal for me, however, was the announcement that the GHWT drums had MIDI in, which would allow me to use my Rolland V-drums to play the game. Roll-your-own XBox 360 MIDI adaptors for Rock Band cost about $100 plus several hours of hacking and soldering to make, so the $200+ after tax GHWT bundle is a bargain when you consider it delivers a (hopefully) a rock-solid commercial MIDI interface "for free".

Unfortunately, John "Music Game Oracle" Ireton didn't give me the heads up on the MIDI interface until about three weeks ago, at which point Gamestop preorders throughout the region were closed. I decided to take my chances tracking down a full-band Xbox 360 bundle on release day at one of the big box stores that are the last refuge of behind-the-curve gamers. This lead to some minor drama, as I discovered that the GHWT distributors had decided on a brilliant "make sure everyone gets some bundles by only shipping units for 3 of the 4 consoles to each big box retailer" strategy. So, Walmart had everything BUT the Xbox 360 when I showed up at midnight, after being told over the phone that "Xbox" bundles were available. Sears, a laggard in game ordering, only had the game disk for release day. Fortunately, Target had received the bundle for every console but the Wii, and when I called at 9am on Sunday, there were 3 Xbox 360 full-band bundles left. Five minutes later I was on the road, and I arrived in time to win my prize.