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.