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.
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.