Most of the recent buzz about the Guitar Hero franchise has centered on Guitar Hero: World Tour. After all, introducing the first game in the series with multiple instruments has a tendency to stir up a variety of reactions among the Guitar Hero faithful. But lest you forget, there's another tour being planned by Activision and RedOctane. This one's a little smaller, a little more modest, and certainly a bit friendlier on the wallet. We got to play the game in question, Guitar Hero: On Tour, when Activision rolled into San Francisco this week for a GH-focused press event. This Vicarious Visions-developed game on the DS features a four-button peripheral, which plugs into the Game Boy Advance slot, letting you strum with the help of a stylus-tipped guitar pick. Though it took us a bit of time to figure out the hand placement least likely to result in painful cramping, the guitar playing itself works surprisingly well.
When you first pick up Guitar Hero: On Tour, you might be a little confused. The included fret peripheral is an odd little attachment. For one, you've got a pair of options for how you should hold it. There's a strap that goes over your entire hand, complete with adjustable Velcro to help get a good fit. But if that's a little too tight for your liking, there's also a simple thumb loop. It's easier on the hand, but you'll need to keep a better grip on the DS itself.
Once you figure out the best way to hold it, you'll want to slide out the guitar pick from the little compartment built into the grip. The pick itself is slightly larger, thicker, and sturdier than a regular guitar pick. It's made of rubber rather than plastic, so it's easier to hold onto it. The biggest difference, however, is the fact that the tip of the pick has a small stylus on it. This is how you'll be doing the strumming.
When you get the game going, you've got the option to jump into Quickplay mode, start a new career, do a guitar duel, or learn the basics in Tutorial mode. When we first got the chance to play On Tour, we were feeling pretty confident, so rather than study up in a Tutorial, we went right for Quickplay. This ended up being the right decision because the basic mechanics are very similar to what you've seen in previous Guitar Hero games. There are a few differences when it comes to the hardware, but for the most part, the basic experience is much the same: There are four difficulty levels; Career mode lets you unlock songs one tier at a time, and the Guitar Duel mode features the same multiplayer mayhem from Guitar Hero III's Battle mode.
The standard configuration has you holding the grip in your left hand, keeping the DS angled sideways with the touch screen on the right and the normal screen on the left. The touch screen shows a guitar, which is where you'll be doing the strumming. The left screen shows the familiar note highway, and this is where you'll be looking for the vast majority of the song. What you're essentially doing with the pick is sliding it across the pictured strings rather than clicking down on the regular guitar controller. You can still whammy, which is done by holding the pick down on the screen then moving it back and forth. When it comes to star power, you've got a bit of choice. You can blow into the microphone, shout your rocking phrase of choice, or if you're on the bus and don't want to look like a complete loon, you can just tap the star power icon on the touch screen.
But as we said, the core mechanics feel very familiar. The first song we tried was "All the Small Things" by Blink-182. We went with this one to let the up-tempo pop-punk strumming act as a test for the touch-screen's responsiveness. Sure enough, despite the lightning-quick procession of chords, we were able to stay afloat with the new pick. In fact, the way the strumming works in the game gives you a fair amount of freedom to play the songs. At first, we were banging out these chords with a series of quick down-strokes, but we soon discovered we could cut our workload in half by alternating up and down.
This first song left us pleasantly surprised with the new portable Guitar Hero configuration. The strumming responds to a variety of subtle techniques and the buttons don't feel too cramped. However, we soon ran into a problem with the hardware: The "You're rocking too hard!" error message. This happens when the guitar grip pops out of the GBA slot. The big downer is that it doesn't just force you to pause; you actually have to restart the game. But this only happened when we were using the full strap. Once we discovered the thumb loop, the grip felt more natural and we didn't run into this problem.
Overall, Guitar Hero On: Tour looks like it could surprise a few people. It's obviously not the same experience you'll have playing with a guitar controller in front of an HDTV, but what Vicarious Visions has done with the new touch-screen strumming and grip should offer a nice experience for players aching to get their Guitar Hero fix on the go. The main sticking point people are likely to have with the game is the sound quality, which has been noticeably compressed due to hardware limitations. And while sound of the music is a key consideration in a music game, at least the developers have gone through the trouble of stuffing the soundtrack with plenty of fresh songs, with 20 of the game's 25 tracks being brand new.
Guitar Hero: On Tour is just about ready to hit stores, with a release date scheduled for June 22. You can expect to see our review right around that time.