Jam Sessions Hands-On

We get some extended play time with Ubisoft's upcoming guitar simulator for the DS.

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When we first heard about Jam Sessions for the DS, we immediately concocted wild mental images of playing Guitar Hero with a stylus. Depending on how you look at it, it's either a blessing or a curse that the game is about as far from Guitar Hero as a musical simulator can be. Jam Sessions is less game and more music creation tool. The title is based around Japan's Hiite Utaeru DS Guitar M-06 (Sing and Play DS Guitar M-06) but it's had a spit polish, some interface fine tuning (no pun intended), and a complete rework of its song tracklist on its way to picky Westerner audiences.

Recently we sat down with Ubisoft to take a look at--and get some hands on with--the latest development build of the title. It would be easier to classify Jam Sessions as a simulator in the same vein as a rally racing game title compared to a street racer, centering more on the mechanics of the car (or in this case, the song) than the paint job. Rather than just interacting with objects as they pass through a hit zone to score points, Jam Sessions encourages you to play to your own beat. Songs don't have points to earn, the game doesn't rank your performance at the end, and it doesn't penalise you for deviating from the guide like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution does.

You can strum both up and down in Jam Sessions.
You can strum both up and down in Jam Sessions.

As you'd expect from a guitar game, strumming is crucial, and the touch screen on the DS is smart enough be able to differentiate between up and down strumming. You'll mostly be using the stylus, but you can strum with your finger or even a guitar pick for that authentic feel--although we're wary of destroying the screen. Depending on how you choose to hold the DS--either facing you with the top screen at eye level, or at your hips with the top screen facing your feet--there is an option to toggle the strumming direction. The amount of speed and pressure you use to strum will also vary the sound your guitar produces, with heavier strokes producing a much louder tone. Customisability is an important part of Jam Sessions and extends all the way to your guitar's effects, allowing you to adjust your chorus and strum volume, tremolo, and high cut to create a custom sound.

Once you have the strumming part down pat, you'll need to use it in conjunction with the D-pad to switch between chords. Entering a song will automatically queue you up with the matching chord pallet for that song, although you do have the option of manually down-tuning songs if that's the sound you're looking for. The pallet contains eight chords, one each on the left, right, up and down direction buttons, and four more on the diagonal keys. Pressing the left or right trigger--dependent on your left- or right-handed strum preference--will toggle a second pallet of eight chords, for a total of sixteen. Given each or all of these can be tuned individually to your tastes, and you can drag and drop the ones you want to jam with in the freeplay mode, there's a lot of flexibility to be had.

Jam Sessions has an unusual learning curve for a rhythm title, again harking back to the fact that playing is really only limited by your imagination--work to your own tempo, choose your own sound, and arrange chords in whichever order you see fit. There's no right or wrong way to play Jam Sessions, but paradoxically in order to progress, and in turn unlock the bonus content, you'll need to hit the right notes at the right time in the game's song mode. Thankfully even if you've never picked up an instrument, the guides will help first timers tackle the big bad world of music. Included are three helper tools--position marks, a stroke guide, and a metronome. Position marks give you a small stylised D-pad logo to the left of each chord change, showing you which button to press to hit the note. This makes it a bit like Guitar Hero with strumming, but you can turn it off once you've memorised the different chord positions. The other is the stroke guide which breaks each stroke into segments. You can use the segment length to gauge note length, with a screen wide unbroken line representing a musical bar. This comes in handy when you're dealing with strummed notes of varying length, although our biggest issue is that unless you know the song well--or listen to the demo before playing it--the guides don't include any indication of strum strength. This means your song can be slightly out of whack if you give each note an identical strength, where alternating notes may need more emphasis than others. The metronome feature introduces a synth beat which can be a bit jarring when trying to play, but will help you keep time if you're starting out.

Jam Sessions is surprisingly easy to pick up and play, as befits its wide-ranging appeal. The sheer nature of the product means that even if you don't have a musical bone in your body, you can muck around with the freeplay mode straight off the bat. We played on both a classic DS "phat" and a DS Lite model, and because of the smaller chassis, found the DS Lite slightly easier to play with its smaller D-pad. This becomes particularly important when you're doing fast chord changes, or moving from one side of the D-pad to the other without breaking the note.

Jam Sessions features an eclectic mix of tracks from well-known artists such as Nirvana, Death Cab for Cutie, Blind Melon, Coldplay, and Bob Marley. There are also three unlockable tracks from James Taylor/Marvin Gaye, Brad Paisley, and Cheap Trick. Coldplay's "Yellow" won the popularity vote in the office, and although people didn't really understand how to play, they had a great time strumming the protective coating off the DS screen. Death Cab for Cutie is one of the better beginner songs, with plenty of long notes, and a set strum pattern. Regardless of which song you pick, provided you can change chords without breaking time, you actually come away with a real sense of accomplishment when you finish. The smiley face at the end of the song only sweetens the deal.

Given our looks at the game have only been between development builds, we'll reserve final judgment for when the product goes on sale in late September. Until then we'll be practising our strumming on any available surface in preparation for sitting around a crackling campfire singing the blues. In the meantime, check out our video interview with Ubisoft Australia's Ben Taylor to see Jam Sessions in action.

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