A full band experience for your DS (or was it half full?)
Guitar Hero just might be becoming one of the most released franchise within a 3 year time span that I’ve ever seen. Aside from the plethora of titles on consoles, Activision is pumping out titles on the DS like it’s nobody’s business. Though Guitar Hero has actually only been on the DS since June 2008, it has already seen three iterations of the game (On Tour, On Tour: Decades, and On Tour: Modern Hits). But, with MTV and Harmonix bringing the rivalry from platform to handheld with their recent release of Rock Band: Unplugged on the PSP and Lego Rock Band on the DS, we were sure to see a new version of Guitar Hero to hit the DS; we just weren’t expecting it to be the full band experience.
This time around, Red Octane has kicked it up a notch providing DS owners with an iteration of Band Hero on their dual-screened wonder. Are the new instruments successful enough on the DS to have some semblance of the console experience and is the game a step forward in the handheld music simulation market?
In case you haven’t played one of the first three Guitar Hero experiences on the DS, let me enlighten you with a brief summary of what we know about the series. For one, it can only be played on either the original DS or the DS Lite because it makes use of the GBA cartridge slot (which is not available on the DSi). Secondly, I found that though it is a surprisingly strong guitar simulation experience, it is nothing as robust as a console experience, as expected (only four fret buttons, much smaller frets that make for a cramped experience for any adult gamers’ hands, and touch screen strumming is interesting but never really feels comfortable causing for occasional missed notes for even the most veteran players).
Love it or hate it, it’s still hard to see a better way to implement guitar simulation on the DS without forcing you to lug around a giant plastic axe everywhere you go (which may double as a nice self defense tool but most certainly would defeat the purpose of translating the game to a handheld on the first place); though the guitar add-on does make it quite a bit less accessible pocket-wise, it’s still a small enough, quality peripheral to make for a nice handheld experience. Thus, for those of you who’ve experienced one of the first three games on the market, you can expect more of the same guitar shredding experience with really no major differences other than the progression of the game.
Once you begin the game, you’ll be given a decent amount of customization for your band. Being forced to create a character, name him/her, and then create and name a band, however, seemed to have a little too much forced upon the gamer before beginning the actual gameplay. It is a shame to see this still happening in a Guitar Hero title after the console versions of Guitar Hero 5 and Band Hero had so elegantly thrown aside the complexity that had been the standard of music games to date.
The other fairly disappointing change to the game’s format involves the aforementioned change in progression, or really a lack thereof. Gone is the tiered system we’d seen in previous games (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but with it went a career mode entirely. Vicarious Visions tried to make up for this by providing a fairly lengthy list of awards that players can earn throughout the experience but the lack of in-between story scenes left a bad taste in my mouth.
The major change to the game’s overall gameplay makes the DS version of the game even more unique than a console experience. Throughout gameplay, players will be able to tap a button on screen if it pops up allowing them to enter an entirely separate, on the fly micro game that awards them with star power for successfully completing it. This randomly chosen micro game from a list of several different games makes for a fun break from the action. Anything from giving high fives to fans by tapping their hands to crowd surfing through a maze of fans allots you the star power you crave.
However, I felt like though these games are fun, they were thrown into the mix to make up for the game’s difficulty that arises from control-based issues rather than song difficulty; these micro games make songs much more manageable to finish as it not only skips segments of the song (it continues to play in the background) but they also provide you with much needed star power that is now easy to obtain once you get the hang of the fairly easy micro games. Thus, gone are the entirely skill based songs from console versions and enters a mix of skill and micro game saves that make songs far too easy once you get the overall control scheme down (even on expert). Sure, there was an occasional rough patch that requires practice but overall, I found the game to be compensating for controls far more than forcing players to feel like rock gods by destroying difficult riffs.
Bringing the Band Together?
The large difference this time around doesn’t come from format tweaks but instead the addition of extra modes of play; rather than just have a guitar experience, gamers can play as any of the four members of the band (lead, bass, vocals, drums). Vocals were an easy step to implement a la DS microphone but drums are where Vicarious Visions had to really think outside of the box if they wanted to make for a pounding-type of drum experience rather than the button pressing version seen in Rock Band: Unplugged. Thus became the existence of the Drum Grip.
When I received the box, I was actually pretty pumped to try out this drum peripheral though I disliked the idea of being force to bring around two separate add-ons to allow for your choice of instruments. However, immediately after slipping the grip around the bottom half of my DS, I noticed a number of problems with the pad. For starters, it never fits seamlessly around your DS and thus the central portion always flairs out right at the points of impact (the buttons). Though you’re slamming the buttons and they do help to cushion the A/B/X/Y buttons and D-Pad, it still feels uncomfortable from the get go.
Next, the game is navigable via touch controls. Thus, with my stylus out, I began moving around the menus to begin playing a song. However, once my tune was chosen, I found it impossible to put my stylus back into its holster as the drum pad covers the stylus hole. On the go this can become particularly annoying as you either risk losing your precious stylus o are forced to use your fingers to navigate menus.
Once a song began, the drums never felt comfortable in terms of on-screen notes corresponding to pad striking. Using both thumbs, players strike one of two vertically placed pads on either side of the touch screen (two for each finger). However, the notes on the top screen fall in the same fashion as you’d expect from any guitar or drum experience: horizontally placed pads with vertically falling notes. Thus, the notes on the top screen are divided horizontally but the pads you strike are divided vertically on either side making for a situation that never feels comfortable.
Not soon after playing a few songs, I needed a break to go do something but found the next problem with the grip: it renders closing the DS an impossible feat and thus your DS cannot be put into sleep mode with the grip attached. So, unless you don’t mind wasting your DS’s battery (I know the DS Lite does have a lot of it) and don’t mind risking your DS’s screens being dinged, you’ll have to take the grip off and on between sessions (not the easiest thing to do).
Finally, after tiring of the drums, I wished to switch over to guitar to shred out a few tunes. However, since the guitar portion requires the guitar grip (which cannot be placed on the DS while playing drums or singing), I was forced to turn off my DS, place on the peripheral and then get all the way back in the game (and thus interrupting the flow of the game). It’s interesting to see that the game utilizes two ways to hold the DS, however, where playing guitar renders holding the DS sideways while drums and singing are played with the DS straight up.
Now, after witnessing all of the above problems, it was easy to find a solution to the drumming experience that fixed all but one of the issues. By ditching the grip altogether, the DS could close, the stylus hole was accessible, and input could be done via up and right on the D-Pad as well as the X and A buttons (leading to four fairly horizontally placed drum pads). All in all, after playing the drum experience old school Frequency or Amplitude style made for a much more enjoyable experience all around.
As for singing, I enjoyed the experience overall despite the fact that I could never really find a comfortable sensitivity level using the DS’s centrally placed microphone. With a high sensitivity, too much of your surroundings will be picked up and will interfere with your singing (and on-the-go travel should lead to plenty of situations with large amounts of noise); using a low sensitivity, however, forces players to move their mouth far too close to the DS and thus makes seeing the on screen pitch bar very difficult to do. Lucky for me, having my nice pair of Turtle Beach DS Lite headphones complete with a headset microphone made for a stronger experience but anyone who doesn’t own a headset for their DS will never find singing comfortable either.
Another notable problem is that if you’re planning on playing this game in public (specifically featuring crowds of unknown people), singing is not a socially comfortable option. In the right environment, any of the band experience from the console version of the game works well but the handheld experience begs gamers to play anywhere. The problem is you’ll feel pretty silly singing the lyrics of Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get it Started” or Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” in any public setting that doesn’t at first know what you’re up to. In fact, a very closed environment was really the only setting that felt comfortable for the singing portion of the game and even then the game forced me to blush occasionally.
One thing that Guitar Hero has done surprisingly well is provided some nice connectivity (both DS to DS and from Wii to DS). Fan requests are back around allowing players to receive 50 different special requests from their Wii version of the game. However, I saw the need to have the Wii version to unlock these requests as yet another unnecessary cash cow moment in business if Activision truly expects gamers to buy every iteration of every game to be able to have full functionality on each iteration of their DS games, gamers will grow tired of this quickly.
As for DS to DS functionality, players can play both competitively or cooperatively. However, this time around, you can only play multiplayer with other gamers who own Band Hero DS and not with any of the other iterations of the Guitar Hero franchise on the DS. This inhibiting decision hurts the game’s overall appeal in my opinion because in the past, gamers with different iterations of the handheld franchise could play multiplayer and have access to all the songs from either game (which was another huge step in the series’ connectivity options).
Touting original master tracks of all of the songs included makes for some quality presentation on the DS and the 30 song list is no slouch either. However, the overall control issues make for a less than ideal experience overall and the game’s lack of progression leaves something to be desired. Despite all of its flaws and the fact that none of the control experiences ever feel entirely comfortable to play (aside from drumming without the Drum Pad peripheral), I still found myself having fun with the game. If you’re into music games, this is an enjoyably portable rendition of the music simulation genre. At only $10-$15 more than the price of its counterparts on the DS it's definitely the best value of any of the DS Guitar Hero games. However, if you already own a Guitar Grip, there's no need in buying the bundle for the game (pick it up used); the Drum Grip is not worth the extra $10 or so and you don't need two Guitar Grips.