Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Rock Band trounces Guitar Hero

I can still remember, way back in 2005, the day I first heard about Guitar Hero. Specifically, it was from this Penny Arcade strip. "A music game that you play with a guitar-shaped controller? Sounds... dumb," I thought. This, coming from a guy who has spent countless hours and quarters on Dance Dance Revolution. But still, the idea of pressing buttons in time to music, whether it be on a guitar-shaped controller, or a regular controller, didn't really appeal to me. Then, my roommate bought it and I actually tried it out.

I immediately fell in love. The illusion sucked me in. It was air guitar, yet somehow so much more satisfying. From that day until today, Guitar Hero and its sequels and spin-offs have probably been the biggest portion of my gaming diet. Which is why it pains me to see the soulless husk that is the Guitar Hero franchise today.

The trouble started after the release of the superb Guitar Hero II. Harmonix, the original game developer, was purchased by MTV Networks, while RedOctane, who made the guitar controllers, was purchased by Activision. As a result, a schism happened. Activision would continue to publish the Guitar Hero franchise (handing development duties off to Neversoft), while Harmonix and MTV would develop a new music game.

I originally didn't think much about the split. Corporate buyouts happen all the time, right? But then I played the first Activision/Neversoft title, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Oh dear Lord. The problems were apparent right away. Instead of the usual "Play through an increasingly difficult list of rock songs" paradigm that defined the series up until that point, Guitar Hero III introduced "boss battles." Essentially, it would be you, the player, against a boss character, which was either Tom Morello or Slash. You would both play a song and attempt to make each other fail by using different "attacks." You could break the opponent's string, force him to use the whammy bar before he could play again, turn every note into a power chord, and so on.

On paper, it doesn't sound like a bad idea. In actual execution, it's terrible. It goes against practically everything that Guitar Hero was about up to that point, i.e. playing songs and having fun. No one plays a Guitar Hero game for the express purpose of forcing the other guy to fail by making him jam the whammy bar or play in Lefty mode or whatever. It was a shitty idea, it should never have been implemented, and Guitar Hero has basically never recovered from that blunder since Activision and Neversoft have been in charge of it.

Harmonix, meanwhile, was working on their next game, Rock Band. It took the basic Guitar Hero concept, and added drums and vocals for a full band experience. It appealed to me, but I initially couldn't justify the investment ($169.99 for the game and instruments). That changed after E3 of this year, where I finally got to try Rock Band 2 for the first time.

The awesome feeling I had from the very first time I played Guitar Hero came flashing back to me. This was it. This was the best music game. It combined a realistic music simulator with a killer multiplayer experience. It really did feel like playing in a band.

Activision and Neversoft, who know a good thing when they see it, did the only ethical thing: They blatantly copied Harmonix and came out with "Guitar Hero: World Tour," which also added drums and vocals. GameInformer even proclaimed that Neversoft was "changing music games forever."

Keep in mind this was after Rock Band was already on the market. So how exactly was Neversoft changing music games? By introducing plagiarism, I suppose.

Lack of originality aside, I've spent ample time playing both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour and I can honestly say that Rock Band is a better game in pretty much every way.

Even if we put aside each game's song selection (which you will like or dislike solely based on personal taste anyway), Rock Band is clearly geared towards a fun, multiplayer experience. There's a wide range in difficulty for every instrument, and a good mix of popular and obscure songs. Harmonix was even the first to introduce No Fail mode, for people who want to challenge themselves on higher difficulties without the worry of losing, or people like myself who couldn't sing to save their lives but don't want to drag down everyone else in the band.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, is all about pushing you towards higher and higher difficulties, with less focus on a coherent, balanced song selection. Why else would GH: World Tour include songs that are sung in Spanish? It also includes Joe Satriani's "Satch Boogie", a great song, but one without vocals entirely. So the singer gets to sit out just so the guitarist can challenge himself to one of the hardest note charts in the game.

Not to mention, it's still apparent just how much Guitar Hero and Rock Band copy off each other. Both games still assign a number of stars based on your performance on each song (5 stars being the best), and both still use the "Star Power" feature, which lets you stay alive during challenging parts of the song.

The big deciding factor for me, however, was in how both franchises incorporate drums. In Guitar Hero, the drum set consists of a snare, two tom-toms, and two cymbals (arranged from left to right as snare, cymbal, tom, cymbal, tom). Rock Band drums have four pads arranged like a cymbal-less set. I originally thought the Guitar Hero set would be superior, just by virtue of the fact that it has an extra tom. After playing both sets, though, I see the genius behind Rock Band's design. Even though it looks like there's only four "drums," each pad changes from tom to cymbal as the song dictates. So if the drums call for a beat being played on the ride cymbal, you'll hit the green pad for the cymbal and the red pad for the snare, using the yellow or blue pads for crash cymbals or even toms. Then, if the same song requires a long drum fill using 3 toms, the green pad will now function as a tom. If it sounds confusing, just watch this.

Guitar Hero drums, because of the way they're designed, are stuck in their respective roles, which can be confusing when trying to read the different colored notes scrolling toward you. Quick, is that note a cymbal or a tom? Ah, too late, you already missed it.

But if you ever needed rock solid proof of who puts more tender loving care into their games, the latest titles from each franchise are it: The Beatles: Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero 5. As Dennis Farrell of Something Awful put it, Guitar Hero 5 "[f]eatures just as many playable dead dudes as the newest Rock Band, but manages to do so in a much creepier fashion." He's referring, of course, to Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. So why is it creepy that Kurt Cobain is in Guitar Hero, other than the fact that it's the sort of thing he would have resented with every fiber of his being? Well...

Yeah, that's why. One can only guess that Kurt Cobain did something so monstrously vile to Neversoft when he was alive that they wanted to smear his image in the worst way possible. Seeing Kurt say "Yeeeeeeaaah, boooooiiii!!!" with Flavor Flav's voice is about the most fucked up thing I've seen in a videogame. And I've seen a little pink fluffy animal get crucified alongside a bunch of giant robots.

The Beatles: Rock Band, however, is the ultimate love letter to the Beatles and their legacy. It'd be hard to imagine George Harrison and John Lennon getting offended by such a loving tribute:

The presentation, the music, everything about The Beatles: Rock Band is stellar. I'm tempted to call it the best music rhythm game of all time.

If I haven't convinced you by now that Rock Band is superior, consider what the future holds: Rock Band Network. In a nutshell, this means that record labels will be able to produce their own Rock Band tracks. This also means that you (yes, you) will be able to make your own Rock Band tracks. And sell them. For money.

To me, preferring Rock Band over Guitar Hero is a much more meaningful decision than, say, choosing Coke over Pepsi. I see it as the difference between The Day the Earth Stood Still and "The Day the Earth Stopped". One is an original, classic work with something meaningful to contribute to the artform. The other is a quick cash-in with no originality to speak of. I've made my choice. I'm hoping you'll make the right choice as well.

(Note: I will issue a full retraction of this blog post and pledge my undying love to Guitar Hero forever if Activision ever makes "Guitar Hero: Frank Zappa.")