Joystiq eyes and ears-on: Guitar Hero: World Tour

Activision invited us out to the House of Blues last week, which was a fitting place to give us a first look at Guitar Hero: World Tour in action. Though we didn't get to play it, we did watch the folks from RedOctane take a spin through all the new features. Suffice it to say, this isn't simply Guitar Hero: Rock Band ... which is what we thought it might turn out to be. Read on after the break to find out why you'll soon have a closet filled with enough peripherals to make your own one-man band.

The first thing we noticed about the setup was the drum set ... well, obviously. You've probably seen the photos by now, but these drums have three pads, a bass pedal, and two elevated wedges that serve as a high-hat and a cymbal. Now you can supply the "badump CRASH" sound effects for your own jokes, just like you've always wanted to. RedOctane let us know that the drum kit will be wireless (no word on how many batteries it'll take yet) and feature velocity-sensitive drum pads, stick holders, and may (or may not, hello third party!) come with a circular insert for the bass-kicker, so you can display the name of your band. The one they had on it simply said "Guitar Hero", but we'll wager someone will jump on this.

"If that wasn't enough, they've also added a Music Studio, which allows you to record four tracks: Lead, Rhythm, Bass, and Drums."

It was also obvious that the guitars were different, especially since they were sitting in stands next to a plain Jane Guitar Hero wireless 360 guitar (which is what they demoed it on), complete with a snazzy, custom Neversoft faceplate that we were told was given out to employees. Where are the Joystiq faceplates already? The World Tour guitars they showed are a bit larger, have a slightly longer whammy, and yes ... a funky touch slider control. More on that in a minute. We also noticed that the "official image" of the guitar doesn't have chrome-colored tuner pegs on the neck, which is what we saw at the House of Blues. Maybe they had to scale back on the paint. Oh, and yes, your other Guitar Hero guitars will work with World Tour ... except the slidy bit.

They've also tweaked the d-pad to look more like a knob on a guitar, and they've added the ability to use the Back button for Star Power. You can still use the accelerometer to rock out, but it's nice to have a button option to silence those players who whine, "I did the thing and it didn't do the thing!"

The microphone is fairly plain, with a Guitar Hero logo on it, although the team added weights to it and it apparently (we couldn't touch it, no matter how grabby we got) feels like a fairly solid mic, not cheap and flimsy like other USB mics. They wanted to make it wireless as well, but according to Neversoft Project Lead Brian Bright, they didn't have time to incorporate that. So, you just have to hire a roadie to make sure you don't get cable-strung while you jam out in your living room.

Now, that's what's different about the outside, but what's inside the game? Graphically, this game looks better than Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band. Mostly because they've given you the ability to customize your rocker to an extreme extent. Not only can you design their entire body shape, but you can also make custom face paint and tattoos, add signature moves and so on. And, of course, you're free to customize their instruments. The guitars get the most options (even down to the artwork on the neck and different headstocks), with the bass up for customization as well. Not to be left out, you can play around with the look of your drums and your lead singer's microphone, just not to the nth degree as with the guitars.

As far as gameplay goes, things aren't that different from Rock Band, naturally. You've got five careers to choose from: vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and online band. The handy thing about the online band mode is that you can round up three buddies to form The Originals and play online band mode. Later when they have to split, you can go online to recruit more band mates, and continue playing through the online band mode with your New Originals. The career modes also aren't linear like they were in the previous games. You unlock gigs quickly, and might have several new ones open at any time, so you don't have to power through four songs in a gig to progress to the next one.

Okay, now about that slider thing on the guitar. It works in several different ways. You can use it to tweak your notes while you play, with much greater control than the whammy bar offers. The whammy simply lowers the pitch, but the slider lets you distort and go nuts on a note. There are sections with clear notes that mean you need to tap the slider, without hitting the fret, and there are sections where you can use the slider to distort your note, and then you have to "catch" the note using the slider. It's a bit like the retro Activision game Kaboom! where you'd catch falling bombs in buckets of water.

"The whammy simply lowers the pitch, but the slider lets you distort and go nuts on a note."

If that wasn't enough, they've also added a Music Studio, which allows you to record four tracks: Lead, Rhythm, Bass, and Drums. No vocals, however, for "legal reasons" according to Activision. They probably don't want people recording their own version of "Sweet Child of Mine" and then uploading it to GH Tunes, which is the repository for online created songs. You can record these songs with a group, or track by track, and you can vote and download songs created by other players to play back on your own. It's a lot like Apple's GarageBand on a console: you can pick different guitar sounds, drum loop and synthesizer sections that you play/tweak with the slider, and more.

However, there's even a step above this with the Music Editor, which takes the song you've created into a miniature studio, so you can position notes, cut and paste entire sections, tweak sounds, do a little remixing, and perfect what you've recorded. They also partnered with Line 6 to create in-game amp and cabinet modeling in the game, so you can dial up anything from acoustic to distorted metal sounding guitars. It's just an insane amount of music editing that the casual player will probably never dip into. If you want to spend hours making your masterpiece, you can go for that, but we say bring on the gameplay.

Naturally, there's a bunch of new songs coming out with this release, although we're only allowed to mention Linkin Park, The Eagles, Van Halen as some of the bands that'll be in the game, with some of the new songs including: Sublime – "Santeria", Billy Idol – "Rebel Yell", and Foo Fighters – "Everlong." All of them will be master tracks. They've also added a new "Beginner" level where you only have to strum, so you can play with Grandma, your five-year old kid, or your pal who just can't get it right.

If you haven't hopped on the Rock Band bandwagon just yet, you might want to give this a serious look when it comes out later this year. It'll fill the same gap, multiple levels of customization and a recording mode that'll keep you coming back once you've ripped through all the songs and gigs on Expert.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.