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Critical Reception: Activision/Vicarious Visions'  Guitar Hero: On Tour

Critical Reception: Activision/Vicarious Visions' Guitar Hero: On Tour

June 25, 2008 | By Danny Cowan

June 25, 2008 | By Danny Cowan
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This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Guitar Hero: On Tour, a portable debut that succeeds thanks to "a well-constructed peripheral and incredibly tight programming," according to reviews.

Following a string of successful releases across multiple consoles, Activision seeks to expand its flagship Guitar Hero rhythm franchise this year. In addition to broadening the series' gameplay to encompass multiple instruments in the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour, the franchise extends its reach to portable platforms for the first time with this week's release of Guitar Hero: On Tour for the Nintendo DS.

Once it was revealed that On Tour would use a plug-in fretboard peripheral and a guitar pick-shaped stylus rather than the series' standard guitar controller, however, many critics expressed concern as to whether Guitar Hero's gameplay could transfer effectively to the Nintendo DS. Reviews in many cases report that the results are better than expected, as On Tour currently averages a Metacritic score of 78 out of 100.

Craig Harris at IGN gives Guitar Hero: On Tour a score of 9 out of 10, explaining that the franchise's first portable entry was treated with weight and respect by its developers. "Something happened when Activision gave Vicarious Visions the go-ahead to turn the guitar jamming game into a portable product: the team actually took the project seriously," he claims. "The result is a Nintendo DS version of the series that truly feels like it's a part of the Guitar Hero license and not a cheap cash-in."

"It's an amazing accomplishment," Harris continues, "considering you're missing a key component: a full-sized guitar to give you the illusion and feel that you're actually playing an instrument in time to the music playing back at you."

Despite the change in control setup, Harris describes On Tour's gameplay as instantly familiar to series fans. "The gameplay remains the same," he writes. "As the song plays, gems slide down a note highway that represents the guitar portion of the tune. To play that gem, you hold the corresponding notes down on the fret bar and strum."

The gameplay is effectively duplicated on the Nintendo DS thanks to "a well-constructed peripheral and incredibly tight programming," according to Harris.

"Included in the package is the equivalent of the Guitar Hero console guitar: the Guitar Grip, a device that snaps into the GBA slot and adds four buttons running down the bottom of the system," Harris explains. "Strap yourself in and fit a finger over each button, then take out the included touch screen-friendly pick and start strumming away with the music. The game recognizes strums in any direction as well as back-forth strums without lifting up the pick."

Harris admits that the setup isn't without its problems. "Playing Guitar Hero with its screen on the same device as the peripheral is just cause for shaking and shimmying as you try and watch the note clusters," he warns. "And since you're strapped into the device it isn't the most comfortable -- or accurate -- guitar experience."

However, Harris otherwise describes On Tour as a wholly enjoyable portable debut for the series. "The gameplay is spot on, and the peripheral's great construction enhances the experience," he asserts. "What could have easily been a cheap, licensed rhythm game cop-out on the Nintendo DS is actually a serious project that works extremely well on the handheld."

Will Tuttle awards Guitar Hero: On Tour 3.5 out of 5 stars in his review at GameSpy.

Tuttle assures that On Tour retains all of Guitar Hero's basic functionality, aside from some concerns with its included peripheral. "The guitar attachment is actually quite responsive and easy-to-use... for a while," he warns. "Ultimately, your wrist will probably start aching, even when you're holding it as you're supposed to."

"You'll either end up bending your wrist awkwardly or twisting your neck to view the screen at the correct angle, so it definitely pays to take frequent breaks," Tuttle continues. "Worst of all, shifting your hand too much could jar the peripheral loose mid-song, and it can't simply be plugged back in. Nope, you'll need to restart the game completely, quite possibly while cursing."

Tuttle also voices some concerns with On Tour's soundtrack, despite finding that it represents a good mixture of genres overall. "The soundtrack [...] is made up primarily of songs new to the franchise. The fact that many of them are master tracks is great, and even the covers sound decent," he praises.

"However," Tuttle counters, "the fact that there's only a total of 25 songs stings a little bit, as it won't take more than a few hours to play through them all. Unfortunately, we don't see any DLC in the game's future."

Tuttle also finds that multiplayer modes could extend On Tour's longevity beyond its short single-player campaign, though certain options may end up unplayed. "The centerpiece of the competitive mode is the head-to-head battle that plays almost exactly like the one seen in Guitar Hero III," he writes. "It's a fun mode, but we wonder if it will be played more than the face-off or co-op modes."

Tuttle describes On Tour as worthwhile, though he claims that its lack of content compared to its console predecessors and its awkward controls may be major hurdles to overcome. "In some ways, Guitar Hero: On Tour feels more like an experiment than a full-fledged game, as if Activision just wanted to see if it could be pulled off," he posits. "Still, it's a solid entry in the franchise and gets points for innovation, so we're hopeful that this won't be the series' last foray into the handheld domain."

GameSpot's Aaron Thomas seems less impressed with Guitar Hero: On Tour in his review, scored at 6 out of 10. "The series' use of licensed music and reliance on large plastic guitars made it seem like you'd never be able party like a rock star on a handheld--especially the cartridge-based Nintendo DS," he notes. "Vicarious Visions has found a way to bring the Guitar Hero experience to the DS in the form of Guitar Hero: On Tour."

"Although this accomplishment is impressive from a technical standpoint," Thomas continues, "a small setlist, a cumbersome fret attachment, and a high price tag ($50 USD) make it seem as if the focus was on whether Guitar Hero: World Tour could be made, and not if it should be made."

Thomas finds that On Tour's control method lacks precision. "There's no physical strum bar; instead you use the included guitar pick-like stylus to strum across the guitar that is displayed on the right screen," he explains. "It takes a little bit of practice to get the strumming motion down, and even when you do, the game doesn't always register your input."

Like Tuttle at GameSpy, Thomas notes that On Tour's grip peripheral can become uncomfortable after short periods of play. "Playing for any length of time can be extremely uncomfortable, and don't be surprised if you experience lingering pain in your wrist or elbow after the shortest of play sessions," he cautions. "Even playing a single song can be enough to cause discomfort. While the size of your hands is certainly a consideration, the attachment is functional at best."

Thomas also expresses disappointment with both On Tour's music selection and its audio output quality. "A few of the songs, such as Smash Mouth's 'All Star,' and 'This Love' from Maroon 5, would be better described as pop than rock, so their inclusion may be off-putting to series fans used to nothing but rock," he says.

"Of course, opinions on the setlist will vary by taste," Thomas admits, "but there are some aspects of the actual sound that clearly could have been improved. The audio quality of the songs is downright poor, especially if you're listening through the DS's speakers."

"Guitar Hero: On Tour lacks many of the characteristics of the console versions of Guitar Hero, but the main ingredient that's missing is fun," Thomas concludes. "It's simply not enjoyable to contort your hand around the DS and listen to 25 low-fi songs while you strum the touch screen and fight the pain in your hand."

Critics describe Guitar Hero: On Tour as an innovative solution for fans who demanded a portable edition of Guitar Hero. Compared to its console predecessors, however, On Tour suffers from a limited songlist, questionable audio quality, and a peripheral that many claim is uncomfortable to hold. Despite its problems, though, the title otherwise remains a functional and novel approach to the series that will likely find an audience among rhythm game devotees.

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