- Review Price: £29.48
”’Platform: Nintendo DS”’
Given the huge success of the Guitar Hero series on every home console format known to man, I guess it was inevitable that it would eventually hit the handhelds. The only real question was how on earth Activision and Red Octane would get it to work. I first suspected the answer would just be a fairly simple game of carefully timed jabs at the touchscreen, much like the Pocket PC version of Guitar Hero III if you’ve seen it. Admirably, Activision and Red Octane clearly felt that was a compromise too far. Instead, Guitar Hero: On Tour comes with its own ‘guitar grip’ plug-in and – for better or worse – plays as true to the full Guitar Hero experience as you’re likely to get on a handheld system.
The grip plugs into the GBA cartridge slot at the bottom of the DS Lite (and an adaptor is provided for those still saddled with a first-generation DS). Fold your hand around the grip and squeeze it through the adjustable strap, and you hold the DS like a book, using your left hand to press the four coloured keys while using your right to strum the strings of a virtual guitar on the touchscreen. In effect, you’re doing exactly what you’d do in Guitar Hero III on the PS3 or 360, only without the extra button on the higher difficulty settings.
Up to a point, it’s a great way to do things. Unfortunately, you’ll reach that point within ten to twenty minutes of play. If you have small hands, you’ll have a nightmarish time trying to get your little finger to curl over far enough to hit the blue button. If you have large hands, you’ll struggle to fit your hand on the grip and manipulate all four buttons with your meaty sausage-like fingers. Helpfully, the manual and the in-game tips suggest trying different hand positions and varying them from time to time, but the simple fact is that, however you hold the DS, playing Guitar Hero: On Tour is a fairly uncomfortable business. First you find a good position, then you can’t see the screen. Twist your hand to see the screen, and your wrist ends up at some bizarre angle that practically screams ‘bring the pain!’ Mark my words: there will be class action lawsuits over this one in the states.
For the record, I’d suggest playing the game sitting down with the hand holding the DS resting on your lap. You’ll still be grimacing after twenty minutes, but give your hand a good shake and it soon wears off.
The physical issues are a shame, because the heart and soul of GH remains vaguely intact for some of the single-player game. The career mode is a ‘lite’ version of GHIII’s, offering your band the chance to play gigs in a range of slightly odd locations, ranging from a rooftop to a carnival float to a battleship. It’s not as witty or Spinal Tap-ish as GHIII, but it works. Two new characters join four existing GH favourites in the roster of heroes and heroines, while the range of unlockable guitars covers a reasonable range of Gibson classics and rarities, and you can actually see your axe of choice on the touchscreen as you play.
Basic gameplay works in much the same way as it did in GHIII, but with a couple of tweaks for the DS. With no physical whammy bar to play with, you now have to bend notes and add vibrato by scrubbing the virtual bar on the screen. That old Star Power boost, meanwhile, is now activated by shouting ‘Rock Out!’ into the microphone or – if you’re on the train and keen to avoid weird looks – tapping the relevant gauge. This can cause problems if you hit it during an overenthusiastic bout of strumming.
While the right/bottom screen is busy with this lot, the left/top screen shows the usual scrolling tablature display along with 3D performance footage in the background. Understandably the visuals aren’t quite as slick as they are in the mainstream console versions, but they’re not a bad facsimile at all. Sound quality is also surprisingly good. Obviously some compression has been needed to get 25 songs on a DS cartridge, but put some headphones on and there’s still enough ‘rawk’ for the average metal monster.
On easy level, GH: OT is simple, fun and accessible. On medium level it’s thoroughly enjoyable and a decent starter challenge even for the intermediate GH player. On anything above medium level, things start to go awry. I’m not sure whether it’s the cramped layout of the buttons on the grip or the limitations of the touchscreen, but pulling off any fast or complex sequence of notes is a nightmare. Scrubbing the screen doesn’t work for fast picking, and some long sequences of repetitive notes seem more a test of luck than rhythm.
The main DS-specific addition to the gameplay – a revamped duel mode – is also problematic. You take on other guitarists in a format similar to GHIII’s boss battles, hitting star note sequences to win attacks which you can then unleash at a touch of an icon. Unfortunately, hitting icons while you’re playing is very tricky, while the responses to enemy attacks all require novelty uses of the touchscreen or microphone. Signing an autograph or blowing out the flames on your guitar is fun once or twice, but it gets old fairly quickly whether your opponent is human or computer controlled. Thank goodness a more regular co-op mode has been included.
Sadly, the biggest barrier between GH: OT and greatness is the tracklist. Sure, there are some blinders in there. Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl was great in Rock Band and it’s great here, while ZZ Top’s La Grange and Steve Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy are the stuff of GH legend. All the same, an excess of many pop-punk tracks and very US focused choices (who is/are Daughtry, exactly?) leaves you wondering where the equivalents of More than a Feeling, Killer Queen, YYZ and Knights of Cydonia can be found. Surely Activision and Red Octane had the chance here to cherry-pick the best of the GH line-up, or was someone feeling cheap with the chequebook this time around?
Take one of these negative factors and you could still have a mobile Guitar Hero to treasure. Put them all together and, while GH: OT is still fun, it’s not a game I can hand-on-heart recommend. It’s close to being great and only a whisker away from being good, but I just can’t see anyone picking this up and playing it more than a week from purchase. Guitar Hero fans deserve a little better than that. The old joke with GH used to be that we should turn the score up to a Marshall stack sized eleven. Here, it’s easy to turn it down to a dwarf Stonehenge sized six.
A disappointment for would-be DS axe manglers,as the uncomfortable grip, less than accurate picking, gimmicky duel mode and patchy tracklist conspire to spoil an otherwise decent conversion.
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