By JoshuA Gillin
Times Staff Writer
It's going to be a lean Christmas for most gamers this year, so it's time to make a choice: Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour?
I enlisted Times co-workers Ellen Freiberg and Leigh Armstrong and Giddy-Up, Helicopter drummer Ryann Slauson to help put these two rhythm heavyweights to the test and come up with a definitive answer. (For the record, we tested both games on the PlayStation 3.)
This version of Rock Band offers more of an update than any real improvements over the original, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The presentation was stylish, the song list varied and the instruments solid. Leigh dug the '60s concert poster graphics style, and Ryann was impressed by the amount of indie tunes sprinkled in with the more mainstream stuff.
In World Tour, Guitar Hero adds the components needed to go toe-to-toe with its cousin: a drum kit and microphone. The play list is close to that of Rock Band since the two games include many of the same songs. World Tour offers a new music creator, too, but the file compression makes everything sound like a MIDI version of the music (if you're going to use the creator, you'll know what that means).
"I really like the idea of using cymbals, but they don't work well," Ryann said of the Guitar Hero drum set, which features two quarter-pads to replicate a crash and a ride, or hi-hat, depending on the song. "The hit detection isn't very good. It's really frustrating."
The hit detection has been a widely reported problem for publisher Activision — which already offers a free tuning kit at www.activision.com/support — and after merely two, 2-hour sessions, the red pad ended up not working for us at all.
Ryann said the Rock Band drums were similar, but felt much better.
Rock Band features a Fender Stratocaster knockoff with buttons at the top of the neck near the headstock and at the base near the body — all of which came in handy during game play.
In comparison, the Guitar Hero guitar felt really cheap — "Playskool," Leigh called it — and the new slidepad for solos didn't seem to register finger movements well.
The hardware aside, Guitar Hero provides a superior guitar experience, keeping the guitarist more occupied than Rock Band.
"Guitar Hero's guitar sections are more challenging, in a good way,'' Leigh said.
The microphone, easily the controller everyone wanted least because it involved some modicum of real skill, was a wash.
Rock Band keeps its previous scrolling method; Guitar Hero offers both a scroll and a karaoke-style static mode, in which the words are onscreen and light up as they are to be sung.
"The microphone was easier in Rock Band," Ellen said. "You could hear it in the game, and made it more fun."
"It felt so much easier to just start up Rock Band and play," Leigh said. Plus — and this is important — Rock Band offers a "no-fail mode" that prevents your party from getting booted off the game stage if one or more of your members miss too many notes.
"Can we go back to Rock Band?" Ryann asked after a few World Tour songs.
And despite Guitar Hero's huge catalog (a strength even Rock Band can't overcome yet), that's exactly what we did.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@ tampabay.com.