Version tested: DS
Last summer, the moment no one but Activision's accountants had been waiting for finally arrived: Guitar Hero made its debut on DS. As you'll know if you read Tom's review, the transition wasn't altogether successful. An uncomfortable control system, limited song choice and poor audio quality resulted in one of the weakest instalments to date. But Guitar Hero: On Tour still sold well thanks to the strength of the brand, and the fact you couldn't illegally download the requisite peripheral.
Here comes the sequel, then, just a few months later. Not much has changed. Even the title's the same, apart from the extra word stuck on the end. The guitar grip peripheral hasn't undergone any kind of redesign, which is bad news for those who found it painful to use the first time around. Personally I've never had too much trouble, but then I have delicately tapering ladyfingers (or terrifying skeletal witchclaws, whichever you prefer). I can't say I've experienced the problem of the grip slipping out of the GBA slot during play, either, perhaps because I've got one of the newer DS units, or perhaps because I'm special.
Once again, you hold the DS like a book and notes scroll vertically down the top screen. You grip the special pick stylus in your other hand and strum away on the touch-screen. Rubbing it back and forth activates the whammy bar in a strangely satisfying way. To trigger Star Power you blow or shout into the microphone (the manual says you have to shout "Rock out" but other phrases appear to be just as effective, which should please those with any dignity at all).
Once again, the control system doesn't quite work. The strumming is fiddly, and the touch-recognition is inconsistent. On harder difficulty levels, the speed and force of strumming required tend to make the DS jiggle about, which in turn makes the notes hard to follow. More often than not, you feel like you're fighting to make the technology work rather than getting into the flow of the music - which is of course what Guitar Hero should be all about. Plus, the blowing/shouting thing is just silly.
If you were able to put up with all that when playing On Tour, at least Decades offers a whole set of new tracks. They've even managed to squeeze two more onto the cartridge, making 28 in total. The songs are grouped, you'll be amazed to learn, according to which decade they were produced in.
Highlights of the 70s category include "All Right Now" by Free, "We Are the Champions" by Queen and Lynrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". Fast forward and you get Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name", movie soundtrack classic "Eye of the Tiger" and R.E.M.'s "The One I Love". The 90s tracks include "Are You Gonna Go My Way" by Lenny Kravitz, Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and "No Rain" by Blind Melon.
From the 2000s you get songs from the Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Can't Stop"), Linkin Park ("One Step Closer"), The Darkness ("I Believe in a Thing Called Love") and Alien Ant Farm ("Smooth Criminal"). And finally, in the curiously titled "Modern" category, there's stuff from the Foo Fighters ("The Pretender"), The Smashing Pumpkins ("Tarantula") and other bands I've never heard of because I'm 31.
In short, it's not a bad selection. There are some proper rock classics in there and not too many fillers. It helps that all the songs are performed by the original artists, though not to the extent that you're able to ignore the rotten audio. Even with a pair of headphones, the sound quality is tinny enough to give you tinnitus. There's too much fuzz and distortion, particularly when it comes to "S" sounds, and too often you're reminded of angry wasps in a biscuit tin. The switches between the crowd jeering and cheering are distractingly abrupt, particularly on the harder difficulty levels.
You can't get too cross with the developer about all this, of course, as it's down to the technical limitations of the DS. But there's no getting away from the fact it affects how enjoyable the game is to play. Original performances are all very well, but it's hard to believe you're listening to the real Lynrd Skynrd anyway when they're "Zzshzinging zzshzongs about the zzshzouthland".
There is one neat feature worth mentioning - the option to share tracks between On Tour and Decades without having to swap cartridges in and out. So if you have one of the games and your friend has the other, you can both access all 54 songs instantly, in both co-operative and competitive modes. You'll each need a guitar grip peripheral though, of course.
Otherwise, there's little to report in the way of new features. The Career mode is back, and this time you can choose to play through the whole thing as a bass guitarist (which, as anyone who likes this sort of thing knows, is more tedious anyway). Once again you can take part in Guitar Duels, and they haven't even bothered to think up any new power-ups. There's still no online mode, rubbishly.
So really, Guitar Hero: On Tour Decades is just Guitar Hero: On Tour with different tracks. The gameplay's exactly the same. There's one extra mode and it's not very interesting. On top of this, none of the problems with the first game have been fixed. The guitar grip is still uncomfortable to use for many players. The strumming's not quite right. You'll still find the control system to be below par even if, like me, your hands resemble those of the protagonist in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
This is just a song pack, really - one that carries an RRP of GBP 29.99 (or GBP 39.99 if you need the guitar grip too). That's too much to ask for a sequel which barely does anything its predecessor didn't do, and doesn't even fix any of the problems with it.
4 / 10