Thanks to Guitar Hero: World Tour, we had to listen to Michael Jackson's Beat It blare out across the Leipzig business centre approximately 149 times per day for the entirety of Games Convention, interspersed occasionally with a brief rendition of Livin' On A Prayer. The former, at least, actually turns out to be quite decent typing music, so thanks for that, Activision!
There's something quite surreal about the speed with which Guitar Hero has captured the world. Three years ago, it was a curiosity import published by a peripheral manufacturer best known for its dance-mats. We distinctly remember the man in the godforsaken, middle-of-nowhere import shop where we first laid our eager hands on Guitar Hero advising us to hang on to it, assuming it'd be a valuable curiosity one day. Now it's a massive, global event, played on-stage by celebrities and in living rooms by, well, pretty much everyone on every console, and making an awful lot of money for everyone involved with it.
It's currently undergoing another metamorphosis, turning itself from a beat-matching videogame into a set of music tools, attempting to similarly morph its players into creators. We got the chance to see how exactly it's going about this in Germany, where Neversoft and Activision fully unveiled the new equipment and music creation software that we glimpsed earlier this year.
The finished peripherals really are things of beauty. It seems bizarre that we've managed to become connoisseurs in the field of pretend instruments at some point over the past five years or so, but the quality of the drum kit and new guitar would be obvious even to people who haven't spent inordinate amounts of time familiarising themselves with the old ones.
The drum kit, especially, is a definite step forward, and does far more than just raise two of the pads and make them roughly cymbal-shaped; it's sturdy, amazingly quiet, and has satisfying bounce to it, making drum rolls and improvisation easier - especially important for freestyling in music creation.
The guitar, too, has been designed with music-creation in mind. Small differences make the thing more pleasurable to play - a contoured strum-bar, funky-looking, dial-shaped start and select buttons, a Rock Band-style effects selector, a lovely (detachable) sunburst finish - but the major difference is a touch-sensitive panel near the bottom of the neck. It's used for soloing, tapping, and even strumming if you'd rather tap the neck than flick the strum-bar, but more excitingly, it's a second input in the music-creation suite, allowing you to modify what you're playing and enabling the guitar to be used as an all-purpose, flexible input device rather than just a five-button toy instrument.
The way that music-creation works is rather difficult to explain in words, but as soon as you get the chance to have a go, it all becomes clear. You start off in a jam session, where up to four players can choose an instrument - rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, synth or drums. You can then all play happily along in E Major on the default settings and make a surprisingly decent noise, or dive into the menus and start messing around with every conceivable aspect of the sound.
The first thing you can do is choose a scale, which naturally changes the notes that you can play with the guitar's five buttons and their various combinations. You can pick from any scale, or create your own if you're trying to play something complex. Guitar Hero: World Tour is partnered with Line6 amps, so you can pick from about sixty predefined guitar noises or twiddle a screenful of virtual knobs to create your own. You can instantly save any sound that you create, and with the touch of a button, everybody will be playing on the same scale, so one keen person can be the sound engineer for the entire band.
Playing the instruments is perfectly intuitive. The drums act just as you'd expect them to, and you find yourself with a surprisingly instinctive control over the sound whilst playing guitar. Tilting the guitars up and down changes the octave, giving you adequate note variation to play most things you'd want to without constantly having to switch scales. You can start recording at the touch of a button, and of course all the instruments record on separate tracks, so if the drummer skips a beat it can be re-recorded later.
This is all stuff that you'd probably expect from World Tour's music-creation tools, but the drum and synth machines go far further than we expected from the game. If you don't happen to know an excellent drummer, or if you're looking for a different sound from that of a drum-kit, you can use the guitar to control an unexpectedly sophisticated backing-track machine. It makes our plastic guitars into actual synthesisers.
It's a little like beatboxing on a guitar controller, if you can imagine that. You set the tempo and the sound set - jungle, techno, gunshot, rock, metal et cetera - and hold down one of the buttons to set down a beat. You can then adjust and play around with that beat using the other buttons and the touch-sensitive panel. For instance, tapping green on the touch-sensitive panel might add in another beat, holding red might drop everything but the bass. Tilting the guitar alters the volume. What's amazing about it is that practically everything you do sounds good.
The synth machine works similarly, although we didn't see everything it can do. You can either set the keyboard up to work like the guitar - as in, you press a button and strum, and it makes a noise - or use the synth machine to set up a fuller backing track. It's going to be possible to create anything imaginable with these tools (except vocals, disappointingly), from a techno remix of Purple Rain to a metal cover of Umbrella to any imaginable kind of original sound. Activision told us that it's leaving GHTunes - the game's uploading/downloading marketplace for user-created music - completely open, but if there are complaints from copyright holders it'll be obliged to act upon them. We imagine, however, that players will spend much more time creating their own music than copying others.
Once you're done jamming and have all the instruments laid down, you can nip into GHMix, your own little Guitar Hero production studio, to re-order the recording and sort out the mix. Once it's done, it can be exported to play immediately, or uploaded to GHTunes for other people to download and play, complete with band biography and fully-customisable album art. There's so much scope for expanding this in the future; it all depends on just how creative players decide to get with World Tour's music creation.
It's possible that the comprehensiveness of these tools might seem almost ridiculous. Why learn how to play fake instruments to this degree of proficiency when you could be learning an actual instrument? The difference is, though, that we've already learned how to play Guitar Hero - World Tour is giving us the opportunity to transfer those impressive but inescapably useless fake-guitar playing skills into creative endeavour.
And it works. It's fun and completely compulsive, and after weeks or months of experimenting with scales and harmonies and chromatics, figuring out what sounds work well together and messing around with drum-tracks, it's easy to imagine developing an understanding of music that could be put to use far beyond these in-game music tools. People who have fun just jamming in E Major and thrashing out noises on the drums in September might be making sophisticated tracks by next May.
The edge that all of this gives World Tour over Rock Band, and its sequel, is enormous if you're interested in the potential of music creation. If you're more interested in just the track-list and the experience of playing along, the contest is going to be closer. Rock Band is the most professional execution of the beat-matching videogame that yet exists - slick, good-looking and packed with well-chosen tracks - and Rock Band 2 looks like it's going to build on those strengths, offering more music and a better set of instruments. Were these two games competing purely on those terms, Rock Band would probably win out, given its advantages of priority and effortless Harmonix cool next to Guitar Hero's slightly overcooked, self-consciously extreme sense of rock.
But as it is, Guitar Hero: World Tour has carved out its own music-creation niche, and the two games differ enough in what they offer to justify both their places in store shelves. What's more, the eminently sensible decision to make all peripherals for both games cross-compatible ensures that neither will lose out needlessly on potential customers.
Guitar Hero: World Tour is turning us from gamers with plastic, pretend instruments into potential musicians. It is giving us an extremely complex set of tools to create our own music on equipment that we understand and have years of practice using just for fun. There's something so incredible about this, something that really speaks about the magic of videogames in general; how they can educate, stimulate and transcend themselves in the hands of enthusiastic players to become something that we'd never have dreamed of just a few years prior.
Guitar Hero: World Tour is due out in October.