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The Battle of the Fake Bands

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, December 14, 2008

The American people have an important and historic decision to make this holiday season: Guitar Hero World Tour or Rock Band 2?

Here's how it goes: Fork over about $180 at your local electronics store, and you get a large box. Inside are a drum kit and a guitar -- or, at least, video game controllers shaped as such -- along with a microphone and a game disc. Get a few friends together, and you can put together a fake rock band. Hit the right notes on the guitar controller and sing the right tones into the microphone, and you and your friends can briefly live a videogame version of the rock-and-roll dream.

I've played both quite a bit over the past few weeks and can say one thing for sure: They both offer pretty much the same kick, and neither is a dud. Beyond that, it gets a little more complicated.

One piece of good news for baffled holiday shoppers this year is that all the "instruments" included with both titles are wireless, except for the microphones. They're also all interoperable, meaning that you can use, for example, Guitar Hero's fake ax to play Rock Band, and vice versa. Naturally, some gamer snobs have gone so far as to buy both.

While Guitar Hero is more of a household name, Rock Band has had a year-long head start on the market as the first "full band" game, said Michael Pachter, a game industry analyst who figures that the two titles will divide the market fairly evenly in the coming year. "You can argue over whether this guitar is better or whether these drums are better, but at the end of the day you're doing the same thing and the music is similar," he said.

Odd as it still sounds, this is a big business we're talking about here. The Guitar Hero franchise did around $1 billion in sales last year. When a new version came out this past summer, dedicated to the music and career of Aerosmith, first-week sales of the game more than tripled first-week sales of Aerosmith's most recent studio album.

As for those arguments Pachter refers to, here's the gist: Some fans, but not all, feel that the latest Guitar Hero offers the superior "instruments." Its drum kit, for example, comes with a set of rubberized "cymbals," which go a long way in selling the illusion that you're actually playing drums and not, ahem, just hitting buttons on a game controller. It's possible, though, for Rock Band owners to spend another $30 or $40 to get a set of cymbals to add to that game's drum kit. For that matter, one company is offering a deluxe drum kit for the game that will set you back $300.

Rock Band's fans say the title has the clear advantage because of the amount of content available for download for people who want to expand their collections. Both game discs feature similar batches of songs from bands including Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac and Modest Mouse, but Rock Band has a wide library of 500 songs available for purchase online. Recent additions range from Jimmy Buffett to punk ditties from the Dead Kennedys; so far, Rock Band fans have bought 28 million tracks this way. Guitar Hero World Tour has only 41 licensed tracks for sale so far.

While Guitar Hero's online library of licensed content is far behind Rock Band's, Kai Huang, co-founder of Guitar Hero maker RedOctane, looks at the question of the song catalogues another way. Thanks to a new feature that lets users create and upload their own songs, there are 75,000 fan-created songs available for download. Whether they're any good is another matter, but the user-created songs have been downloaded 21 million times, according to the company.

H.T. Gold, an Arlington-based local champ at competitive matches of Guitar Hero, said he prefers Rock Band, though he spends several hours each week playing both. Guitar Hero sometimes throws in notes that don't exist in the song, said Gold, to make the harder levels harder. (RedOctane confirmed this.) Gold said he finds this practice a little annoying, but it seems to be one reason why Guitar Hero is the title of choice among people, like him, who play competitively.

Greg LoPiccolo, producer at Harmonix, which makes Rock Band, didn't dispute this emphasis. "The real focus [of Rock Band] has been collaborative play," he said, "though we do have competitive modes."

I had a group of folks over last weekend to check out the two side by side and came up with inconclusive results. Generally speaking, the people who play a lot of video games tend to like Rock Band 2 more. And the people who don't spend any time playing the things tended to lean toward Guitar Hero.

My friend Arne has forked over cash for both games and finds the character animations and song selections on Guitar Hero World Tour to be shoddy. That said, he took quite a shine to the Guitar Hero drums, which he tried for the first time.

But a college friend of mine who now runs his own board-game company liked Guitar Hero more. "As a guy who doesn't play video games, Guitar Hero was way more inviting," said my friend, Dom, who liked that the game's beginner levels require players only to "strum" the guitar controller in time with the music and not hit any buttons.

At the moment, I'm feeling equally burned out on both of these titles, so I'll let someone else have the last word.

Game reviewer Ben Croshaw, an Australian who has become famous among regulars at Web sites like Digg for his snarky takes on the latest games, recently put it in a way that sounds about right to me.

"Playing Guitar Hero is still as inherently entertaining and shamelessly pathetic as it's always been," he said. "Get either this or Rock Band, because it honestly doesn't matter which."

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