Surrounded by a gaggle of other gamers having their first go on the game, we heard shouts of "Rock on!" and "Star Power!," cementing in our minds that this was going to be an even more atypical Guitar Hero experience than we had imagined. Fortunately, it was a lot like the Guitar Hero experience we've grown to love over various console incarnations, too.
Before we even get into the game, we have to talk about the Guitar Grip. It's the product of what both developer Vicarious Visions (Guitar Hero III for Wii) and hardware gurus RedOctane admit was a lengthy development period rife with trial and error.
Speaking with the game's executive producer, David Nathanielsz, and RedOctane associate producer Will Townsend, we learned that the two companies went through over 20 prototypes of the game before deciding on the final Guitar Grip. Some didn't use a peripheral at all, but, as they told us, they didn't feel like Guitar Hero. One was made from a child's electronic guitar wired into a DS, but was a decidedly non-portable failure. The final design came after a member of the dev team MacGyvered some buttons and a GBA cart together and said, "Hey, this works!"
The grip is a neat little piece of add-on-ery. It's made from the same type of plastic as the DS itself, including a glossy shell, which is removable to allow for custom inserts. (Not officially announced, but surely coming to shelves before long.) The camcorder style strap is also removable for customization's sake, and is fully adjustable. There are four buttons, rather than the typical five for a Guitar Hero game. Nathanielsz and townsend told us that it was simply a matter of functionality and comfort to drop a button. To compensate, they've worked to make sure the chord structure on higher difficulties is plenty challenging, even with one button missing.
You can play On Tour using the DS stylus, but there's really no reason to -- the grip includes (and stores) a special pick-shaped stylus that felt really great in our fingers. Having gotten a grip on the hardware setup, we were ready to rock out.
The left screen displays the recognizable Guitar Hero virtual guitar neck in front of polygonal rockers that look alright (not as detailed as, say, the Elite Beat Agents), especially considering you're not really looking at them all that much. Note icons, of course, stream towards the "pick point" and, once they hit, we strummed away with a swiping motion on the right (touch) screen. That screen is laid out so you can easily see the virtual guitar with whammy bar (it's nice and easy to strum right into using the bar, too) along with the Star Power gauge, point counter, and multiplier number.
Strumming felt great -- it isn't velocity sensitive of anything like that, but it is accurate. We even tested to make sure you couldn't just tap the screen to register a strum; you can't.
Star Power is "deployed" in one of three ways. Firstly, you can say something into the DS's built-in microphone -- that would explain the folks shouting around us. If you're not into public embarrassment, you can touch the Star Power gauge with the pick, or, in a trickier move, press a face button on the DS. We think the vocal trigger is the best way, and is pretty unique. Just be prepared to draw some odd glances.
"On Tour is packing an arena's worth of true Guitar Hero gameplay on a stamp-sized game card."
The game is otherwise structured just like the console titles, with four tiers of four songs plus an encore for each. The audio quality isn't as nice as listening to an MP3, but it's good and without any noticeable warble. All 20-plus tracks (85% of which as master tracks, according to Vicarious Visions) are new, having never appeared in any previous Guitar Hero title.
After rocking out to 10 songs in single player, we wrapped up our tour of On Tour with some multiplayer against other journos. The gameplay was based around not only out-scoring opponents, but also by using power-ups to screw with them.
They say "big things come in small packages," and from what we played of it, On Tour is packing an arena's worth of true Guitar Hero gameplay on a stamp-sized game card. It, quite simply, rocked.
Check out Activision's Family Album to learn more about the company's internal studios.