December 21, 2009

Guitar Hero: Van Halen Released

With less of a bang than a whimper, tomorrow is the release date for Guitar Hero: Van Halen.

I’ve had this game since the first days it was available as a Guitar Hero 5 pre-order bonus. Although I am kinda-sorta a Van Halen fan, have to admit that it was a bit of a letdown. In all honesty, I had more fun playing Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. There’s something about the Van Halen catalog that just isn’t … deep. It’s just sort of basic rock music. Outside of the Eddie guitar virtuoso wankery (aka Eruption) and the top 5 Van Halen hits you’re probably thinking of, there is no “there” there.

It’s also a shame that this disc doesn’t import at all into Guitar Hero 5, like World Tour, Smash Hits and Band Hero do. Well, partially, anyway.

Guitar Hero: Van Halen is probably worth getting if you’re a massive fan of the band, though it is nowhere near the intimate fan-centric portrait of a band like Guitar Hero: Metallica, much less The Beatles: Rock Band. If you are a genre enthusiast like myself, I can recommend picking it up once it drops to discounted levels. It’s mostly Van Halen, but there are a handful of other interesting songs on there as well — check out the song list and see if anything appeals to you. I expect it to tumble in price quite rapidly.

Even if you have no interest in the game proper, there is a little bonus for all fake plastic rockers — an official Eddie Van Halen “frankenstrat” faceplate!

The frankenstrat is Eddie’s famous guitar, a combination Gibson / Fender with a very distinctive paintjob.

I’m pretty sure the frankenstrat is probably the single most copied faceplate design in the history of fake plastic rock. So having it as an official faceplate design is a good thing. The faceplate is available as a promo bonus from some sites, or also sold directly for $10.

And here’s my own bonus to you — a video from the Legion of Rock Stars covering Van Halen’s Jump.

They’ve done a ton of these covers, which are available here. Bring your earplugs, and a sense of humor …

October 26, 2009

Band Hero Track List

In all the excitement over Lego Rock Band, I almost forgot about Band Hero, which is also launching soon.

band-hero-box-art

The full 65 song list was recently unveiled along with the fantastic news that all but four of the songs will be exportable to Guitar Hero 5! (Oddly, you can also go in the reverse direction, importing 69 Guitar Hero 5 songs into Band Hero.) It’s hardly the access to the nearly 1,000 song Rock Band 2 DLC library that Lego Rock Band offers, but it’s a start.

Now that’s the kind of importing we wanted! Oh, and on the incredibly rare chance any Activision excutives happen to be reading this blog, I’m still waiting for fuller Smash Hits and World Tour importing in Guitar Hero 5.

3 Doors Down – When I’m Gone
The Airborne Toxic Event – Gasoline
The All-American Rejects – Dirty Little Secret
Alphabeat – Fascination
Aly & AJ – Like Whoa
Angels & Airwaves – The Adventure
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals – Steal My Kisses
Big Country – In A Big Country
The Bravery – Believe
Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting
Cheap Trick – I Want You To Want Me (Live)
Cold War Kids – Hang Me Up To Dry
Corinne Bailey Rae – Put Your Records On
Counting Crows – Angels Of The Silences
Culture Club – Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?
Dashboard Confessional – Hands Down
David Bowie – Let’s Dance
Devo – Whip It
Don McLean – American Pie
Duffy – Warwick Avenue
Duran Duran – Rio
Evanescence – Bring Me To Life
Everclear – Santa Monica
Fall Out Boy – Sugar, We’re Going Down
Filter – Take A Picture
Finger Eleven – Paralyzer
The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Hilary Duff – So Yesterday
Hinder – Lips of An Angel
Jackson 5 – ABC
Janet Jackson – Black Cat
Jesse McCartney – Beautiful Soul
Joan Jett – Bad Reputation
Joss Stone – You Had Me
Katrina And The Waves – Walking On Sunshine
The Kooks – Naive
KT Tunstall – Black Horse & The Cherry Tree
The Last Goodnight – Pictures Of You
Lily Allen – Take What You Take
Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved
Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Impression That I Get
N.E.R.D. – Rockstar
Nelly Furtado – Turn Off The Light
No Doubt – Don’t Speak
No Doubt – Just A Girl
OK Go – A Million Ways
Papa Roach – Lifeline
Parachute – Back Again
Pat Benetar – Love is A Battlefield
Poison – Every Rose Has It Thorns
Robbie Williams & Kylie Minogue – Kids
The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Woman
Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman
Santigold – L.E.S. Aristes
Snow Patrol – Take Back The City
Spice Girls – Wannabe
Styx – Mr. Roboto
Taylor Swift – Picture To Burn
Taylor Swift – Love Story
Taylor Swift – You Belong With Me
Tonic – If You Could Only See
The Turtles – Happy Together
Village People – YMCA
Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue

Click through to see YouTube videos of any song, if you’re not familiar with it.

While I’m much more partial to the Lego Rock band setlist, I can’t deny that Band Hero has a whopping 20 more tracks, and there are some definite gems in there. It also uses the Guitar Hero 5 engine, which is a massive improvement over the Guitar Hero 4 (World Tour) engine, even the tweaked versions of it that appeared in Smash Hits and Metallica. Playing Guitar Hero 5 does not make me want to cut myself with my plastic instruments in quite the way that Guitar Hero World Tour did, so that’s … a plus.

Band Hero is scheduled for release November 3rd, which just so happens to be the date Amazon is telling me I’ll get Lego Rock Band as well. Coincidence? :)

September 7, 2009

Mad Catz Wireless Fender Stratocaster Review

Remember that Mad Catz full-size Stratocaster guitar controller? I couldn’t resist its siren call. I am now the embarrassedproud owner of my very own sunburst fake Stratocaster.

The first thing you need to know about the Mad Catz Rock Band Wireless Fender Stratocaster Replica is that IT IS ENORMOUS. It is made from an authentic Stratocaster body, so it is truly a 100% full size guitar. Those other guitars you thought were “authentically sized”? Not even close! See for yourself:

mad-catz-strat-size-comparison

That’s the Mad Catz Wireless Fender Stratocaster Replica next to the previously reviewed Logitech Wireless Guitar and the classic GH3 Les Paul guitar controller. (I didn’t show the GH5 / GH4 guitar, but it’d be a bit larger than the Les Paul.)

The Mad Catz Strat isn’t just full size, but full weight, too. It tips the scales at over 7 pounds with strap.

OK, yes, it’s huge and expensive, but it is also a thing of great beauty.

mad-catz-strat-full

It even comes with a Fender strap (the same one that’s included with the much cheaper Wireless Bass, but who’s counting.)

mad-catz-strat-body

Everything here is authentic — all metal bits and real knobs throughout. There’s even a connection port for the overdrive pedal (the guitar includes the necessary 1/4″ step-down adapter.)

All the standard Rock Band 2 guitar features are present and accounted for, including the effect switch. The strum is of the clicky variety, with the premium Mad Catz “2.5 million cycle” switches.

mad-catz-strat-body-solo-buttons

Flipping it over to the back, we can see the battery compartment (takes 3 AAs, included) and a back cutout. I was initially a little perturbed by the frankenstein-like patchwork on the back of the guitar, but even a real Strat has a similar (albeit smaller) back cutout, as you can see in this picture.

mad-catz-strat-body-back

The headstock, like the body, is from a real Strat guitar, so of course it includes real metal tuning pegs.

mad-catz-strat-headstock

mad-catz-strat-tuning-back

The only part of the guitar that’s plastic is the fretboard; the back of the neck is wood, but the front face is plastic. This is a Rock Band guitar, so the buttons (both solo and normal) are of the standard flat Rock Band variety.

mad-catz-strat-fret-buttons-close

mad-catz-strat-buttons

If you’re concerned about the strategic use of plastic in the fretboard, don’t be. It looks fantastic, and the faux wood effect with metal detailing is first rate. In fact, one of the things I didn’t like about the Logitech Wireless guitar was the odd (and visually jarring) melding of real wood and plastic in its fretboard. The Mad Catz Strat neatly sidesteps this problem by making the fretboard one seamless length of cleverly detailed plastic. The fret buttons themselves feel identical to those of any official Rock Band 2 guitar, with the same action, stop edges and tiny embossed finger position dots.

OK, so we’ve established that this is a guitar so handsome that it utterly blurs the line between fake plastic guitar and real guitar. But how does it play?

The first thing you need to decide is whether you prefer your fret buttons flat (Rock Band style) or embossed/raised (Guitar Hero style). If you love or hate a particular button style, this guitar, despite its awesomeness, will not change your mind. Yes, the “premium” strum mechanism is a bit stiffer and perhaps a bit clickier than a stock RB2 guitar, but it’s a Rock Band guitar through and through. It plays pretty much identically to any other Rock Band style guitar, except it’s substantially larger and heavier. So how much you like it will depend on how you feel about flat fret buttons.

Beyond that, this guitar is large. Did I mention that it’s large? Yes it is VERY LARGE! And HEAVY! I thought I was a fake plastic guitar tough guy, having played with my own custom weighted guitars, and the 6 pound Logitech Wireless guitar with no problems at all. But after playing my first 10 song set with the Mad Catz Strat, my shoulder was killing me. And that’s with a nice aftermarket guitar strap!

If you want a truly full size guitar, be prepared to pay the price in training in your body and shoulders to handle it. Given the size of the neck, you may also need to stretch to reach the fret buttons a bit more than you’re used to. It’s not a deal-breaker (for me at least), but it does take some time to get used to it. And that goes double if you’re a smaller guitarist!

The only real difficulty I had when playing with the Mad Catz strat is with the whammy bar. I guess this is an artifact of the real guitar component locations, but it’s ridiculously easy to hit the back and start knob with the whammy, and it takes some conscious planning to use the whammy without hitting any knobs. The whammy also hangs down much more freely than I’m used to with my other guitars, so it has to be wrangled a bit in use. Don’t get me wrong, overall the whammy works great, but you will have to adapt your whammy style to this particular guitar.

Is this guitar worth $299? If you absolutely love Rock Band style (flat face button) guitars, and you want an awesome looking and great playing full size axe, then absolutely. Well, assuming you’ve got $299 burning a hole in your pocket!

September 5, 2009

New Features of the Guitar Hero 5 Guitar

The Schecter-alike fake plastic axe introduced with Guitar Hero: World Tour was (and is!) one of my favorite fake plastic guitars, ever.

The Guitar Hero 5 guitar looks nearly identical to its older sibling — and it is identical in shape and size — but there are some key differences if you look closely.

(warning: I have received direct reports that the Guitar Hero 5 guitar package in Europe does not include the new, updated guitar model, but instead substitutes the same old World Tour guitar. If you’re in Europe, double check before buying!)

guitar-hero-guitars-gh5-vs-world-tour

Obviously, the faceplates are different. The GH5 faceplate offers a faux metallic red with white pickguard. It looks OK in static photos, but it does not look very good in person, in my opinion — it’s trying a bit too hard to be something it clearly isn’t. Plus, I have made my own real metallic faceplates and they look a zillion times cooler than this cheesy photoshop printing effect.

But that’s purely cosmetic, an issue of taste and preference, and anyway the faceplates are designed to be easily swapped out. Let’s move on to the real differences.

For one thing, the pegs on the headstock are now chrome!

gh5-guitar-chrome-pegs

I used a silver sharpie to achieve a similar chroming effect on my other guitars, but it doesn’t look nearly as good as the factory chrome effect. A nice detail touch.

The strumbar, star power button, and navigation control are all rubberized now. This is hard to show in photos, but immediately obvious when you handle the guitar. Notice how the area around the strumbar is very shiny while the strum itself is flat and matte — it’s rubberized!

gh5-guitar-strum-rubberized

Allow me to explain using the Xbox 360 controller as a point of reference: the old strumbar was hard smooth plastic like the controller triggers; the new strumber is rubberized plastic like the analog sticks.

The touchpad has gone from analog to digital, and now features embossed marks at each end and in the middle, so you can more easily “feel” where you are on the touchpad. The colored dots on top of the neck (cleverly printed on both side for lefties or righties) are also new, and way more logical than printing the colors on the surface of the touchpad where you can’t even seen them while playing!

gh5-guitar-digital-touchpad

While the jury’s still out on the overall usefulness of the touchpad in the big scheme of things, these changes definitely make it easier and more effective to use than the older model.

Beyond that, the guitar fret buttons look and feel unchanged. They are identical.

There is, however, one major change that isn’t visible from the outside — the internals of the strum have changed in a big way for the Guitar Hero 5 guitar.

The World Tour guitar had sophisticated leaf-switch activation, with two springs physically attached to the strum to provide centering force and resistance.


guitar-hero-world-tour-strum-springs

The Guitar Hero 5 guitar, on the other hand, has reverted to the classic, and much simpler, Les Paul switch mechanism. No springs, no fancy leaf switches, back to simple plastic digital switches exactly as in the GH3 Les Paul.

gh5-guitar-switches

(The above photo is from a Les Paul, because I forgot to take photos when I disassembled my GH5 guitar. Anyway, the GH5 switches are identical in shape, size and function except they are two physical parts instead of one.)

This is probably the most dramatic change to the GH5 guitar, and definitely changes the “feel” of the strum. How you react to this will depend how you feel about the Les Paul strum action versus the GH:WT guitar strum action. After spending some time with both models, I slightly prefer the smoother, frictionless action of the fancy spring-tensioned GH:WT strum — but I can see why people might want a basic digital switch strum, too.

Anyway, that’s probably way more detail than you ever needed. I can’t believe you even read this far!

At any rate, now you’re equipped to go forth and decide on the fake plastic guitar that best fits your play style.

September 4, 2009

Guitar Hero World Tour: PC / Mac Version

Now that Guitar Hero 5 has been released to very positive reviews, and it (mostly) imports the World Tour songs, I’d love to declare Guitar Hero: World Tour utterly obsolete.

But I can’t.

Guitar Hero: World Tour may indeed be old and busted on consoles, but it is by far the best version of the series on the PC! There have been three Guitar Hero computer releases to date:

  1. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock PC / Mac
  2. Guitar Hero Aerosmith PC / Mac
  3. Guitar Hero World Tour PC / Mac

Unfortunately, GH3 and GH:A were all but unplayable on the PC due to terrible, embarrassing performance. Even on a high end gaming rig, these games had extreme video and audio lag, which made getting a decent score or enjoying the game pretty much impossible. I owned both, and believe me, I tried everything — turning all the detail to minimum, resolution to the lowest possible setting, and exiting all background tasks before starting the game. Nothing worked! Barely playable. From everything I could tell, it was a fundamental problem with the way the games were ported from console PC. That’s … kind of a crippling flaw.

So when I booted up the PC version of Guitar Hero: World Tour I steeled myself for even more disappointment. Imagine my surprise when this game plays every bit as well as the Xbox 360 version! It’s almost indistinguishable, well, except for the near-instantaneous load times that only a PC can offer. :)

guitar-hero-world-tour-pc-screenshot

I tested the game extensively on guitar, playing through the entire campaign as a solo guitarist. I even trotted out my drums and handy-dandy Mad Catz M.I.C. for vocals.

The feel was so accurate and solid on vox, drums, and guitar that most of the time I forgot which version I was playing! That’s definitely a first for any PC version of Guitar Hero.

By the way, I highly recommend the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver — it lets me use all my wireless Xbox peripherals on my PC, no problem! (It should also work with the Mac since it’s basic USB.) I used this nifty little device to test the game with a variety of guitars and the World Tour wireless drums.

xbox-360-wireless-gaming-receiver-for-pc

No drivers required, just plug and play. Press the sync button on both devices and as they say, “it just works”.

One small problem I ran into with vocals: the game didn’t want to recognize any of my microphones. After some research, I found that the PC version of Guitar Hero: World Tour is hard-coded to look for a “Logitech USB Microphone” — literally. You’d expect it to accept whatever sound recording devices you have on your PC, but no. To get around that, I simply renamed my Mad Catz M.I.C. to “Logitech USB Microphone” in the sound device, recording tab, properties dialog, as pictured:

guitar-hero-world-tour-pc-microphone-rename

Goofy, but it works. Once I did that, I re-launched the game and I was able to start a vocalist career without the dreaded “please connect a microphone” alert.

I realize that any PC / Mac version of Guitar Hero is something of an oddity at best. It’s still fun and convenient for a quick jam session, though:

  • I’m always in front of my PC
  • the PC version of the game loads in no time at all
  • with a no-cd patch, it loads even faster
  • I have so many fake plastic guitars now, I just keep an extra one by my desk

… the PC version of the game ends up being the fastest possible way to jump in and practice a song when I have a few extra minutes. Or if you’re travelling with your laptop, in a pinch, you could even play a few songs with the keyboard. Heck, just because you can. Why not? Fake plastic rock knows no boundaries!

Being a PC release, there’s also the possibility of user-created mods: hacked songs, now with a full band, and actually playable this time around. The GHWT PC mod scene is still fairly new, but I expect in time you’ll be able to, uh, “import” every song from every Guitar Hero game ever made into this version.

Anyway, World Tour is the first respectable version of any Guitar Hero on the PC to date. Kudos to Aspyr for finally getting this right, and here’s hoping that the much better Guitar Hero 5 will eventually be ported to PC as well.

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