'Guitar Hero' mobile: New look, new sound, drums!

The latest mobile Guitar Hero game pulls up a seat for drummers, head-to-head showdowns, and more. See what we think.

When you've got a game as compelling and competitive as Guitar Hero World Tour, you get it on as many platforms as you can as fast as you can, including the mobile phone. On Thursday, the mobile version of Guitar Hero World Tour became available on AT&T phones. We got to try it out.

On the PlayStation, Wii, and Xbox, this fourth Guitar Hero installment counters Rock Band's drum and vocal tracks, which themselves had one-upped Guitar Hero's original stringed instrument. Vocals aren't practical for the mobile version--which still rocks, by the way--but a drum track is. Activision and game-maker Hands-On Mobile have introduced a drum choice for every song.

There's a lot more news here--the updated game, which has a new look and two fresh game-playing features (can you say "battle mode"?). There are also technical details that could make a difference to how the game looks and sounds on your individual phone. Finally, there's all the practical stuff about when your carrier will stock the game and how much it'll cost you. Let's take one at a time.

Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile large

Note the new purple drum line you have to think about while you play.

(Credit: Hands-On Mobile)

Gameplay

Anyone who has played Guitar Hero III Mobile (video review) will feel right at home with Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile, which begins with fifteen new songs for guitar and drums, and which uses the phone's keypad buttons instead of guitar frets. When it comes to customization, you drummers out there are an afterthought--guitarists can choose their instrument, but not you. Also, when you're playing drums, the bottom row of keys (7, 8, 9) stand in for the kick-drum, which is represented in the game by a horizontal purple line that floats at you along with the notes. I played several songs in the drummer's mode, where the kick-drum line helped keep the game interesting.

Also new to the mobile game is the multiplayer battle mode, where Hands-On Mobile has created a good way to pair you up with similar players all over the world. You'll be matched by skill level and by phone type (more on this below.) You'll divvy up picking a song and the instrument, and will have to use your star power strategically (called battle power in this mode) to keep your opponent from scoring. After playing, it'll be easy to track your score from the accompanying Web site (launching Friday). This is neat, but what if you want to play your friend? You should be able to duke it out with personal pals as well as with perfect strangers.

Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile is a fun game to play; at two minutes per song, it's also well-suited for playing in-between other activities. This World Tour version sports a darker look and more updated graphics, but for some reason, Hands-On Mobile has opted for tiny, ornate--even arcane--font that might be favored by the Black Sabbath crowd, but which frankly is uncomfortable to read on a tiny screen. Judy and Axel are also mini. The avatars' small statures may help the characters render better (or make you notice wonky animation less,) but if they're part of the draw, then I want to be able to look my singing, head-banging avatar right in the rock 'n' roll eyes.

Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile actual

The photo won't do it justice, but you get the idea.

(Credit: CNET)

Technical details

Sound quality on Java (J2ME) phones was the number-one complaint of the first mobile Guitar Hero. In World Tour, Hands-On Mobile has improved the audio for Java phones, bringing it up to the MP3 quality of other platforms.

The graphics have also improved. BREW and Windows Mobile users get 3D graphics, while animation for the J2ME phones has gotten smoother since the last version. It's still not as good as most console games, but considering how much action is crammed onto a roughly 2-to-3-inch screen, it's pretty impressive. The graphical quality will also depend on each individual handset. Higher-end Sony Ericsson phones will give you a richer experience than Motorola V3 RAZRS, for instance.

Handsets make a difference in the visual experience, but also when it comes to playing the game and matching up players for battle mode. Those high-end phones will support multiple key presses, which add an element of difficulty if you need to press two keys at once to play a chord. Phones that don't have that capability get a different pattern of notes that excludes mutli-pressing. To keep things fair, you won't battle anyone with a different key press philosophy than yours.

Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile, splash screen

This lettering is close to actual size. Why so small and thorny, guys?

(Credit: CNET)

Practical stuff

AT&T is the first carrier to get Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile, but by the end of November the game will also be available on Sprint (11/17), Verizon (11/25),and shortly after that on T-Mobile, Alltel, and USCC. The game will work on Java and BREW phones this month, BlackBerry phones next month, followed by Windows Mobile and Google Android.

Fickle gamers and fence-sitters can subscribe for about $4 to $4.50 per month, but the better news for longer-term cell phone gamers is the $10 to $11.50 it takes to get a lifetime license. It's steeper than many cell phone games, but it also includes on new song title per month for both payment plans. You'll be able to buy additional premium songs if you're on AT&T or Sprint.

Easy to pick up and (mostly) easy on the eye, Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile is as equally suited to casual gamers as it is to fans of the console games looking for a quick guitar-licking or drum-pounding fix before they can make it back to their plastic instruments.

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