Drumming in Rock Band 2 versus Guitar Hero: World Tour

24th June 2009 – 5.30 pm

The playing of fake plastic instruments has quite captured my attention, at least in the form of fake plastic drums, because I find drumming to be a whole lot of fun. The drum kit that comes with Guitar Hero: World Tour is not far removed from an electronic drum kit, albeit only in strict association with the gaming software. Without the Guitar Hero game the drum kit is nothing more than a set of pads. I suppose that isn't entirely true, for the main reason I bought the game for the Xbox 360 console is because the kit is also compatible with similar fake plastic instrument game Rock Band 2. It would be the height of folly then not to purchase the other game, for additional faux-rocking entertainment, particularly as I wouldn't need to buy another set of instruments.

I chose Guitar Hero: World Tour as my initial set-up partly because I was familiar with the game, thanks to rock machine Zoso, and partly because the layout of the Guitar Hero drum kit seems to be more authentic to a real kit. A claim to authenticity is perhaps a little audacious for fake plastic instruments but the Guitar Hero drum kit has three drum pads, two cymbals and a kick pedal, which I thought surely must compare favourably to Rock Band 2's four drum pads, kick pedal and rather obvious lack of cymbals. Even so, the featured songs of Rock Band 2 look to appeal to me more and surely one fake plastic instrument game is little different from another, so I pick up the Rock Band game to try it out.

I have to say, it's quite surprising what a lack of cymbal pads, or their presence, can do for a drumming game. Ignoring the common kick pedal from here on, with only four drum pads to represent all the sounds of drum kits of rock, metal and pop bands plenty of context-sensitivity is required. The yellow, blue and green pads in Rock Band 2 can represent a hi-hat, crash, or ride cymbal, and any of the toms, with the red pad being the snare. Whilst this still promotes a certain degree of coordination and rhythm, in order to hit the right pad at the right time, knowing the song well doesn't guarantee that playing the song in the game will be easier.

It isn't possible to aim for one cymbal or other in Rock Band 2 when knowledge of the song indicates a cymbal is to be played, because that cymbal note could be played on any one of the yellow, blue or green pads. That the cymbal beats can be played anywhere might not be such an issue if they weren't by necessity intermingled with the drums, so that any particular score might be forced to play the same cymbal sound on different pads if only so that you don't strike the same pad several times in a row only to produce entirely different sounds. So knowing the songs themselves doesn't help with playing the drum track in Rock Band 2, only memorising the pattern of colours scrolling down the screen will improve performance, excepting attaining excellent drumming and sight-reading skills.

Even after memorising the scrolling patterns and gaining advanced rhythm techniques Rock Band 2 feels much less like drumming than Guitar Hero: World Tour and more like Dance Dance Revolution played with sticks, precisely because there is less emphasis on learning drum and cymbal beats and more on hitting the right pad at the right time. With the pads being so reliant on context there cannot be as much awareness of stick-crossing or maintaining a continuous beat after striking a cymbal in Rock Band 2 because there is no difference between hitting a drum and hitting a cymbal. It even feels the same.

In comparison, the drum kit with Guitar Hero: World Tour is far superior in set-up. The same issue of context-sensitive pads arises but in a much more limited form. The red pad is the snare, the blue and green the toms, and the yellow and orange the cymbals, where the high, medium and low toms, hi-hat, crash and ride cymbals can be played on a variety of the pads. However, the yellow and orange pads are always cymbals, and the red, blue and green always the drums.

Not only is the context-sensitivity much more clearly defined but the physical structure of the Guitar Hero: World Tour pads also makes a significant difference. The drum pads are, I assume, similar in both games, but the specific cymbal pads are a solid chunk of rubber that presents a more rigid surface to be struck. In effect, hitting a cymbal is a different experience than hitting a drum pad in Guitar Hero: World Tour, one that helps provide the more authentic drumming feel sadly lacking in Rock Band 2. Having the cymbal pads raised above the drum pads, requiring more relative movement and spatial awareness.

There are additional cymbal packs that can be bought to augment the Rock Band drum kit and although these will definitely help with the feel of drumming in the game I imagine they rely quite heavily with learning the songs, as the cymbal pads share the same pad-space as the existing pads. A green note to be struck in a song could still be a tom or a cymbal, and both the green cymbal pad and green drum pad will register a correct hit for the note, thus the cymbals can only be played definitively when the song is known fairly intimately coupled with good skills to switch between the pads.

Hitting a quick fill that ends with a cymbal crash is a far superior experience in Guitar Hero, bouncing fluidly off a few drum pads before reaching up to finish on a thick cymbal hit, against the comparatively bland and homogenous Rock Band equivalent played entirely on similar-feeling drum pads. As a means to practice coordination and limb separation both games provide roughly similar tools, but Guitar Hero: World Tour goes much further in making you feel like a drumming legend in your own living room.

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