On Tour never feels like you're playing guitar, but it occasionally feels like you're playing Guitar Hero.
Would Guitar Hero be as much fun without the guitar controller? Guitar Hero: On Tour definitively settles this question—and the answer is negative. Not only does the DS interface break the fantasy of playing guitar, but the retrofitted controls don't work well with the gameplay. Maybe it says a lot about the Guitar Hero formula that On Tour is still fun to play despite these serious issues.
The game's reliance on the touch screen for multiple functions proves to be its biggest problem. Strumming just doesn’t feel right without any tactile feedback, and the strumming recognition is nebulous and inconsistent. Guitar Hero players who normally use an up-down rhythm will have the most trouble, as strumming works best if you lift the stylus after every strum. The uni-directional strum simulates the "bass guitar" style on the normal Guitar Hero controllers, which is difficult to perform quickly for fast chords or tremolo, as is often required on Hard and Expert. The whammy effect is easy to use, but you have to be careful to quit warbling before the next note comes up, since there's no physical difference between strumming and using whammy. Also, it's very easy to accidentally use star power on the touch screen. More customization, like being able to turn off star power touch activation, would help. At least you can turn off the microphone activation of star power, which came in handy when I was riding the bus and the ambient noise set off my star power every time the meter filled up to the minimum level.
The fret buttons are a bit small and too mushy. I found it most comfortable to play without the strap, but there is no way to remove it completely (short of scissors). It's tricky to hold the system, press the buttons, strum on the touch screen, and keep the other screen in view all at the same time; this problem is mostly alleviated by resting the DS (and your fretting hand) against something sturdy, like a table. Overall, the Guitar Grip works quite well and feels pretty close to the fret buttons on the guitar controllers.
The biggest difference is the lack of a fifth button. This has the obvious effect of simplifying solos and taking certain chords out of the equation. On a more subtle level, it removes a large part of Guitar Hero's strategy by ensuring that you never need to shift your hand. Considering that you have to hold the entire system with that hand, it's an understandable design choice, but it also removes a lot of the challenge for fans who like to play on Hard and Expert. On Tour overcompensates for the missing fret by making the note charts ridiculously complex at the higher difficulty levels, and the huge piles of notes don't jive well with the strumming problems mentioned earlier.
The quality of a music game's track selections is very subjective, so check the list and decide for yourself. What I can say objectively is that the track list is only 25 songs (plus one bonus) and reuses several songs from Guitar Hero III. Some of the pop songs are not as offensive as you might think, but that doesn't make them good guitar showcases. I can admit to enjoying Maroon 5's "This Love", but it seems out of place next to Kiss and Santana. "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" is a good example of a modern song that is actually appropriate for a guitar game. It's quite disappointing that 20% of the tracks are repeats from the previous game. At least "Pride and Joy" has been upgraded to a master track; the cover version in GH3 was atrocious. The repeated tracks also highlight the interface and playability problems, as I found myself getting three stars on songs where I can easily score five stars in Guitar Hero III. Some of the new tracks like "Heaven" and "Jet Airliner" are so good that I found myself wishing I could play them with a proper guitar controller.
Guitar battles return from the previous game, but they are much improved here. The goal is not to force your opponent to fail, but simply to perform better. The mode is set up like a tug-of-war, and as long as the momentum meter is on your side by the end of the song, you win the duel. Also improved are the attacks, which are more varied and more interesting than the smaller set used in Guitar Hero III. The touch screen allows you to store up attacks and deploy them at will, but this means you have to stop strumming for a split second to launch attacks, which can lead to missed notes. On Tour provides a separate Career mode consisting entirely of guitar battles, which is a nice feature for players who want to keep progressing beyond the standard mode. You can also duel wirelessly with another player who has a copy of the game, but the lack of online play is odd considering Vicarious Visions' expertise on the system.
On Tour's best asset is its presentation, which enforces the illusion that you're playing Guitar Hero. The note track looks identical to that in the console versions, and the 3D character graphics are almost as good as what we've seen on the PS2 and Wii so far. The sound quality is crisp, and the vocals are neither muffled nor distorted. On the downside, there's not nearly enough bass in the sound mix, even with high quality headphones. This makes it harder to keep the rhythm, which translates directly into your performance. Finally, I have to point out that menu design is consistently bad throughout the Guitar Hero series. Why do I have to click through seven or eight levels of menus to play the next song in Career mode? On Tour doesn't even remember which difficulty level you played last or your initials for high scores.
These annoyances are minor compared to the janky strumming and occasionally uncomfortable Guitar Grip. The truncated track list is disappointing regardless of your musical preferences, but this point may be forgivable considering that On Tour is portable and about half the price of a console Guitar Hero with controller. This game is ultimately an interesting experiment that can be a lot of fun in short bursts, so in that respect, it actually works on the DS. I would recommend it for casual fans of the series and younger players who may be less demanding. More advanced players who enjoy Guitar Hero on the Hard and Expert settings will likely be frustrated with an interface that breaks their note streaks and activates star power at inopportune moments.