With Rock Bands wild success last year it was inevitable that the game that put the music gaming experience on the map would have to reply in spades. Activision and Red Octane’s latest addition to the Guitar Hero franchise, Guitar Hero World Tour, ups the ante in the music gaming experience. Is it possible to outshine the folks at Harmonix and produce something that’s better then the Rock Band experience? Will gamers want to spend another $180 to rock out? Unfortunately I can’t answer that second question, because this review will focus mainly on the game and not the bundle.

World Tour is available either in a bundle that includes the game, a microphone, drums and wireless guitar or just the game itself. It’s compatible with the Rock Band and Rock Band 2 instruments so you might be interested in saving a few dollars if you already own one of those games and just buy the World Tour game itself. The drums feature three drum pads and two cymbals, an added feature over its Rock Band cousin. They’re also slightly quieter than the Rock Band drum kits. The microphone is your standard mic with nothing notable about it. Lastly, the guitar is superior to its Guitar Hero predecessors, with tighter strumming and better responsiveness. There’s a touch-sensitive strip further up the neck to let your slide or tap out notes with your fingers without having to hit the strum bar during specific sections. Overall, Activision did a fine job with the instruments. Now let’s focus on the game itself.

Guitar Hero World Tour’s Career Mode allows you to play as a full four-piece band with guitar, drums, bass and vocals or with any combination of available instruments. You can even go solo if you’d like. Group play is almost exactly the same as in Rock Band. The only substantive difference in full-band play is that Star Power goes into a group pool that can be siphoned off in small chunks by individual players seeking to boost their score. Another noticeable difference is that if anyone fails you’re forced to restart the song from the beginning, instead of rescuing them. Play is available locally or online, so if you have friends in other areas you can form your band and have each member in different locations.

When creating the band you can choose one of the pre-existing characters, or create one of your own. Each member of the band can have their own individual look, or you can have them all resemble each other ala Devo. As the game progresses you can also unlock characters that are available for use, such as Ozzy Osbourne, Zakk Wylde, Sting, Travis Barker and more.

Gameplay wise, World Tour still follows the same formula of unlocking one tier of songs after another to plow through each venue. Songs don’t repeat each other in each venue so you won’t go through the game playing a song five times before you finish, unlike the Rock Band franchise. You’re able to create a playlist, so you will be playing a song a second time but that’s only if you choose to do so. You’re not required to create a playlist. A nice feature when playing in career mode is the ability to adjust the difficulty on the fly, allowing those new to the game to ratchet down the difficulty they might find themselves in. You’re also able to tweak the sound levels of individual instrument tracks, allowing your instrument to overpower all others. Lastly, is the pause feature. When pausing the game during a song you’ve always had to return to the song immediately playing and in turn losing valuable points. Now World Tour gives you a four second timer, allowing you to get ready and make sure everything is set before starting back into the song.

The song selection interface is simple and efficient. You can’t pick and choose what songs to play in a set, instead you’re forced to play through the entire playlist. While it might seem unfair, it prevents you from skipping through songs by the many lesser known bands. You’ll be glad you got to hear some of the lesser known songs because there are some gems in there. Red Octane did a great job with the music selection, giving us a great sampling of genres and a good mix between big name artists and indie bands. I had a great time playing songs from System of a Down, Tool, Blondie, the Steve Miller Band, the Doors, Smashing Pumpkins and tons more. Thankfully, all of the 86 songs in the game are master recordings and the downloadable content will also continue to expand the immense number of songs available.

One of the best new features to World Tour is the highly touted, built-in music creator and editing program. While it may look complex, after playing around with it a bit it can become easy to use to create custom songs. You’re able to create and share your songs with all Guitar Hero World Tour players, with a special section in the downloadable content section. I’m particularly fond of the Super Mario Brothers theme that’s available. The quality of your creations won’t be excellent, but they will do quite well. One can only look forward to the enhancements Red Octane has in store for this feature.

Overall, Guitar Hero World Tour has upped the ante in the music gaming community. Innovative features and a rich sound editor have actually placed this game above Rock Band 2 for my money. It’s a challenging, rewarding experience that you’ll enjoy solo or within a group.