There's a war going on out there, and it's being fought with wireless battery-operated guitars: it's a battle for the hearts of wannabe rock stars. Earlier this year Harmonix's Rock Band took the upper hand, surpassing the Guitar Hero series with some sleek and sexy presentation, a more forgiving learning curve and a killer set of peripherals. Now it's time for Guitar Hero to stage its comeback, and with Rock Band 2 strutting about on the horizon, the stakes have never been higher.
Of course, this kind of rivalry has always been a part of the music industry - think Oasis versus Blur, Biggie versus Tupac, Steps versus S Club 7. It's debatable whether stiff competition helped those guys (it certainly ended badly for the rappers) but when it comes to video games, the consumer is the winner. Neither Harmonix nor Neversoft can afford to alienate all those people who've bought their previous games and peripherals; rather than dramatically reworking the established gameplay, they're forced to polish up what's already there and to focus on providing new, innovative features. In the case of Guitar Hero World Tour, this situation has resulted in what is easily the most enjoyable rock-em-up we've ever played.
So, what has Neversoft done so well? For a start, it's wisely followed its rival in expanding the variety of instruments available to you, the wannabe rock icon. If you're not in the mood to play lead or bass guitar, you can now sing into a USB microphone or hammer along on the drums. If you've already got the Rock Band drum kit you'll be able to use that, but if you don't then you should seriously consider looking at World Tour's new wireless set. It's an altogether sturdier and better-designed piece of kit, with three drum pads, a kick pedal and two raised high hats. Not only is this layout more realistic and easier to use, but the actual pads themselves are pressure sensitive - producing a sound that corresponds to the amount of force you use. They feel more solid and more satisfying to hit, plus they're far less prone to making the loud 'clacking' noises that occur when using the Harmonix version. Your neighbours will no doubt be grateful for this improvement, though they'll still have to suffer the noise of your cat-like wailing as you murder your way through Living On a Prayer.
While the new drum kit is clearly the star of the show as far as peripherals go, this year's guitars are also really rather swanky. For a start they're bigger and feel a bit weightier, while the strum bar has been made longer and easier to get at. Like the drums, the guitars now feature a pressure sensitive pad, located further down the neck from the standard buttons; this can be used as an alternative to the standard keys, or to trigger effects in the new studio mode - something we'll cover later. Finally, there's a new button near the strum bar which allows you to trigger star power (a kind of bonus scoring mode) without changing your stance - although old-school players can still just raise the neck of their instruments, as in the previous games.
All in all, the new gear is excellent. We're sure that's not the news a lot of you wanted to hear, since it might persuade you to fork out more of your hard-earned cash - but the truth is that if you want to stick to the kit you've already got, that'll be fine. You'll be able to get World Tour on its own or with just a guitar if you're not fussed about the new toys; if you do want the full meat n' two veg, it should cost you around £180 in the shops - or £150 if you pre-order. Some retailers are lobbing in a free bass guitar to people who do this, so it's worth seeking one of these offers out if you're thinking of going the whole hog.
Without further ado, let's get back to why you'd want to get World Tour in the first place. The core gameplay remains largely untouched: you pick an instrument and a song, then play along as you watch notes slide down a scrolling vertical track. Hit the notes in time and you'll knock out a pitch-perfect rendition of the tune; mess things up and your instrument will cut out - incurring the wrath of your audience. This basic system will be familiar to pretty much everyone by now, but for absolute newcomers there's now a beginner difficulty level where notes don't matter at all and all you have to do is strum in time. We can't imagine many of you will be need to use this, but it's nice to know it's there all the same: it means that you can jam away like Hendrix on the expert setting, while your gran supports you on bass. Good for Boxing Day, n'est-ce pas?