As one historic duel — the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain — ends, another is heating up.

The stakes are high: nothing less than the soul of rock 'n roll. The competition is fierce.

And you will decide — with your wallet.

In one corner is "Guitar Hero," the franchise that revolutionized the rhythm-game genre in 2005.

In the other corner is upstart "Rock Band," which rewrote the rules last year by adding drums and vocals to the mix.

Several third-party candidates are waiting backstage, hoping that one of the two major contenders hits a false note.

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Unlike the presidential election, however, this isn't a zero-sum game. I suspect many virtual rockers, especially those with deep pockets, will buy as many editions of both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" as their publishers dare to release.

Each game has its strong and weak points, however, so if you're on a tighter budget, read on. (The prices here are for software only; guitars, drums and microphones cost extra.)

—"Guitar Hero World Tour" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Wii, PlayStation 2, $49.99): "Guitar Hero" may be the sales leader in this category, but when its developer, Harmonix, went off to create "Rock Band," many fans defected too.

"World Tour" plays catch-up by adding, yes, drums and vocals, but also includes a music studio that lets players create their own tunes.

Most "GH" veterans will never crack open the music studio, and they won't be missing much: It manages the neat trick of being both simplistic and awkward, and the results won't get you onto the cover of Rolling Stone.

I did prefer the "World Tour" drum kit, which has one more pad than the kit for "Rock Band" and feels more sturdy and realistic.

"World Tour" stumbles, though, in recreating a full band experience. The menus to set up a band are confusing, and while you're playing it's nearly impossible to keep track of how your bandmates are doing.

And unlike in "Rock Band," there's nothing you can do to bail out a friend who's struggling. The tour mode itself is really just a series of set lists, without the clever role-playing elements that make "Rock Band" so addictive.

Still, "Guitar Hero" remains an enormously entertaining social game. It has a nicely varied library of songs ("Beat It," "On the Road Again," and even some foreign-language tunes) that will undoubtedly grow.

Activision and its Neversoft studio have a few kinks to work out, but that shouldn't stop rock fans from taking this tour. Three stars out of four.

—"Rock Band 2" (MTV Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Wii, PlayStation 2, $49.99): When Harmonix unleashed "Rock Band" in 2007, it was already pretty awesome.

"Rock Band 2" is more evolutionary than revolutionary, addressing most of the complaints about the original and adding some very welcome online features.

For starters, that addictive tour mode I mentioned before is now available for solo players, so you don't have to wait for your friends to come over to enjoy it.

You can also now form a band with friends online, and you can compete in "Battle of the Bands" events, which present new challenges just about every day.

The major advantage "Rock Band 2" has, though, is its enormous collection of songs. It comes with 84 tracks, and you can transfer most of the songs from the original "RB" onto your "RB2" playlist.

Add all the tracks that Harmonix has posted online over the last year, and you have about 400 tunes to choose from. That's enough to make even the surliest rock snob happy. Four stars.

—"Rock Revolution" (Konami, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $49.99): For a long time, Konami was the undisputed king of rhythm games, thanks to "Dance Dance Revolution" and "Karaoke Revolution."

But it missed out on the whole plastic-guitar craze, and "Rock Revolution" is a half-hearted attempt to get a piece of the action.

It only has about half as many tunes as the other games reviewed here, and they're all covers rather than the original-artist performances we've come to expect.

It adds yet another pad to the drum kit, but the onscreen notes don't match the pad layout. And the overall presentation is so bland that you never get the illusion of being a genuine rock god.

Five years ago, "Rock Revolution" might have blown our minds. Today, Konami needs to step up its game if it wants to get back on the charts. Two stars.