Contrary to the number besides its name, Rock Band 2 is not much of a sequel. At best the game is nothing more than Rock Band 1.5, only going as far as to fix some of the problems people had with the first iteration and adding a bunch of new songs. So if this is the case then why on earth am I about to tell you to pick up Harmonix's newest masterpiece? If this is nothing more than a slight update to the first game then why would I be so willing to give it such a high score? I guess you're going to have to take a break from the drugs, sex, rock n roll and trashing the hotel room long enough to read this conflicted review of Rock Band 2.
If you've never heard of Guitar Hero or Rock Band and have no idea what I'm talking about when I say fake plastic instruments, then I suggest you quickly <a href="http://www.defunctgames.com/shows.php?id=courant-160" target="blank_"><b>read through my review of last year's Rock Band</b></a>. There you will learn about the game's three instruments (the guitar, drums and microphone) and their quality. This review is not intended to look at the brand new equipment, mostly because as of this writing the only way to buy this game is to pick up the $60 disc.
Those of you who played the first Rock Band already know what to expect from this "sequel." It really is more of the same - more songs (84 to be exact), more band challenges and more online support. In effect, Rock Band 2 is everything you've been wanted Harmonix to fix for the last ten months ... only instead of being a free download, it's now a $60 game. The good news is that Harmonix goes out of its way to address all of the biggest problems, even going as far as to add a few new functions that nobody knew they wanted. The result is the most complete and exciting music game of all time, a high water mark that is only marred by the fact that it's not very innovative.
As you would probably expect, the interface in Rock Band 2 has been cleaned up. Gone are the needlessly complicated menus. Gone are the difficulties making characters so that all of your friends can play in one band. Gone are the redundant modes that made little to no sense. All of that has been replaced with a sleek interface that is easy to navigate and understand.
Wait ... what are we doing talking about the game's interface? This is rock n roll; nobody wants to hear about how easy the menus are to navigate. People want to hear about the music! There's no doubt that when it comes to the music, Rock Band 2 delivers. With 84 songs (and another 20 free songs that will be available before year's end), Rock Band 2 definitely has a great line-up of songs. And it's diverse, too. We get classic rockers like Fleetwood Mac ("Go Your Own Way"), AC/DC ("Let There Be Rock"), and Bob Dylan ("Tangled Up in Blue"). We have big haired rockers of the eights, including Ratt ("Round and Round") and Bon Jovi ("Livin' on a Prayer"). We have a solid set of college radio chart toppers, such as Sonic Youth ("Teen Age Riot"), Nirvana ("Drain You") and L7 ("Pretend That We're Dead"). And that's just scratching the surface, the game is jam packed with dozens of artists you'll recognize from all decades and genres. This track list is absolutely massive, a real sight to behold.
With so many songs it is easy for Harmonix to offer a little something for everybody. And not just when it comes to musical tastes, it also allows them to program both easy and hard songs to play on your fake plastic instruments. Unfortunately this means that long time Rock Band users will have to put up with a number of excruciatingly easy songs before getting to the real tricky stuff. On the other hand, Harmonix has addressed the complaints about the easy difficulty of the first game by offering a handful of songs that will require real skills to beat. All in all there's a nice range of difficulties, giving players of all skill levels enough tracks to feel like a real rock star.
Best of all, it's not just new songs that populate Rock Band 2. In an unprecedented move, Harmonix is allowing Rock Band 2 users to import 55 of the songs from Rock Band 1 (for the low, low price of $5). This means that from the get-go you will have 139 songs, and that's not even including the 20 free songs that are promised before year's end. And that's not it; Rock Band 2 supports every single song you bought for Rock Band 1. That means that by the end of the year there will be some 500 songs available for Rock Band 2. After adding my Rock Band 1 and downloaded songs to the 84 new tracks I had a grand total of 223 songs to play, four times the amount of songs found in the first Rock Band game.
The reason all this is important is because of the World Tour mode. Those that played the original game will certainly remember World Tour, it's the mode that allows you and your band to go from city to city playing different challenges, earning money and winning over new fans. When I reviewed the first Rock Band I called it the "most compelling additions to the music game genre." Although the tour remains largely unchanged, I still stand by my statement that this is the best part of the Rock Band series. It's one thing to play through a few songs in a boring list, but it's something completely different when you are trying to earn money and win fans. Throw in the cool challenges and you have a story mode that is almost as compelling as most action/adventure games.
When you're on the world tour you'll be playing (and earning) the game's new songs, playing set gigs, traveling around the world, hiring (and firing) staff members, earning planes and busses and so much more. Best of all, you can use your entire track list when touring around the world. That means that when you have to play three random songs at some dive bar in Seattle, Washington, you'll have a good chance of getting your downloaded content, Rock Band 1 songs or something new from Rock Band 2. Last year I complained that the world tour mode felt confined because there were only 58 tracks, but with 223 songs in my library this mode felt alive and exciting. Depending on how many songs you have you can go for quite awhile without having to repeat songs.
And did I mention that this mode is finally open to single-players who don't have any friends to rock with? While Rock Band is best played with other people, Harmonix has done a lot to make the game more accessible for those who can't get the whole band together. As somebody who finds himself rocking all by his lonesome, this single-player content is enough to win me over.
Gone is the standard single-player mode, so don't go into this game expecting to just go through each song on some boring list. Instead you get an unusual, but ultimately worthwhile, challenge mode. Oddly enough, these challenges actually feel a lot like the standard single-player mode, only they seem a bit more specific this time around. At first you'll simply be playing instrument-based challenges. You'll start out with easy guitar songs, which will have you playing three or four of the easiest songs in the game. Once you've beaten those they'll upgrade you until you finally get to the five or six hardest songs in the game. You can do this with all the instruments, including the bass (another first).
However, there is more to it than just giving you progressively harder songs to play; they also have specific challenges that are based on the songs you own. For example, if you own all of the Pixies Doolittle album (which is currently available via the in-game music store) you will be given a challenge to play through all 15 of the album's songs. Another challenge may have you playing all of the Beastie Boys songs, or every song you own from the Smashing Pumpkins. Some challenges are giving you the best known karaoke hits. There are more than a hundred challenges in all. The fact that the game is able to work in your downloaded content so seamlessly is impressive, it's rare to see extra content added into the sequel so effortlessly.
Speaking of challenges, Rock Band 2 also gives you the Battle of the Bands mode. This mode is not too dissimilar from the standard challenges; however they are generated by Rock Band HQ and constantly changing. The other big difference is that these challenges have you going up against other bands, both people on your friends list and those who you've never met. The concept is simple, the game will give you a challenge you have to complete. Once you've done that it will show you how you stacked up against your friends. If you aren't in first place this gives you the incentive to go back through the requested songs and get a higher score (or star count). If you know a lot of people who have Rock Band 2 this mode can become extremely competitive, especially when you realize that the game stores your past wins and losses.
At first this mode felt gimmicky; however I was quickly won over as I realized how good some of my friends were. Even in the short amount of time that the game's been out there have already been well over a dozen challenges, including stuff for guitarists, vocalists, drummers and entire bands. Some of it is inspired by the recent DLC, while other challenges just pick three or four random songs. Assuming Rock Band can keep up with the daily updates I can see this being a real big mode that keeps people coming back every day. I can see myself checking in every day to post my top score and see how my friends do, even if it's no more than 15 minutes a day.
All of these modes can be enjoyed by yourself or with friends, both online and off. That's right, finally you have the freedom to play through the world tour online, or mix and match as you choose. It's almost scary how easy it is to start a band and make sure everybody is where they need to be, Harmonix has definitely learned a few things since the release of the first game.
Outside of the modes and online component, there really haven't been many changes to the core gameplay. You still play the game exactly the same as you did in the first Rock Band, which is fine if you're the type of person addicted to the fake plastic instrument genre of music games. There are a few minor tweaks to the guitar and drums this time around, but they aren't significant enough to spend time going over. This is one of the few games where you know exactly what to expect going in.
The same can be said for the graphics. While Harmonix has added new video effects and cooler characters, the overall look is unchanged from the first game. The truth is that you would be hard pressed to figure out which game is which if you only looked at a screen shot, the two games are that similar looking. Considering that this game has a "2" in the title, the lack of graphic upgrades is a little disappointing. Then again, you hardly pay attention to what's going down onstage when you're playing an instrument.
Rock Band 2 is a predictable and safe sequel, the kind of game that you expect to be released ten months after the first game. That's not a bad thing, per se, but it would have been nice to see a little more innovation added to this sequel. Perhaps now that they have the basics fixed Harmonix will work on the bigger stuff, such as creating an entirely new game experience that is as revolutionary as the first game. Either way, it's hard to complain about a game that fixes every problem you could have possibly had, offers you hundreds of songs from day one and allows you to do all this online. Rock Band 2 isn't a perfect game, but it's definitely one of the most addictive games of the year. Fans of the first Rock Band would be insane to pass up all of the benefits of having this sequel.
Harmonix plays it safe with this Rock Band sequel, but that shouldn't keep you from rocking out. With more than 80 songs, deep single and multiplayer modes, and some amazing online challenges, Rock Band 2 remains the best fake plastic instrument game on the planet. It's not perfect, but Rock Band 2 is definitely a must-buy for anybody who ever wanted to be a rock star!