They say that good things come in small packages. They lie. Rock Band proves without a shadow of a doubt that size really matters. From the moment you take a look at Rock Band's massive box (measuring at one foot tall and around two and a half feet long) you know that you're getting something important. You know that you're getting something substantial; something that is going to change your life. And it better, at $170 this Xbox 360 game doesn't come cheap. But if you can get over the larger than normal price tag you'll find that Rock Band is easily one of the best games of the year and a phenomenal multiplayer experience.
In essence Rock Band is the combination of everything Harmonix Music Systems has worked up to this point. Like Guitar Hero, Rock Band offers you control over the lead guitar or a bass guitar. Like Karaoke Revolution, Rock Band gives you a microphone and wants you to sing us a song. And even the drumming mechanic (which is the game's biggest innovation) often feels like a slightly altered version of Amplitude. As individual games these titles were amazing, so you can only imagine how much better they are when you put them all together and tie them into the most compelling storyline since PaRappa the Rapper. It's official, Rock Band rocks!
After you've ogled the large box (and its pretty pictures), I think it's about time we open up this package and see what we're in store for. Right off the bat the game comes with a fake plastic guitar, this time modeled off of the popular Fender Stratocaster. The guitar is a little larger than what RedOctane and Activision are giving out in Guitar Hero III, and there are a few more knobs and buttons on this Rock Band guitar. There are also five more buttons you can push down. These buttons are located right next to the body of the guitar (where you strum) and are specifically made for solos. You don't have to move your entire hand down to these smaller frets, but if you do you will be able to hit the notes without strumming. Unfortunately the guitar is wired, so expect to always be tethered to the console.
The actual guitar portion of Rock Band looks and feels much like Guitar Hero, and for good reason, since Harmonix was the company that turned that game into the mega-selling franchise it is today. The controls work the same as before, a series of notes and chords will come your way and it's your job to hold down the right button and strum the guitar at exactly the right time. This concept is made even easier when you realize that there's not a person in the United States who has never seen a guitar in their life. Getting the timing just right may take some practice, but acting like a rock star should come naturally.
If playing the lead guitar is just too much for you to stand, you can also use your trusty fake plastic guitar to play the bass parts. As you would imagine the bass parts are insanely simple (even on the hardest difficulty setting) and there's not a lot for you to do. The bass is a perfect place for novice Rock Band fans to sharpen their chops before jumping into the wild world of lead guitar. For whatever reason the Rock Band box does not come with a second guitar, so you won't be able to play both the lead and bass guitars until the publisher decides to release some stand-alone accessories.
Putting the guitar down for a minute, let's see what else we can dig out of this huge box. Next up we have the drum set, which is definitely the most exciting addition to the collection. Obviously there's no way for Harmonix to create a drum kit that is as large and involved as a real drum kit. Not only would that be entirely too expensive, but where would you even keep it? So the company has done the next best thing, they've created a drum kit that looks a lot like an electric drum, but feels like a real drum set. You even get drumsticks and a foot-peddle to complete the experience.
In game the drum mode is set up a lot like the guitar was, only instead of strumming notes you are hitting the drums at just the right times. Basically you have four colored notes that scroll towards you; it's your job to hit those different notes with four corresponding colored drums. Occasionally a long horizontal line pops up, that's your cue to hit the foot peddle. Of course, all this sounds easier than it actually is. Like any real drummer, you're going to have to get used to using both arms and one leg at the exact same time. Thankfully the game starts you off easy, but by the time you've hit the harder difficulties you will basically be drumming. The drums are difficult, but they can be the most rewarding fake plastic instrument packaged in the box. In fact, learning to play these fake drums may give you the fundamental information for learning to play real drums.
The last instrument found in this box is the official Rock Band microphone. I've had some experience with video game microphones in the past, both with Sing Star and Karaoke Revolution, so I say with some authority in the subject that this Rock Band mic is far and away the best gaming microphone yet. The little unit is good sized and has a solid feeling to it. It also comes with a long cord, so feel free to run around your virtual stage dancing with your guitarist and cheering on your drummer.
The actual singing part works a lot like other karaoke games, such as Sing Star. Basically words will scroll by the bottom of the screen (or, if you're playing multi-player then your box is at the top) and try to sing along hitting the right pitch. There will be a little arrow that will show you where you're pitch is, the object is to get that arrow to where the game says the right pitch is. From time to time you will have "spoken" parts; this is where you can talk out the words without worrying about the pitch. Most of the songs in Rock Band do not use these spoken portions, but from time to time you'll find a song with an excessive amount of talking. In fact, at no point do you do anything but "talk" (well, rap) when trying to sing Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. Thankfully most of the songs aren't that easy.
So now you have Rock Band all set up and you're ready to do some rocking. I'm talking about the kind of rocking where the cops show up, you trash a hotel room and you're head deep with beautiful young groupies. If that's the kind of rocking you want to do, then you will have a number of different options to select from. The single-player game is basically split up into several parts, two for each of the instruments in the package. When playing the game with the guitar, drums or microphone, you will be asked if you want to play a quickplay game or go ahead with the solo career.
The solo career works in much the same way Guitar Hero did, there's a loose story about some musician who starts in some dive bar and works their way up to playing huge theaters in New York and traveling the world on your own airplane. But when it comes right down to it this "story" (if you can even call it that) is just an excuse to get you to play the game's 45 main songs. The solo career is split up into seven different locations, each with five songs for you to sing. What you'll notice if you go from one instrument to the next is that you won't always play the songs in the same order. For example, the guitar career is different from the one you would be on if you played the drums or sang. The songs are laid out for each instrument by their difficulty, so it's sometimes funny to see something that is one of the hardest songs on one instrument be in the first grouping with another. Regardless of whether that is actually funny or not, Rock Band's solo career is just as solid as it was in Guitar Hero or Amplitude.
But when it comes right down to it Rock Band is really made for people to have a good time with other people. You came to rock, not sing your wussy solo songs without a bass or drums (though, I certainly wouldn't mind Acoustic Band, featuring Bob Dylan, Beck and Frente). Rock Band is best when you have friends over to play each of the different parts, from singing to drumming to shredding on the guitar. Not only is this the only way to see the game's true story mode (a lengthy world tour mode that can only be accessed when two players are signed on), but it's also the best way to feel like you're in an actual band.
The world tour mode is one of the most compelling additions to the music game genre. Basically you and some friends form a band (my band, for what it's worth, is named Kentia Hall) and set off to take the world by storm. At first you won't have any fans or money, which is kind of how it is when you're a struggling band. But soon you'll play enough gigs and get large enough to be booked in other nearby cities, ultimately working your way up to a full world tour. At any given time you will have a half dozen (if not more) options open to you, so you can freely jump around the map and play what you want to, where you want to.
But all this freedom comes with a price. Because there are only 45 main songs (plus 13 bonus tracks) your song choices are a bit limited. Don't get me wrong, 58 songs is quite a few, but when you are playing so many gigs you are going to be playing a lot of the same songs time and time again. I suppose you could argue that real bands play the same songs over and over again, but despite this nod to realism, it can sometimes be disappointing to play a song you played only four or five songs ago.
Thankfully there's good news, Harmonix seems determined to offer as much extra downloadable content as they can. Already there are several packages, each with three songs. And that's not all; you will also be able to buy the songs individually, so you won't have to buy a package that contains a song you don't like. Unless Harmonix deviates from the original plan, you can expect to find brand new songs for sale every week. These downloaded songs can be inserted into the world tour mode, so there may come a time when you have enough songs so that you rarely (if ever) run into a repeat.
What sets this world tour mode apart from all of the other music games is that there are actual consequences for your actions. In most games you can fail a song and just try it again, but in Rock Band if you do that you will lose fans. Since the object is to amass as many fans as you can get you will definitely want to avoid failing out of a song. To make things even trickier you will have to deal with gigs that want you to play two or three songs in a row. Occasionally you get to select the songs you want to play, but there are also a lot of these gigs where the song selection will have already been made and you never know what you're going to get. It could be that you play a couple songs you love and then have to deal with one extra hard song, or it could be that you get three hard songs in a row. No matter what happens, you have to determine for the band whether the reward outweighs the possible risk.
A real rock band is all about helping each other out for the good of the group, and this Rock Band is no different. When playing the game four-players it's important that you all work as a team in order to earn as many points as possible. There's also the possibility that one of your band mates will fail out, which means that you are either going to have to revive him or fail the song all together. This working together dynamic is new for the music genre, and it's definitely one of the most interesting parts of the game.
Contrary to what science tells us, it's actually pretty easy to bring somebody back to life. When somebody fails one of the remaining band members will need to activate something called the overdrive mode. If you've played Guitar Hero before then you'll feel right at home with the overdrive. As you play through the game there will be specific notes that you can hit in order to charge up the overdrive meter. Once it's at the half way mark you can activate this mode to multiply your score and quickly get the fans back on your side. Oh, and the overdrive power brings a failed band member back to life. But don't die too many times, Rock Band plays by the three strikes and you're out rule.
Of course it all comes down to the game's track list, if the 58 songs are no good then nobody will want to play the game (no matter how fun it is). The good news is that Rock Band's track list is indeed impressive, featuring a lot of classic songs from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and present day. It's also a diverse collection of bands; you'll get bands like Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Ramones, Metallica, The Pixies, REM, Garbage, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Weezer, KISS, Hole, Radiohead and many, many more. In my opinion the track list in Guitar Hero III is a bit stronger, but I can't argue too much with the songs found in Rock Band. It's also worth again pointing out that if you don't like any of these songs you will be able to download new songs that are more to your liking.
While I am fully prepared to call this one of the best multiplayer games of the year, Rock Band does suffer from a few noteworthy problems. For example, if you plan on mostly playing this by yourself then you might find Rock Band to be a bit lacking. No matter what instrument you play there will be long stretches where you anticipate making music. This isn't as bad for the drums (since most songs have drums all the way through), but there are a number of songs for the guitar and vocals that will have you just waiting around for something to happen. This is fine in a multiplayer setting (since it's a lot of fun to watch your buddies play these fake instruments), but it can be a bit boring when playing by yourself.
It's also worth mentioning that the Rock Band guitar is not as good as the one that comes with Guitar Hero III. It's not just the fact that this guitar is wired (though that does play a part), but the actual buttons don't feel right to me. To add a sense of realism Harmonix has decided to make the buttons flush with the next. While this makes the guitar "look" better, these new buttons can be a little unruly at times. This is especially true when you're trying to play the two hardest modes and you keep losing track of where the buttons are. Thankfully there is a solution; Xbox 360 owners can use their Guitar Hero III guitar to play Rock Band. As far as I'm concerned this is the only way to play the game, not only does it feel better, but it's wireless, too.
And while this may come off as nothing but nitpicking, I'm not a fan of all of the repeats found in both Rock Band and Guitar Hero III. If you own both games (and you really should) then you will no doubt hear "Cherub Rock" by The Smashing Pumpkins a few too many times, along with "Mississippi Queen" by Mountain, "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, and "Reptilia" by The Strokes. This isn't that big of a deal, but as a person who came from non-stop play sessions of Guitar Hero III to non-stop play sessions of Rock Band, these duplicates are frustrating and disorienting.
My only other complaint with Rock Band stems from the online mode. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of the online mode, being able to play against (and with) people online is a must in any music game. But the online multiplayer feels more like an afterthought in Rock Band. The biggest travesty is that you can't play the world tour with friends online. The problem I have is that most of my musically-inclined friends live an hour or more away from me, so I won't have as much access to the world tour as I would like to. There's really no reason for them not to allow us to play this campaign online. I suspect this will be something Harmonix fixes in the near future, but as of this writing I still could not enjoy the world tour online.
Although there are a few different modes to choose from, most of the choices will be pretty familiar to anybody who played Guitar Hero. Score Duel is probably the most balanced way to play online; basically it just has two players playing the exact same song with the exact same notes, the person that has the highest score at the end wins. The Tug of War is slightly different, but is generally the same principle. In this mode you won't be playing the same notes, the two players will take turns back and forth playing different strings of notes. Whoever has their meter most filled by the end of the song is the winner.
While these music games have never been about stellar graphics, I really like the art design of Rock Band. None of the characters look photorealistic; instead Harmonix is going for a simple look with features that stand out. Unlike Guitar Hero you actually get to construct your own rocker, it's that rocker who you will tour the world with and who you will earn points with. Better yet, it's that rocker that you will get to dress up and buy stuff for. When your virtual avatar is offstage their simple look isn't anything to write home about, but once they start rocking you'll be fixated on the well-animated moves. It's not that the game looks great; it's that it got all of the animations and style right. It always looks like the characters are singing their songs, playing the right notes and hitting those drums in beat with the song. When the singer is not singing he (or she) will be running around the stage getting the crowd going. The animations are absolutely perfect, they really give off the impression that Harmonix paid a lot of attention to how musicians actually move.
Unfortunately the stages aren't nearly as interesting as the animation. In all there are around 40 different venues for you to play, but only a few really stand out. The reason for this is the camera angle, you rarely see past the first few rows and it's always dark. What you can make out is well detailed, but these levels are nowhere near as interesting as what you saw in Guitar Hero III. On the other hand, there are a lot of levels and they do put forth the right atmosphere every time.
One thing you won't be disappointed with is the game's audio. Beyond all of the great songs to choose from, Rock Band also has some great sounding sound effects and crowds. When you first start the game you may be surprised to hear the audience singing along to one of your songs when you're doing well. Although this is hardly the first music game to support true surround sound, it is one of the best sounding games I have ever heard. The crowds are priceless and the way the music sounds is second to none.
I'll give you that $170 is a lot to spend on one game, especially if you're already starting to lose interest in the Guitar Hero franchise. However, it's hard to imagine the fun you will have when you play this with a large crowd. No other game has been able to capture the same feeling that you have playing Rock Band with three other people, for once you actually feel like you're in a band. It's good to know that there's a real person next to you playing the drums, trying to keep the beat so that the guitarist and singer will know what to do. It's fun to win and lose fans on your way to being the biggest rock band in the history of the world. It's fun to be able to download the songs you want when you want them. It's just fun. Rock Band is one of the most fun gaming experiences of the year, and that's why it's a must-buy for anybody who even remotely enjoys rocking out to classic music.
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Rock Band is as incredible as it sounds. It's a big box full of great music, cool instruments and more fun than you can imagine. While not as solid as a single-player game, the game's multi-player experience is better than just about anything else released this year. You must buy Rock Band ... and then you must rock!