Rock Band is a game developed by Harmonix, the creators of the wildly popular Guitar Hero series. After being purchased by EA and passing the Guitar Hero franchise off to Neversoft, they set out to up the ante, taking what Guitar Hero started and expanding on it. That’s where Rock Band comes in. Where Guitar Hero is all about the single player experience, Rock Band is all about the combined experience of the group.
Rock Band will not push your system to its limits in the graphics department. Nothing in this game screams next gen, but then again, when you are really only looking at the notes as they stream down the screen, you really don’t have time to soak in the graphics. Where Rock Band really shines is in the customization department. At the outset, you create your own personal rocker, and tweak him to your liking. Do you want to be the short skinny goth kid? Or the tall, beer swilling, beard wearing classic rocker? How about something in between? All this, and more, is possible in Rock Band. And once you start your solo tour, or band world tour (more about those later), the customization becomes even deeper. From the 100’s of clothing options, to the plentiful hair options, to tattoos by real tattoo artists, you will find exactly what you are looking for to make your rocker exactly what you want. It even takes it one step further and lets you put designs and stickers on your clothing and guitars, to add that extra personal touch. All this customization almost guarantees that you will never run into anyone who has a character exactly like yours. My only complaint with the character creation system is the inability to create an overweight character. You are skinny, middle, or muscular. What if I wanted to try my hand at creating Meatloaf?
The special edition of Rock Band comes with a guitar, microphone, and a drum set. So for my review of the controls of the game, I will touch on each different component separately.
The guitar that ships with Rock Band is a mixed bag. While I loved the way the guitar looks (it’s modeled after a Fender Stratocaster), the strum bar and fret buttons leave a lot to be desired. I have found myself using my Guitar Hero II and III guitars to play Rock Band as my Strat collects dust. On top of that, the first few shipments of the game had faulty guitars that would become unresponsive after limited play. While EA has set up an excellent process to fix this issue, it’s really something that shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with.
If you consider yourself a veteran of the Guitar Hero series, then the gameplay for the guitar/bass in Rock Band won’t offer you much of a challenge. This was a design choice by the developers, to make the game more user friendly, as well as promote the idea that it takes more than one instrument to make a band. While I completely agree with this choice, those looking for “Reigning Blood” or “Through the Fire and Flames” type difficulty won’t find it here. There are a few songs that will provide a challenge to seasoned players, but nowhere as difficult as other games of this type.
The vocals in Rock Band are some of the most fun portions of the game. With the huge mix of genres and eras here, everyone will find something they will love to sing. The game doesn’t recognize your words, only your pitch, so you can hum the words if you find yourself on a song you don’t know well. An indicator at the top of the screen shows you the words as well as the pitch you should be singing, and an arrow to show you where you are singing at. Sing well enough, and you will achieve overdrive (Rock Band’s form of star power). While guitarist will tilt their controllers, and drummers do a drum fill to activate their overdrive, the singer must yell something into the microphone at the appropriate time. This has been cause for more than a few laughs around my house as each progressive singer tries to outdo the previous one on saying the most insane thing possible. The microphone the game ships with does an adequate job, although you must have a controller plugged in for it to be recognized.
The drums that ship with the special edition of the game are similar to an electronic drum kit you can buy in just about any music store. It consists of four pads that represent the snare, tom toms and crash cymbal. It also comes with a foot pedal that acts as the bass drum. As with the guitar, the drums in the first few batches of the game can have some faults, like unresponsive pads or easily broken bass pedals. Also as with the guitar, EA has put in place an excellent process to help anyone who runs into these issues. This really should have been something that was caught in development though.
Those that have played Drummania will feel right at home behind the drums in Rock Band. While there aren’t as many pads as that game, it does play very similar. Like other rhythm games, you must follow “notes” as they move down the screen, hitting the appropriate pad/pedal. Unfortunately for most people, we are not use to these types of movements. The learning curve on the drums as you move up difficulty levels is pretty steep. But once you are able to move your arms and leg independently of each other, the feeling of playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on expert drums is amazing. This is definitely a strong selling point for those who feel that the guitar portions of the game are a bit lacking in the difficulty department.
In a game like this, the music is what it’s all about, and Rock Band delivers in this department in spades. With music that spans from the 60’s all the way to now, and bands like Nirvana, The Who, Blue Oyster Cult, Queens of the Stone Age, and Aerosmith, there is sure to be something here for everyone. I was pleasantly surprised to see songs from other, possibly lesser known bands, like the Yeah Yeah Yeah and the Pixies. Rock Band ships with 58 songs on the disc, 45 songs in the main setlist and 13 bonus songs. The main setlist consists of the well known songs and the bonus songs are songs by the developers own bands. With previous Harmonix songs, one of the gripes was that the bonus songs left a little something to be desired. This is to say, they mostly were terrible. I am happy to say that of the 13 bonus songs in Rock Band, only one or two are horrible, the rest are quite good. I have even found myself looking for places to get a few of these songs from.
Where Rock Band will keep you coming back for more is the downloadable content. Every week since the game’s release, Harmonix has consistently put out new content for the game. As I write this, there are currently 68 songs available for download for the game. Some of the bands are ones that are already in the game, like Radiohead and Weezer, while others are completely new to the game, like Metallica, The Grateful Dead, Oasis, and The Monkees. On top of all this, Harmonix has promised to offer full albums for download, but at this time, a date isn’t known. The only two talked about so far is “Who’s Next?” by The Who and “Nevermind” by Nirvana. This all just goes to show that Harmonix was true to their word when they said that Rock Band wasn’t just another music game with yearly updates, but a platform to experience music.
Rock Band has all the standard game modes for a game like this, including quickplay, a solo tour, and practice. But Rock Band brings one huge improvement to the table, Band World Tour Mode. In this mode, which is the heart and soul of the game, you and your friends create a band from scratch, going so far as to create your own band logo and motto. Then you start travelling around the world, starting in small clubs to build your fan base and make money, while making decisions like whether to play a charity concert or move on to the next city. This all culminates into you playing a setlist that will get you inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It will take every member of your band to get that far, and the ups and downs along the way make the game more of an experience than a game. Whether it be finally winning your tour bus, or failing out during the 5 minute solo on “Green Grass and High Tides”, Rock Band is a game that will bring everyone in the room together. While it may be repetitive to play some of the songs over and over, downloadable content assures that this will never be a problem. This portion of the game will suck up many hours for you and your friends, and will become a focal point anytime you have a group of people at your house. Sadly, if you happen to be alone at the time, Solo Tour is your only option, unless you can play an instrument and sing at the same time. And this is definitely a negative for the game, because getting the band together every time you want to play just isn’t feasible. And while Solo Tour is just like every other game similar to this (think Guitar Hero), it just seems boring when you know how much fun Band World Tour is.
Online play is also available for Rock Band, in the form of two competitive modes and a co-op mode. While the competitive modes are standard fair, Online Band Quickplay is a lot of fun, if a little lacking. You join a game with up to three more people, and just choose songs and play. No advancement to be had, no money to earn, just the joy of playing with other people when your offline band can’t come out to play. Why an online Band World Tour mode wasn’t included, I will never know, but Harmonix says they are currently working on a patch that will let you create a band with your online friends and enjoy all the perks of Band World Tour without having the people around you.
So where does all this leave Rock Band? Firmly at the top of the rhythm game heap, that’s where. With the different instruments to play the game with, to singing, to Band World Tour, Rock Band does everything right for a game like this. And once you are able to do Band World Tour online, it will make the experience complete. A few small things aside, Rock Band is what all other rhythm games should strive to achieve and I can’t wait to see what Harmonix has in store for us.
Now if you will excuse me, “Last Train to Clarksville” is calling my name.
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