Everyone wants to be a rock star. Kids and adults of all ages dream of getting up on stage and getting famous, belting out whatever ballad is their favorite of the moment. Of course, few people have the drive to pick up an instrument, and others just can’t muster the talent. It’s hard work being a millionaire musician, right?
Enter Rock Band, the latest rhythm game from the developers behind the original Guitar Hero. Now that Neversoft is developing Guitar Hero, Harmonix has mixed things up a little bit. Granted, the gameplay is exactly the same. Players still play along to scrolling note patterns on toy instruments, but Rock Band is still something very different. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the presentation: Rock Band is a fresh look at rock music games. Whereas the Guitar Hero series is intentionally cheesy, populated with rock stereotypes and defined by bizarre art styles, Rock Band feels more serious. Not in the dark, moody sense of the word, mind you- it just feels more authentic. All of the characters on stage animate very realistically, with fluid animations that look like they were rotoscoped straight out of concert footage. The characters themselves are very cartoony, looking very similar to Jamie Hewlett’s work on Gorillaz albums. This simplified look actually helps these avatars look more realistic, because the true-to-life animation stands out more. It’s easier to connect with the music, too. With crowds chanting the lyrics along with the singer, or fans screaming after you nail that drum fill or guitar solo, Rock Band is very exciting and just plain fun to watch. Another part that makes the game feel more unique is the instruments. While there have been karaoke games, guitar games, and percussion games in the past, Rock Band is the first to combine them all, with a drumkit, guitar, and microphone, all in one package. With the guitar, the game plays just like Guitar Hero, and indeed, a controller from that game can be used with Rock Band, just in case you have a friend itching to play bass. The other instruments, however, are more interesting.
The drumkit is a huge piece of equipment just for one game. Essentially a miniaturized version of… well, a drumkit, it’s probably the best instrument out of the package. Featuring four colored pads and a foot pedal, players must bash out the rhythms scrolling on the screen. Sure, it’s just like the guitar bit- except for the fact that you’re playing with two hands and your foot. Each pad serves as a different drum piece (cymbal, tom, etc), and the foot pedal controls the bass drum. It may sound simple, but actually using the foot pedal along with the rest of the pads at the same time takes a lot of getting used to. Just like how playing a real guitar will have helped players reach that orange button on the guitar controller, experience with percussion will be a bonus for Rock Band owners. Luckily, the game provides interactive tutorials for each instrument, so wannabe Lars Ulrichs will be bashing their way to stardom in no time.
The microphone is a bit of a deviation from the rest of the controllers in the game. Instead of notes scrolling down the screen, words are tickered across the top (or bottom, in solo games) of the screen, as well as lines indicating where the singer’s pitch should be for each word. On lower difficulties, it’s enough to just hum these pitches, but cranking the game up to Hard or Expert will make it a bit more realistic. Besides, where’s the fun in just mumbling into the mic? As well as the scripted lyrics, singers are allowed to freestyle in empty sections of songs. Unlike the instrument players, who are penalized for playing when they shouldn’t, singers have a lot more freedom. It’s especially fun during Big Rock Finishes, sections of songs where all the players are told to mash furiously on their controllers to rack up a huge score. While the guitarists and drummer must hit the right notes at the end to earn their bonus, the singer gets this section to belt out whatever they want. It’s amusing to hear your own amplified voice blaring out of the speakers along with a cacophony of drums and strings, and it’s another nice touch that amplifies the whole ‘concert’ feel of the game. Regardless of whether players yell “Hello, Los Angeles!” or “Stinky butthole kittens!”, these free sections are a blast.
The best modes in Rock Band are the ones shared with friends. While you can play on Xbox Live, it’s far more entertaining to jam with people in the same room. This is amplified by the inclusion of Band World Tour, a mode that allows you and your fellow air rockers to play like a real band. After creating your characters and naming your act, a map screen with different cities and venues is presented. Essentially, players work their way up from the bottom. Each song completed earns the band money and fans, depending on how well they did. Setlists can range from one song to a bunch in a row, and there are even mini challenges. Should you play a corporate gig, and earn a bunch of money but lose fans? Or should your band opt for a benefit concert, earning the respect of many but zero cash for your efforts? It’s boatloads of fun, and the fact that so many of the included songs are genuine classics helps. It’s a little disappointing that, because of the small number of songs (at least compared to rival Guitar Hero III), you will naturally play the same pieces over and over and over again. Highway Star’s solo is indeed amazing, but after the tenth time in a row, it may start to wear thin. All in all, though, this is the best mode in the game.
As mentioned earlier, the visuals in Rock Band really help it be successful. The game has a grainy video filter over it, making it seem like handheld camera footage. As well as lovely characters, the 40-odd venues are gorgeous as well. It’s not so much the set-pieces; everything is rather simple when it comes to polygons. However, the lighting is what seals the deal. Just like a real rock venue, light patterns and colors are intricately woven to make the stage look otherworldly. Nice touches like strobe lighting on guitar solos, fading to black after a slow song, or furious flashes during a drum fill really thicken the atmosphere. The sound is excellent too, with various filters added to the songs to make them sound live, rather than studio versions. Most of the tracks are the originals, too, which is a huge plus. Chanting crowds, echoing vocals, and amplified bass all add up for a chaotic and intense feeling during a performance.
Rock Band is probably the best multiplayer experience this side of Halo 3. While it doesn’t revolutionize the genre, it takes a well-known cultural icon in the gaming industry and adds new instruments. However, the biggest improvement over past games is the presentation. The carnival atmosphere makes Rock Band a total blast to play, or to even just watch, waiting for your turn. Even with the high price of admission, Rock Band is well worth purchasing. Anyone with friends nearby will get a kick out of the Band World Tour, and Xbox Live subscribers get the bonus of online play and future downloadable content. The only real blemish on the game’s otherwise-stellar record is the quality of the instruments; while personally I have experienced no problems, plenty of gamers are reporting faulty guitars, broken drums, or busted mics. Fear not, though: EA will send replacement instruments in the mail in exchange for your broken ones. With this safety net in place, everyone can rest at ease. Rock Band is a rousing success, and music fans everywhere absolutely must pick it up. We can only hope that inevitable sequels don’t go the way of real bands that play for too long.