Rock Band Review
Who here remembers when "rhythm game" meant Japanese music, really bright colors and making a fool of yourself at an arcade while dancing around on a metal pad? If you do, you probably also remember being turned off of the genre. Well, thankfully, the idea of the game became more Americanized and focused on a staple of our culture - rock music. While we still have Japanese-styled rhythm games, we now have some that are much more approachable by both the hardcore gamer and the college guy who doesn't do much gaming at all. We can thank Harmonix and the Guitar Hero series for that. After the success of the series, Harmonix decided to branch off and put out a new game, one that would go into even more detail to fully capture the experience of playing music. Welcome to Rock Band.
Branching off from the guitar-based rhythm games, Rock Band has 4 instruments to play. Two of these, Guitar and Bass Guitar use, not very surprisingly, the guitar peripheral. If you get the Xbox 360 version, you can use the wired Xplorer controller from GH2, the Wireless Les Paul from GH3 or the Fender Stratocaster that comes with Rock Band. Since the Rock Band branded peripherals aren't in stores yet, you'll have to do this to have both the Guitar and Bass Guitar playing at the same time. Also included in the absolutely massive package is a set of drums and a microphone.
Now, the game has multiple modes available. There's the solo Tour mode, which is the mode that many Guitar Hero players will be familiar with. You have a list of five songs at a given venue, and you play them with your chosen instrument. Beating them lets you move on to the next set of five songs until you've eventually played through everything. While it isn't anything special or unique, it is a tried and true formula that lets the solo player get some practice in with the instrument of their choice. You'll also make some money through this mode that allows you to buy new outfits, guitars and the like.
More interesting, though, is the Band World Tour mode. In this mode, you can get from two to four people together and actually make a band. This band can have members play varying difficulties in the game, so that you can have your drunk friend that doesn't touch rhythm games play right along with your other buddy that does nothing but play Guitar Hero for 15 hours of the day. If you do have someone playing on easy, though, there will be less songs overall available to you - they'll learn fast and be able to move up to medium, though, where all the songs become available.
Getting four people together to get the full Rock Band experience is a total blast. Since everyone plays on their own difficulty, you can even get non-gamers in to sing on the microphone, and they usually can at least survive even if they can't carry a tune very well. And this is where the game is at its most fun, when you're all contributing to creating a song, playing your part, but hearing everyone else's input at the same time. When you succeed, it's glorious, and when you fail, it's rough. If you use the music to time your guitar playing, then make sure you bring a good drum player, because if he screws up you'll have trouble staying alive as well.
And failures are a tough thing sometimes in Band World Tour, as the game won't just let you fail repeatedly and act like nothing's wrong for the rest of the players. Three failures in a song and you're out, which generally leads to the song failing even if the other players are doing well. If you fail just once and aren't saved by someone else in short order, the band will fail too, which means that an early series of mistakes can leave your buddies unable to save you as they haven't built up any energy yet. And if you do this, beware of objects flying at your head - personal experience, here. Either way, go ahead and bring your drunk friend, but unless you want repeated failures, don't let him get too drunk.
In general, though, the gameplay is pretty standard. You see notes stream from the top of the screen to the bottom and you play them differently with each instrument. I'll go into a bit of detail on each instrument in a bit, but wanted to first talk a bit about the game in general. Something I found to be pretty neat while playing through was the game's presentation. I felt like I was actually a rock star while playing. If I was doing well, the crowd started to cheer and sing the song along with me, which was just awesome. My fellow band members' in-game representations also played/sung along with the song pretty realistically. The presentation itself made this feel like a music video. In all, I enjoyed this aspect of the game the most.
This is also where I found my first issue with the game. See, lots of visual effects can happen randomly while playing the song in an effort to give things that music video look. However, many of these effects pose some problems. Take the black and white effect where the lights sometimes get really bright. This makes reading some of the incoming notes hard and, while less of a downside on medium, can get absolutely brutal on the harder difficulties until you have the song completely memorized. This managed to get on my nerves more than once while I played. Other than that, though, I thought this effect was pretty decently done, and went a long way to make me feel like I was really in a band playing at some big venues.
Now on to the meat of the game - the different instruments. First of all, the two guitars. Both of these play similarly to what you're used to from the Guitar Hero series. You have five colored fret buttons and a strum bar. However, you'll notice a couple of additions that make playing the guitar more fun. First of all, there are five narrower fret buttons on the guitar. These are closer to the strum bar and can be used by people with smaller hands. Also, they are used during the ending parts of some songs where you just press buttons as fast as possible - these don't require strumming in these sections. Also changed from previous guitars is the whammy bar - it bends at a slight angle, making it a good bit easier to keep it out of the way but still use it during the songs. Finally, there's an effects switch that can customize the sound of your guitar to a degree. Both guitars play pretty much the same, really.
Next up is the microphone. This is the only instrument in the game where you don't have downward scrolling notes - instead, you have a scrolling bar at the top of the screen. For anyone that's played Singstar or Karaoke Revolution, you'll probably recognize this bar. You'll want to match words and pitch to the song - don't worry, the words scroll along the screen too. You'll get a little arrow that shows you about where your pitch is, and the scrolling bar will show you where it needs to be for this part of the song. This mode is pretty fun, and you even have the ability to use the mic as a tambourine or cowbell in certain parts of songs.
Finally, the instrument most people are picking up Rock Band for - the drums. The drum set is simply four pads with a bass pedal. You'll have four colors of notes along your screen with the drums as opposed to five. However, there will also be times where you have the hit the pedal, indicated by a yellow line that stretches across your note display. Oddly enough, the drums are the hardest instrument by far to master in the game, but can also be the most rewarding. It has been said multiple times that actually learning the drums in Rock Band can help you to get some basic drum skills in real life.
Sadly, a couple of these instruments also have some hardware problems. Take the guitar, first of all. I've read many reports online from players about problems with their strum bars - either they stop working or the actual bar itself breaks. Also, I've read about a lot of problems with the drums. The first of the problems can be seen on YouTube - sometimes, the drums will not register harder hits, making some of the songs where you have to play rapid notes literally impossible. Secondly, the bass pedal is horribly made, with many people reporting breakages after normal use in only a couple of days. I'm hearing that EA is doing a very good job of replacing these, but the bad hardware never should have made it out of the door in the first place.
Overall, I feel Rock Band is a great game that will please many a music fan. The available songs and the vast amount of promised downloadable songs in the future will ensure that you play this for a long time to come. And having friends over to play Band World Tour, especially if they get into character as they do so, just leads to many memorable nights of gaming. If a second iteration of the series fixes the issues with the hardware and the minor presentation issues mentioned earlier, the game will be even better than it already is. As things stand, this is still a definite pickup, especially if you have three friends to split the cost with.