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The Beatles: Rock Band Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/10/2009

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For years, I've tried to get into The Beatles. I'd try to listen to the old tapes we had, but always went back to the radio or just put on some Creedence instead. And every once in a while I'd listen to a Beatles album as an adult, but I just couldn't get behind it. Part of it was that tinny sound that fans over the years have simply gotten used to. It just didn't work for me, not when more modern albums sounded so much more full and crisp. But in the last couple of days, I've realized that the reasons behind my never getting into The Beatles weren't just technical - it was also difficult to see the appeal of them in that dreary, old documentary footage I had seen.

With today's re-release of the entire Beatles catalog in a newly remastered format that makes the Fab Four sound like they just recorded this stuff last week, that barrier (one that I think many people like me who grew up after the Beatles' heyday have been bumping against) has been lifted. And the best part is that with the simultaneous release of The Beatles: Rock Band, MTV Games, EA, and Harmonix have doubled down on getting the greatest rock band of all time under the skin and into the hearts of so many potential new fans.

The Beatles: Rock Band could have easily been a failure with today's gamers. It could have been a stuffy history lesson with overused old video footage and preachy lectures on the cultural significance of the band or the history of John, Paul, Ringo, and George, but instead the developers seem to be hoping that this game motivates you to go and seek those kind of documentaries out on your own. Instead, Harmonix very deftly straddles a line between keeping the history straight but taking plenty of artistic license. On one hand, they update the band with great visuals and a very interesting style that, in some segments, turns the four into caricatures of themselves, but on the other, they also stay true to the original attitude of the band in the later years.

What we get is a vibrant game, full of life, that may be the best tribute ever built around any single group of musicians. It's an interactive trip down memory lane that brings you into the Beatles experience in a way that listening to the albums and watching some documentaries simply won't do. You get put right there in the seedy Cavern Club where the band launched their career, off to the Ed Sullivan show, on to the arenas they packed with screaming teenagers, and finally into the Abbey Road studio where the band pioneered the modern rock album. In between songs, you'll hear the band chatter, and completing the game's toughest challenges unlock rare video footage and other tidbits most Beatles fans still haven't seen after all these years.

All that alone might not have been enough to sway me to caring about this band I had unsuccessfully tried to like for the most part of twenty years, but it's the videos that play during all of these experiences that makes the difference. Pulled from old photos and recreated in colorful, new montages, the game tracks the history of the band without preaching and with very little vocal narration. Live recreations of the on-stage experience for the early tracks give you an experience that you simply couldn't get on the old live black & white TV footage, and the "Dreamscape" style for Abbey Road-era songs take the band out of the studio and into extremely trippy visual narrations of each song while still showing off the band's impressive depth and range in using new instruments and creating harmonies.

The biggest thing that Harmonix has achieved with TB:RB is that they've taken a band that burst onto the scene almost fifty years ago and presented them in a way that makes them undeniably cool today. This is no small feat, even for music as long-lasting as that of The Beatles. The game doesn't present them the way your family did, making you listen to it when you were a teenager, insisting that this music is way more important than anything you were into at the time and shaking their head at you, clearly disappointed, when you didn't start listening to The Beatles on your own.

It's still Rock Band, so you'll still have the opportunity to play bass, guitar, and drums, and now three people can get on the microphone to sing vocal harmonies just like the band did. It's all set up in a slick style that gives players bonuses for nailing harmonies and staying on their line, and additional vocalists beyond the first are not penalized for messing up the harmonies. The original intent is to get four people all doing this with two of them playing both guitar instruments as well as singing, but if you don't want to do that, The Beatles: Rock Band is perfectly fine with having a total of six players - three on instruments, three on microphones. Even though Guitar Hero 5 allows multiple singers and anyone on any instrument at once, even they can't boast being able to support six people playing on one console at a time.

The catalog of songs covers pretty much the whole chronology from the early days right up until the end. In Story mode, you'll unlock pictures and new challenges as you go through the full song catalog, just once each, and getting more stars on songs gets you more of the bonus material. If you're impatient, though, just about every song is available to you in the Quickplay mode right from the start.

For the most part you'll find mostly upbeat tracks - 45 in all on the disc - and full albums are coming soon as well via DLC. Namely, Abbey Road will be available for $17 in October, and Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul follow in November and December. Yeah, the DLC might seem like a cash-in at first and some might wonder why those songs aren't just included on the disc - well, this time Harmonix isn't just producing the note charts for each difficulty along with some band animations and lip sync data. Here, each DLC song will have a new, entirely unique video in the background representing the band, and many of them will be in the Dreamscape format. You don't get that when you spend two bucks on a regular Rock Band track.

Still, there are a few other things Rock Band players might be used to that are missing. For one, drummers can no longer fill in at the beginning or end of a song; unless Ringo hit that beat, you won't hear it in-game. Drum fills are gone entirely, actually, and Overdrive is activated with just the single green hit where it's given to you. Guitars' whammy bars are rendered entirely useless, and there are no "big rock finishes" like some songs in the last couple games included. None of this was even remotely close to being a deal-breaker for me, though, and the added accessibility given to those who sing backup vocals while playing an instrument could easily make up for all of that - if you're ready to start investing in mic stands, that is.

My biggest complaint with The Beatles: Rock Band is that all of the game's content stands alone from past Rock Band games - and likely future ones, too. There's no way to export these tracks to other games, and you can't play your DLC or any imported songs here. Originally I thought this might wind up killing the fun for party play, as our group of friends often hates playing the same band repeatedly, but I quickly found that it's not near the problem I thought it'd be. People jumped in, didn't complain about the songs, and even when we didn't know the music too well, we all enjoyed the experience. Not only did people seem to be much more open to trying a track they didn't know, but it was easy to make setlists a dozen songs long without complaint from anyone. It was never that easy, even with two hundred songs available, in Rock Band 2.

Part of what improves TB:RB's accessibility more than I expected is that it uses the newly remastered music that sounds so much more full and alive than the old recordings. But another part of it is also getting to play each of those separate instruments that just kind of all blended together in the background when people had heard these tracks playing at some restaurant, mall, or on an oldies station over the years. It was difficult to hear the full range of Ringo's drumming in some of those old recordings, but it's crisp and clear now. And as far as the singing goes? It's hard not to get into John Lennon's belted out vocals in "Twist and Shout" when you grab the microphone. It's infectious in a way that I couldn't imagine until the first time I actually tried it.

So right here, right now, I'm saying that everyone who isn't a sworn enemy of the Fab Four should try The Beatles: Rock Band, even if you could never get into them before or couldn't quite understand what some of your more rabid friends could see in them. Head to a Best Buy, go to a friend's house, do what it takes to just give the game a shot. It's not necessary that you buy the full band kit to get the more "authentic" instruments - those, it seems, are made mostly for dedicated fans of the band. They don't house any specific new features, and thankfully, they don't add any new compatibility issues that could cause interoperability problems with other music games. Any Rock Band or Guitar Hero instrument will do. Scrape up a couple of mics, and get in there. Chances are, you'll become a fan.

Overall: 95%



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