Between a rock, and more rock!
Certain things look silly doing them by yourself: finger-tapping a table to a random beat, strumming a fake guitar, singing as you’re walking down the street. Especially if people are around and you're just running into them. But do these as a group and they strangely become acceptable… most of the time. Perhaps putting two crazy people together isn’t a cure, but on the other hand, Rock Band manages to get everyone in the same room to do "silly" things together and transforms them into bona-fide rockers. It is simply one of the coolest titles ever made.
[image1]Look at each part of Rock Band separately and it doesn’t seem as though it would bring that much new to the rhythm genre. The microphone peripheral for vocals has been in Karaoke Revolution and Singstar for years; the guitar peripherals have been mastered by Guitar Hero and Guitar Freaks; and the drum peripherals have taken center stage in DrumMania since 1999. Rock Band even goes as far as to mimic how the gameplay works for each of these games without changing much of anything.
But Rock Band is much more than just a three-in-one recompilation of eclecticism, a high-budget bully that plagiarizes the work of prior Bemani titles. It’s a refreshing take on how rhythm games should be played, underlining that special power of music that brings people together - with a multi-player spotlight.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with ripping through a world tour yourself, creating and customizing your character on the road from basement wannabe to international superstar. Whether you’re a vocalist, guitarist, bass guitarist, or drummer, the solo career mode is challenging and satisfying, unless you have already mastered one of the games it’s based upon. Guitar Hero veterans in particular will find the note charts for Expert difficulty to be easier than those in Guitar Hero III, but riffing guitar solos is not what Rock Band is about.
On top of the steadiness necessary to get through a song as a band, every player has a chance to shine. The lead guitarist usually plays the melodic instrumental line and has specific solo sections highlighted in blue, which earn extra bonus points if they are hit with a high percentage. The bass guitarist, given that it’s usually a position of lesser fame, has few solo sections (if any), but can extend the normal 4x multiplier to a 6x “Bass Groove” multiplier. It gives steady eddies the credit they are often left without.
[image2]Drummers must also maintain a consistent beat between the four colored pads and the kick petal, which surprisingly makes the syncopation a lot more difficult than expected. You know, something that needs practice and talent… Fortunately, what might easily become stale and repetitive, tapping the same sequence of drumbeats for as long as a bathroom break, is broken up by freestyle drum fills which allow you to bash out any excess anger and frustration. Anything that adds to what is already the most translatable set of skills in the game is welcome. If you can get five stars all the way through expert difficulty, there’s a band out there that needs you desperately.
Vocalists, though, don’t need to shine any more than they already do. Don’t get their egos started. Even if the vocalist isn’t the designated leader during multi-player, that person will likely pick the song, but that’s mostly out of common courtesy. Matching the pitch of the singer on the track, following understated heartbeat-looking lines, and wailing to activate overdrive are all difficult enough without knowing the words, though they appear on screen as well. At the expert level, there’s little room for interpretation and improvisation, which turns what is supposed to be singing into mimicking the vocal track like a parrot. Rapping to Beastie Boys’ Sabotage needs almost Butterscotch-like precision even on the easy difficulty setting. Also, activating overdrive by wailing and forcing sounds during sections where there aren’t any lyrics feels labored and overdone.
Fortunately, any person who has an appreciation for rock will find tracks they will like – and hate very, very much. I am rather fond Reptilia by The Strokes, Orange Crush by R.E.M., and The Hand That Feeds by Nine Inch Nails, though I don’t shy away from classics like Mississippi Queen by Mountain, Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones, or Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. At the end of the day, you’ll find songs you detest (GR codemaster Blake_Morse hates anything by Hole), songs you’ll sing if you’re on liquid courage, and master tracks you’re glad are there or you wouldn’t play the game at all.
Though the vocal part isn’t as fine-tuned as its counterparts, it still helps sell the concept of a rock band. Nailing a tough setlist with three of your friends (and hopefully with an audience watching) is an invigorating and adrenaline-pumping experience – so is getting into a fist fight with your drummer. Watch out, he’s got wood. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that the co-op multiplayer “band world tour” is the main feature. On your tour around the globe, your band will gain fans and new gigs, making your way out of the local rathole, even if it means trekking out on the road in a dinky, makeshift van. As long as it has wheels, it’ll work, right?
[image3]Interestingly enough, Harmonix tweaks the formula of Guitar Hero II differently than its rival did with Guitar Hero III - mostly to its benefit. Energy notes don’t turn into regular ones when overdrive is activated, making high scores less of a hidden art. A star-rating meter below the score indicator intuitively tells you how far away you are from reaching the high five-star rating, leaving out the guesswork of shooting for some seemingly random threshold number. Songs with appropriately flashy endings now have ending bonuses, where you can furiously freestyle for more points.
The most influential change is having overdrives stack upon each other, making it possible for a four-man band to get an 8x multiplier on top of their own 4x multiplier. So if everyone can activate overdrive at the same time, the score goes through the roof. Coupled with being able to use overdrive to save any bandmates who have failed, it’s not a bad incentive to get people to cooperate. But actually getting the 8x multiplier is easier said than done, since the drummer and the vocalist don’t have instant control over when they can go into overdrive. So the guitarists end up having to follow their lead instead of the band being able to use their build-up energy meter freely.
Achieving the highest five-gold-star rating is easier, awarded not when you full combo a song, but when your point score is about four times the possible flat score given by the number of notes in the song. It’s strange, however, to earn the highest rating when there are still more notes coming at you and after you’ve made some glaring mistakes. Not getting a clear-cut reward for hitting 100% of the notes is also a bummer. There aren’t any detailed stats, either, which makes pinpointing problem areas slightly more difficult than it needs to be.
But if any criticism can be formally lodged against Rock Band, it is the questionable durability of its instruments. Given the $160-170 bundle, which contains the game, one guitar, a drum set, a microphone, and a four-way USB hub, you would expect each piece to be ready-to-use out of the package – but it may not be. GR received a guitar that had its strum bar half-embedded into its socket, and my own guitar’s strum bar broke after two and a half days of use, not to mention the fact that the fragile four-way USB hub short circuited the instant I connected the power supply. With reports of broken microphones and foot pedals, the only thing that has yet to break is the drum pads. Sure, EA is gracious enough to have a 60-day replacement warranty, but peripherals should just work properly.
[image4]Additionally, online modes aren’t as refined as those of Guitar Hero III. Though it still does the job with standard leaderboards and downloadable song packs available in Xbox Live Marketplace and the Playstation Network. Without an online band world tour mode, though, there’s not much else other than player-vs-player matches (tug of war or score attack – essentially the same spiel) and online co-op quickplay, which kicks you back to the main menu every time you leave a session.
If the world of gaming has an “all-for-one, one-for-all” philosophy, the multiplayer landscape definitely has the “one-for-all” attitude down pat. Getting people to work as one towards a common goal is rare, but Rock Band makes it common. There really is no room anymore for the cliché that a gamer is just some unkempt teenage sweating in some lonely basement filled with loose cables and empty water bottles. It’s at least a group of unkempt teenagers now. And besides, that’s how most multi-millionaire rock bands start out, anyway.