Wild, sweet, solid, and Hell Yeah!
Usually, I try to write a witty intro, a follow-the-joke personal anecdote, an insightful comment on the industry at large, or an off-tangent “What does this have to with anything?” observation that somehow resolves itself by the last paragraph. It’s all to set a light-hearted mood for you before my eventual bloody, sadistic, unrelenting diatribe on… what game is this again? But this time, I don’t have to do any of that. Rock Band 2 is just that awesome.
When I heard that Harmonix saw Rock Band as the game where they would innovate and Rock Band 2 as the game where they would refine, they weren’t kidding. For better or worse, much of how Rock Band works - how you strum the guitar/hit the drums/sing into the mic to the scrolling capsules/lines on screen, how you gain up to a 4x multiplier (6x for bass) by nailing thirty notes in a row, how overdrive is activated by tilting the guitar upright, how overdrive stacks if it’s activated my multiple people at the same time - hasn’t changed.
While this follows the creed of “don’t fix what ain’t broke”, the opportunity to improve the fundamental gameplay has been partly dashed, apart from the welcome addition of drum solos. At this point, with a track list that can include more than 300 songs, it’s almost impossible to ask for the vocalist and the drummer to have a way to activate star power at any time, without having to re-program (and have you re-download) every song in the list.
Moreover, the vocalist will still feel a bit detached from the rest of the band, since there is no unison bonus for the vocalist or any way for the vocalist to activate star power during a tambourine section (say, to save a member of the band). The better phoneme recognition - for the “talky” sections (where “ain’t” is a better substitute for “alright”) - and the cleaner interface serve as minor improvements, but they don’t curb the sense of isolation.
As such, most of the refinement comes from the supportive design - the peripherals, the interfaces, the song list, the modes, and the options - all of which were either passable or humdrum when Rock Band first arrived on the scene. The new Fender Stratocaster Guitar has less clicky buttons and a wooden finish that makes the controller look and feel more like a genuine guitar. It even comes with a built-in microphone and camera that auto-calibrates your entertainment system to the game. Fret-shredders, however, will still probably snicker at the still squishy strum bar and stick with the Guitar Hero III Gibson controller for the snappy strum bar and more easily slideable buttons.
Whereas vocalists get a shinier, longer silver microphone, drummers get the best out of the upgrade, with quieter pads, a metal-plated bass pedal that won’t snap from “elephanting”, various optional attachments for an additional snare, ride, and crash, and a base that holds the metal supports in place. An added tutorial, Drum Trainer, is also a welcome aid for players who want to nail that tricky beat (like for “Next To You” by The Police, just as an example, you know, an example).
Surfing through menus are no longer a chore and a bore. Artistically and functionally, the interfaces have taken huge leaps that make finding a song and an online band a breeze. Band members are no longer tied to a leader or a specific instrument but to an Xbox Live profile, kicking the previous system of “Are you leader, no, wait, I am lea… don’t press that, crap, just stop… argghh!!” off to the curb. Song lists now also have shortcut paths for quick access to specific categories, so that you don’t have to press ‘down’ so many times that you finish a Moderate-level bass line before you actually get to the song.
The only major complaint, apart from not being able to export character and score data from Rock Band and not being able to sort songs by the difficulty of a specific instrument, is the lack of stat-tracking. Somehow, the redesign of the general song select screen leaves out the star ranking of a song and the World Tour song select screen leaves out the score ranking of a song. Can’t I just see both? Furthermore, there's still no way to view detailed stats for a song - your best note streak, your highest percentage, the best score for each difficulty (not just the highest score), average score, the side-by-side comparison of your score with the highest score, etc. Seeing these statistics at any time in a permanent stat-sheet would help both newbie and veteran “score heroes” in achieving rock greatness.
None of the gripes, however, really detract from what all Rock Band fans have been
getting carpel tunnel for clamoring for and what Rock Band 2 finally has: Online... World... Tour... Yeah, take the time to absorb each word and then come back to this review. (... ... ...Good, you're back.) No longer sidelined to the one-minute-friend quickplay mode, players can now join a band that can tour the game’s virtual world for cash and fans, though the mode’s progress is limited to the player that hosts the band. If, however, the band ever gets bored playing mystery setlists from Tokyo to Reykjavik, online-ranked Battle of the Bands challenges can help pass the time.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to be bored if you’re at all into rock music
and alive in the last forty years. Even for a person that has a Winamp playlist full of classicla video game soundtrack music, I was more than pleased with the 84 songs included on the disc (all master recordings)… plus 20 additional songs you can download via a code on the back of the game manual… plus all but three tracks from Rock Band that can be exported to your hard drive for $5 fee… plus the soon-to-be 300+ downloadable songs via the Music Store. Whew!
From more pop tracks like “One Step Closer” by Linkin Park, “We Got The Beat” by The Go-Go’s, and “Chop Suey” by System of the Down to classic tracks like “Let There Be Rock” by AC/DC, "Psycho Killer” by The Talking Heads (and Blake Morse), and “Pinball Wizard” by The Who, there is literally something for everyone. Even "finger zinger" guitarists and drummers will be satisfied by the amped-up difficulty, featuring “Painkiller” by Judas Priest, “Battery” by Metallica, and “The Trees” by Rush. Though you still have to unlock most of the songs before you can play them, you will likely appreciate the “No Fail” cheat for parties.
Rock Band 2 is the definitive version of its revolutionary progenitor– better instruments, better online modes, and a wickedly better song list – taking its place as one of the greatest multiplayer games of our generation. Where Rock Band 2 doesn’t innovate, it polishes and tweaks until it kills. Right now, I know I should be cracking a joke like a Game Revolution boogie man, but I’m too busy gangbusting with the grippy power of enraged werewolves to care.