Rock Band VR Probably Isn’t What You Expect It To Be

Before putting on the Oculus headset to experience Rock Band VR at an early PAX event, I already had a preconceived notion (perhaps you have the same notion?) of what it would be: Rock Band 4 in first-person. You would be a guitarist, drummer, or vocalist, and simply rock on stage with a screaming audience reacting to your sick skills. And while that's definitely a part of it, Harmonix doesn't want to do the expected. Rock Band VR works on a differential wavelength, a tangential concept that concentrates more on rhythm and freedom than furious fretwork.

First off, Rock Band VR is a solo guitar experience, which is probably a good thing since you don't want two players knocking into each other (and well, owning one Oculus headset is expensive enough). Second, and more importantly, the game doesn't throw streams of notes at your face. It's still a rhythm game, but the point isn't to nail specific notes in tricky, complex, finger-busting exercises. Instead, it's about listening to the music and performing chords up and down the fret-board.

Taking a bit of influence from how a guitar is actually played, you need to create a general shape with your hand to play various chords, which in standard Rock Band terms, just means holding down two or more buttons (say, your first and third finger) and strumming at the beat of the song. To figure out which chord you're supposed to play, a four-circle display that appears on the side of the guitar's headstock will tell you what kind of chord is coming up. For instance, if the first, third, and fourth circle are filled, the chord shape will involve your first, third, and fourth fingers. For further aid, the Oculus Touch controller which is pinned to the headstock will vibrate, at the beat of the song, about two measures before you need to change to the right chord.

Luckily for me, I'm an expert player on plastic guitar (put that on a resume!) and I've had some minor experience with more realistic guitar games, so moving around my hand in a particular shape wasn't too hard to grasp. Within a song, I became fairly comfortable changing things up on the fly: playing eighth notes instead of whole notes, alternating between different chords on counts of four, activating overdrive, and just experimenting around.

But that's the first step in mastering a song in Rock Band VR. The game tracks when a song changes chords and if you listen attentively enough, or follow along with when your bandmates also shift their hands on the guitar, you can earn a streak that will build steadily. Harmonix is still working on how to send prompts to make it clear when you should shift your hand, but right now, it's about paying attention to the song and memorizing the phrasing. Of course, you don't have to do this at all if you don't care about points.

On top of that, once you become completely comfortable with the song, you will earn more points and feel more like a rock star by performing various body moments, like doing headbangs, jumping up and down, swaying the guitar from side to side, and even going on your knees. Performing these movements makes it harder to keep a streak going, so Rock Band VR rewards you for doing these tricks with longer overdrive bars and more points.

Taken altogether, the more time you put into learning a song in Rock Band VR, the more immersive it will become, to the point where you can become so attuned to the song that you don't really need to look at the screen anymore. There's a sense of flow and being in the zone that Rock Band VR has the ability to give players that distinguishes from its Rock Band brother and makes it feel more appropriate to virtual reality.

Since the game is still in pre-alpha, there is no set release date for when this will come out, and admittedly, Rock Band VR will be quite a niche title any way you slice it. But on a conceptual and design level, it's one of the brightest and smartest uses of virtual reality so far. [UPDATE: Rock Band VR will be release title for Oculus Touch when it releases later this year.]