Rock Band Preview

First there was the hot sister. Then there was the kegerator. But this fall Rock Band will replace both as the possession most likely to make you friends instantly and without regard to your personal appearance, hygiene, or sense of humor.

[image1]Here’s the scoop on what is turning out to be the brightest belle of the E3 ball. The developers of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, have jumped from Activision over to Electronic Arts, losing the Guitar Hero franchise name (Activision is putting out their own Guitar Hero III), but gaining the resources of the biggest software publisher. The result: the explosion of the guitar sim into the full-band sim.

The rest of this preview will break down things like the drum kit, the track list, the new guitar controller, blah blah blah. But the whole is so much bigger than the sum of its parts that it is worth saying – up front for the attention deprived – that Rock Band perfectly captures the thrill of on-stage performance, from the adrenaline rush to the showboating ego-trips to the urge to turn your instrument up just a tad louder than everyone else’s. It’s no exaggeration to say that as soon as you see the game, you will begin to mentally rearrange your living room furniture to make room for the drum kit, the mic stand and everything else you will need for your new indoor ampitheater. “Don’t think of it as throwing out the couch to make room for a beer cooler, honey. Think of it as couch upgrade.”

Rock Band is much more than a Guitar Hero upgrade though, it is Guitar Hero quadrupled. Not only will you rage on guitar riffs and lay down the backline on the bass, but now you will also be able to rock the mic or rip out a wicked drum fill. With guitarist, singer, bassist, and drummer covered, the only thing missing now are the groupies who will do anything for a backstage pass.

[image2]Most initial curiosity will be directed at the drums, here controlled by a standing “kit” of four electronic drum pads and a kick pedal. As in Guitar Hero, drum hits are indicated on the screen as incoming icons, the kick drum as a line. It’s an easy interface to learn, but, as the members of the media have discovered, difficult to master.

That is because unlike Guitar Hero, in which the guitar is simmed as having only five frets and one string, the drum simulation in Rock Band is remarkably close to playing actual drums. Experienced drummers will have to adjust to the unconventional placement of the cymbals and the high-hat, but that’s nothing compared to a novice’s attempt to coordinate hands and feet rhythmically. Despite the difficulty, being the drummer is the biggest draw—not only because it is the hardest task, but also because it is so original.

The rest of the originality of Rock Band lies in its seamless combination of established karaoke and guitar sim interfaces. The singing interface is a fair assimilation of Karaoke Revolution’s sliding pitch bars, and the guitar sim interface is the familiar 3-dimensional Guitar Hero fretboard. Perhaps it was the giant TV, but having the four interfaces on the screen at the same time didn’t feel cumbersome or crowded at all.

But that doesn’t mean playing with others is all sunshine. When one player screws up enough, he gets booted from the song. If the other players perform well enough, they can bring him back on stage. A vertical meter on the right side of the screen charts in real-time the respective performances of each of the players. Find yourself at the bottom too often, and pretty soon your friends may look for your replacement on Craigslist.

Simming four instruments makes Rock Band the easy pick for original game of the year. But Harmonix didn’t merely add three new games to their Guitar Hero package, they overhauled the entire look of the game, liberally amended their guitar controller, and introduced a character creator that supports some intriguing customization and career mode options.

[image3]Those of you used to the cartoony palette of Guitar Hero will be surprised by the equal parts gritty and psychedelic look of Rock Band. Both the characters and the performances look more realistic, and Rock Band opts for a toned-down graphical grey-scale graininess that swerves away from kitsch and towards cool. All of the interfaces are transparent, and the action of the performance goes on behind the button and pitch prompts. As we of the MTV-generation know, music is only about half music, the other half is look. And Rock Band has got the look.

And the music. While we only got a chance to preview a few tracks, be sure that we played all of them. Often, and on multiple instruments. Nirvana’s “In Bloom” was a crowd favorite, as was Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” and Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.”

It has also got the guitar know-how. The new Stratocaster guitar controller has all the same buttons as the old one (meaning you can use your old guitar controller with Rock Band), but it also has some new gadgetry. In addition to the neat in-laid fret buttons at the bridge of the neck, there are also duplicate fret buttons at the top of the neck. These notes can be tapped-on during solo sections without being picked at all. Think Eddie Van Halen minus the headband.

[image4]Another tweak is the five-position pickup switch. While on real guitars that little black switch would be used to choose the pickup, here it allows the guitarist to choose which effect to put on his “star power” (or whatever Rock Band’s equivalent is named). That is, if you buy a flanger or a heavy fuzz effect before the show, you can select it with the toggle switch and use it to alter the sound of your guitar at the dizzying apex of your guitar virtuosity.

These effects, along with clothes and other accessories, are purchasable items at the unique stores in the game. While it is unclear just how deep the RPG elements go, Rock Band’s demonstration tantilized by suggesting that you could choose your hometown, and then travel to different destinations at your own discretion. Rock Band will feature at least two different career modes, one in which you play through as a band (with your new and ubiquitous friends) and the other in which you play as a single player. Perhaps you recruit the members of your band? And then change their clothes and hairstyle? It’s a diva’s dream.

Such fantasies and possibilities fill the air of E3 as the buzz around Rock Band continues to grow faster than the feedback at a high school rock concert. Details on packaging are still dim, but it appears that at least the launch package will include the drum kit, mic, game, and usb hub.

The biggest question now is “how much will it cost?” The coy answer: “less than you think.” And that’s good news, because after getting a taste of Rock Band, my answer to “how much would you pay?” is bound to be “whatever it takes.”