Some games just get a flyer in the local Penny Saver. Others get a TV ad, a good word, or perhaps an appearance on some Prime Time show. On rare occasions, a game comes out that liken it to the arrival of the messiah or something like that. Rock Band, built from the backs of rhythm games before it and plastic tubing, has already accumulated a devout following of frosted mullets and those ready to rock. I throw myself on the ground in devout worship as Rock Band is here, and it’s glorious—but I’m not sure the game can live up to it’s own hype. In a sense, this is Guitar Hero with a facelift, some great options, and the best multiplayer action money can buy... with a few problems.
Getting the Band Together
The microphone line is placed horizontally along the top of the screen and consists of either a series of pitch modifiers that require you to match with your voice. You are graded on how well you match your pitch to the line on the screen, much like Karaoke Revolution. Overdrive is accumulated by matching glowing phrases exceptionally well, and is deployed by the singer through the use of freestyle vocals during open phrases colored with a glowing yellow background. Unless you have an exceptional vocalist, you probably want to sing on easy or medium difficulty. Heck, you probably want to do that anyway just to have some fun. There’s no room for improvisational singing (except for overdrive deployment), and on songs that lack real pitch (Sabotage comes to mind) the microphone on higher difficulty just becomes goofy.
Bass was often rather dull in Guitar Hero and, unfortunately, Rock Band does not do much to change this in terms of the actual play tab. Harmonix has, however, made the bass an integral part of the band as the bassist has the potential to get the highest score multiplier of any player. Bassists can enter a “bass groove” and earn a 6X multiplier as they progress, contrasting with the 4X maximum that each other player can earn. This, combined with the relative ease of earning bass overdrive at all difficulty levels, makes the bassist the core of your band, as he or she is often the player contributing the most to your score and saving the most players. I still recommend the bass to anyone looking to have a great time. You can easily play the bass on expert and still throw in a leg kick here, a head-bang there... plus the bassist is the hottest player in the band. It’s true.
Lead guitar is identical to playing Guitar Hero III in that you will play hammer-ons and pull-offs depending on the difficulty. Guitar in Rock Band CAN play differently than GHIII due to the new emphasis placed on solos. When the guitarist encounters a section of treadmill that is glowing blue, they will have the opportunity to play with the smaller set of frets closer to the strings on the Fender Stratocaster guitar. What is nice about this addition is the fact that you don’t have to touch the strings at all if you use these frets during a solo. You can tap, tap, tap away through the entire thing—and the game counts every note you hit, with a percentage meter displaying how much of the solo you are actually playing.
Guitarists also have the opportunity to play with the new effects pickup switch, located underneath the whammy bar. A feature that only works during solos or overdrive deployment, the switch provides access to five different guitar sound options. While the effects and additional frets are welcome and fun, they are exceptionally difficult to actually fool around with on higher difficulties. It’s nigh impossible to slide accurately down to the low frets on a solo without breaking a streak, unless you’ve practiced the perfect time for the hand move. I do, however, like the idea that these options will make for some killer performances from those nerds (or studs, depending how you look at it) who have put that practice time in.
A great sweat has been forming on the brows of the rhythm-game elite as they await this four-padded peripheral, and the drums are indeed a blast to play. The drum line is unmistakable due to the presence of the bass-pedal indicator, a glowing orange, horizontal line which comes down the treadmill like a note. This orange line combines with the other color-coded drum pads to form drum tabs. “Chords” represent hitting more than one pad at once, and yes, on higher difficulties the drummer will have to hit the bass pedal and double-pad “chords” at the same time. Expert drummers are going to be a real find, as the drums are almost unquestionably the most difficult part of Rock Band.
Let’s get on with the Show
What’s astounding is that all of this geek speak hasn’t actually touched on what you can DO in the game. As we’ve come to expect from the Guitar Hero series, you can always sit down and start playing a song via a “quickplay” mode. And as we’ve also come to expect, you can’t just play any song you want. You’ll have to unlock and earn the right to play each track.
The solo career in Rock Band functions like a Guitar Hero career. You progress through each tier of five songs on a chosen difficulty, unlocking them for quickplay as you move toward the final, fret-ripping end tracks. There are 58 songs for play, but realize this includes bonus licks, available for unlock via a separate “bonus” solo career. There’s Aerosmith here, a sleeper in “Flirtin with Disaster” by Molly Hatchet, the great “Tom Sawyer” by Rush and, my personal favorite, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. What’s killer is that most of the songs are master tracks. It’s also important to remember that the song list for Rock Band was selected for group effort, so individual parts may be surprisingly easy for their tier placement. In fact, the game in general, if we are discussing a solo guitar career, is significantly easier than Guitar Hero III. The only song that is really going to test an expert-level player is “Green Grass” and “High Tides” by the Outlaws, and it represents the “Freebird” of the game, so the challenge is no real revelation.
Playing Rock Band solo is simply not that enlightening. Guitar Hero III certainly has better guitar work because those songs were chosen purely for their guitar lines; Rock Band doesn’t have that luxury as it has four people to worry about. Strangely, playing Rock Band also doesn’t seem quite right online. The scheduled downloaded content is admittedly amazing, but while Guitar Hero III feels like a genuinely competitive experience on XBOX Live, Rock Band just feels like it’s meant to be cooperative and experienced with friends.
The real meat of the game, however, is in the “band career” option. In this game mode, friends can come and go as they choose—as long as you have two people, you’re a “band”. Feel free to add or subtract members as you see fit, there’s no penalty. The best thing about a band career is the fact that it operates like a season of Madden in that it’s a simulation mode. Your performance on certain songs in certain arenas unlocks other songs and venues in other locations. Doing well on songs earns you money and fame, via your “fan count”, a number that grows or falls based around whether or not you are playing well and serving your fan base. As you progress you will be presented with choices faced by any successful band. You can sell out to earn more money and fewer fans, play benefits for no money to increase your communal respect, chase record contracts, earn private jets . . . all of this hinges around your performances as a group. One of the best aspects of the band career, however, is the ability to play song “sets”, groupings of songs without a break, some of which are chosen randomly. If you really want to throw up some horns, play the “endless set list” which plays the entire game as one show.
God of Rock... In Training
Rock Band has a great future, with full support from MTV, EA, and Harmonix. You can expect the track list to grow, and there’s plenty of replay value here. If you’ve already got the band members in place, you’re scheduled for once a week practice sessions, AND you can stomach paying $169.99-plus-tax for a game, then you’re the target audience. There’s just nothing out there that comes close to what this game can deliver with three friends. And don’t even get me started on what will happen if you break this out at a party...
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