Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PlayStation 2. Xbox 360 version reviewed.
Something strange is happening here. On paper, the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises seem to be getting closer and closer together. Both now support a drums and microphone on top of guitar and bass. The raw game mechanics of both games are fundamentally the same. Both feature customisable characters and bands, downloadable content and online play. Look at the setlists of Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour and you'll be amazed to see how many tracks the two have in common.
And yet the more you play each game, the more you notice how the two series are not converging, but diverging. While you can compare Rock Band and Guitar Hero on features or technical issues, you're not really getting a full picture; deciding between them is more like choosing between Bob Dylan over Neil Young, Led Zeppelin over The Who, Metallica over Nirvana - it's as much a question of individual taste as of artistic quality. It all depends on what you're looking for.
Rock Band 2 is in itself a weird animal - at least here in the UK. At the moment it's an Xbox 360 exclusive and it's only being sold without instruments. The new deluxe instruments packs that our friends stateside are enjoying, with their enhanced guitar, microphone and drum kit, is nowhere to be seen on our shores. Luckily, we can still play with existing Rock Band kits (now available for less than £100 if you look carefully) or use any Guitar Hero III/World Tour or USB microphone accessories we have around. In practice, this actually makes Rock Band 2 a little more accessible than the original. If you already have GHIII or World Tour you can get stuck in for just the cost of the game, then upgrade to drums and microphone at relatively little cost (around £60 for the drums and under £20 for a compatible mic).
It helps that this Rock Band is a lot more welcoming to the solo gamer. For a start, a single player career is now the same as a band career - you can just start off your own band and have friends join in at a later date. The tour mode also gives you a greater sense of progress this time around. You're no longer stuck in a small number of venues playing the same songs over and over again in different sets. Sure, there's still some repetition to put up with, but it's much easier now to enjoy solo Rock Band 2 in the same way you'd enjoy solo GHWT, playing the tracks, completing challenges, unlocking new venues and slowly working your way up from the backroom bars to the big stadia.