Game £39.99, £99 Band in a Box, £59.99 Guitar, £69.98 Drums
Platforms: Xbox 360 (PS3 and PS2 to come)
Reviewing Rock Band without discussing Guitar Hero would be ridiculous, so I'm not even going to try. Rock Band's developer, Harmonix, created the first two GH games, and in a number of ways its first game for EA is a direct follow-on, albeit one that takes the game in a subtly different direction than Activision and Neversoft took with Guitar Hero III. You could describe Rock Band as a multiplayer-focused Guitar Hero or as Guitar Hero with added vocals and drums.
However, I think it's better to put it like this: if Guitar Hero was designed to make you feel like the ultimate axe-wielding rock star, then Rock Band is all about what it feels like to be in a world-class group. It works as a single player game, and it works as an online game, but if you want to get the real Rock Band experience, then you have to play it with friends. Played alone it is fun. Played with mates, it soars.
You see, anyone playing through the single player career mode with guitar will get a tangible and mildly disappointing sense of deja vu. As in Guitar Hero, you play through a series of gigs with preset setlists, plus a choice of optional bonus and download tracks, and the basic gameplay is identical, right down to the tilting of the headstock to access 'star power' (here called 'overdrive'). You can still play on three difficulty levels, affecting the number of buttons used and the frequency and complexity of the note patterns, with the tougher settings opening up more songs to play.
Arguably, Rock Band is a more conservative single-player game than GHIII. You grow to miss the silly storylines, the cut scenes, boss battles and other nonsense that made GHIII so special. On the plus side, however, Rock Band is a friendlier single-player game. The note patterns are a bit more relaxed, with a heavier focus on timing than sheer finger gymnastics, while the chords and runs seem more designed to approximate what you hear on the track than simply separating the GH men from the GH boys.
Yet even in the single player game there are hints of the game's change of focus. Guitar Hero was always about celebrating and exaggerating the classic rock clichés, a bit like an interactive Spinal Tap. The characters you played were ludicrous, the visuals deliberately cartoony. Rock Band still taps the same vein and is imbued with a similar sense of humour, but the style is now more gritty and personal.
You now create your own guitar hero, fit them with clothes and a killer hairdo, then send them out on the road. The concert venues are now more convincingly modelled on real-life archetypes, and the in-song footage is much closer to what you might see in a live video or concert movie, complete with cuts, close-ups, better lip-synching and a fabulous range of film effects. It's as if some of the lovable silliness is being sacrificed for authenticity.