- Review Price: £39.99
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.
This approach is even reflected in the hardware. The Guitar, modelled on a Fender Stratocaster, feels more solid than the GHIII Les Paul, features non-coloured buttons that are cunningly moulded into the frets (with an extra set at the top of the neck for solo widdling), and has a five-way selector that adds effects to the in-game sound. The strum bar is also no longer ‘clicky’, which makes a huge difference when you’re trying to keep a tight riff on the track or play through one of the more complicated solos.
The new Logitech microphone is a dead-ringer for the sort of Shure or AKG mic used by real rock singers, and performs exceedingly well. The drums, meanwhile, are almost overkill. Not only do you get four sizable, velocity sensitive pads, you also get a bass drum pedal and two proper Ludwig drumsticks to bash the things with. The only disappointment is that all this stuff is – on the Xbox 360 version, at least – wired, needing a USB hub plus accompanying power supply (both supplied in the Band in a Box kit) if you want three or four of you playing at the same time.
Still, it’s when you add band members that the good times rock and roll. With one player nominated as leader, up to four of you can start a band, give it a name, establish a hometown and create all the members. Having done so, Rock Band proper begins. Out goes the linear structure of the single-player game. In comes a more open game, with a number of unlocked cities, each boasting several venues, and each venue offering a selection of songs or setlists you can play through. The more gigs you play and the better you play them, the more cash, fans and star points you accumulate.
Get enough, and you open special challenge setlists where you can win a van, tour bus or, when you’re bigger, private jet, which will in turn unlock new cities and bigger venues. On top of that, you can also win useful support staff, like a manager who can tell you what to do and where to play next, or a sound guy who can help you make the most of each performance. The overall effect is that you feel rewarded for playing well but not too held back when you play poorly, and there’s a nice sense of momentum as your band slowly rises through the ranks.
Get some friends round for the day, and it’s hard to stop playing. Rock Band remains a fantasy version of the rock band lifestyle (I don’t know many bands that play some dive in London one week and are on a tour bus to Paris the next) but it feels more like you imagine the real thing. The illusion is only enhanced by the way the game throws in publicity photos during loading screens, with these photos reflecting your group’s current choice of clothing, instruments and hairstyles.
The one thing you will notice is repetition. With so many cities, venues and setlists and only so many songs being fed into the pipeline at once, you will end up playing the same songs several times during the course of a Rock Band session. However, it’s not really much of a problem. Not only does the repetition give everyone a chance to learn and master the song, but you can choose your difficulty level before each gig, meaning you can keep pushing yourself even in the early stages of your career.
Oh, Europhobes should also be aware that, while in foreign countries, you may have to play foreign-language songs. Still, we’re only talking a handful, and just think how your French or German might improve by a shot of Die Toten Hosen or Les Wampas.
What makes it all work, is the way that Rock Band makes the different instruments and group dynamics fit in with the established gameplay. Vocals are probably the easiest option. On easy and even medium difficulty levels, it’s a struggle to get the pitching, timing and phrasing so horribly wrong that the game will fail you – and goodness knows I’ve heard renderings of Iron Maiden’s ‘Run to the Hills’ that would make you cringe.
Bass is on most tracks a little easier than guitar. The drums are a whole new challenge. Keeping the beat steady on the four pads enough, but doing that while keeping the bass drum in sync is a real nightmare to begin with. If you ever thought playing drums was easy, Rock Band will make you think again. Forget battering your way through Dave Grohl’s titanic fills in Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ for now; just maintaining the basic rhythm will be enough to start with.
Put three or four of these instruments together and two things happen. First, the screen begins to get a lot more crowded, with scrolling tablatures for guitar, bass and drums taking up the majority, with and lyrics plus pitch and timing indicators for the singer at the top. Secondly, something special kicks in.
Remember those moments in Guitar Hero where you kind of forget that you were playing a silly plastic guitar and could almost convince yourself that you were playing the real thing to a throng of adoring fans? No? Well, maybe that’s just me. However, Rock Band can and does give you something close to the feeling of jamming through a real band, complete with those magic moments where everything comes together in some kind of sublime harmony.
This is when Rock Band takes us somewhere even Guitar Hero has never done before: to some bizarre realm where any loser can rock a stadium, School of Rock is the best film ever made and you can’t wipe away your cheesy grin. It’s too intense to be called a party game, but it’s one of the best multiplayer experiences imaginable.
Ingeniously, Harmonix has even made group dynamics a game mechanic. You can survive one awful player if everyone else is playing well, and even rescue someone on the point of disaster by kicking in overdrive to distract the angry fans. Rock Band even solves the problem of what the singer can do during instrumental passages, with a neat hand-clap/tambourine feature built into the singer’s microphone.
As always, much rests on the quality of the song list. Interestingly, Rock Band and GHIII actually share a few tracks (including The Killers’ ‘When You Were Young’, Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Cherub Rock’ and Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’). Meanwhile, we get different songs by many of the same artists (Muse’s ‘Hysteria’ instead of ‘Knights of Cydonia’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ instead of ‘One’).
All in all, though, what begins as a bit of an indie-heavy, rock-light list turns into a pretty broad selection of alternative, metal and hard rock, covering everything from hoary old classics like the Stone’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ and Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ (which will always have a special place in my heart after Elite Beat Agents) to NME favourites like Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s ‘Maps.’ And towering over them all is the mighty Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive’ – a mighty slab of pure US rock cheese that tastes even better as three or four of you career into the ‘I walk these streets…;’ crescendo. This alone is worth the price of admission.
Ah, the price of admission. Well, here’s where Rock Band drops a vital point. ￡99 is already a lot to pay for the ‘band in the box’ set (drums, microphone and guitar), and that’s before you realise that you’ll need an extra ￡40 for a copy of the game, plus an additional ￡60 for an extra guitar should you want to have a proper four-piece band.
That’s ￡200 for a game, and even between four of you that’s a sizable investment. Just as shockingly, while you can pick up GHIII and a wireless controller for ￡60 to ￡65, you’ll need ￡100 to buy the Rock Band equivalent as the game is still sold separately. Given that our American cousins can buy a special edition featuring the Band in the Box set plus game for $149, this might be one of the most extreme versions of ‘Being British’ tax I’ve ever seen.
Otherwise, the only real complaint is that it’s not possible to start a band with friends online. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t always got three mates I can get in the same room at the same time, and it would have been nice to play through the whole career mode over Xbox Live. As it is, you can engage in guitar duels and play through individual songs, but the full Rock Band experience is out.
Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that – providing you can round up the friends and pony up the cash – this is a fuller, richer music game than Guitar Hero III, and one that any self respecting rock fan should sample. The only reason I can give to hold back is that the six month delay EA has taken before releasing Rock Band over here has given Activision time to announce Guitar Hero 4, which is set to do something very similar.
You’ll probably only want to plump up for one or the other, which makes the real question, do I plump for Rock Band now, or wait to see what GH4 delivers? Rock Band is definitely good – nay, great – enough to make the first option perfectly worthwhile, but had EA been a little less greedy with its pricing, my answer would have been ‘why delay?’
The price isn’t right, but otherwise Rock Band is a hugely successful attempt to take the Guitar Hero genre somewhere new. If you can round up a band, it’s expensive but essential.