This has been a banner year for both console and PC gaming. I have played quite a few five-star games this year. Of all the releases, Rock Band is the one I have looked forward to most. I am certainly not naive enough to think that my expectations of a game will be met (and this is usually the case). Thankfully, Rock Band not only met my expectations, it surpassed them.
Rock Band is a rhythm music game similar to Guitar Hero, but with the addition of drums, vocals and bass (also available in the GH games). The peripherals are essential to the game and I am happy to report that they are all of seemingly high quality. It is a game brought to us by the team that made the original Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II and Rock the 80’s. With the backing of MTV and EA, Rock Band could not be better situated for success.
The guitar included with the 360 version is wired (as are the mike and drums) with a cord of sufficient length. There is a breakaway release on the cord, similar to that seen on the original Xbox controllers. Oddly, if you get a bit overzealous and yank the instrument, the USB is more likely to pull out of the dongle or port. The guitar is very comfortable to use and has two sets of buttons. One set is in the normal location (similar to GH) and the second is near the guitar body. This is useful for both small-handed individuals and looks cool while playing guitar solos. While I have read a few complaints about the guitar, I can honestly say I prefer it to the GH instrument (and wish it worked in GH, which, sadly, it does not). The feel is much more guitar-like in that the buttons are recessed into the frets instead of raised.
The guitar portion of the game is easy when compared with GH. As a matter of fact, I was proficient on hard during the first run of most songs. In GH, this is rarely the case. The fret display also is easier to time due to the rectangular nature of the notes versus circles. The hammer and pulls, however, are a bit harder to notice, as they are simply smaller rectangles.
Rock Band has a feature similar to GH’s star power but is called “overdrive.” While it is activated in the same way (raise the neck) it differs in that you can fill the overdrive meter even when it is active. This means you can play some really long multiplier sections. In addition to overview, there are some guitar solo sections in which you are rated on percentage of notes hit.
The bass section is similar to the guitar except it usually requires four buttons. The bass sections are much easier than the guitar sections (IMHO), but the beats can be a bit off-synch. No disrespect to any bass players reading this of course. However, if you have a friend who has never played, it is the perfect instrument to begin the game with.
The microphone is a sturdy piece of equipment and seems to be really well balanced, not picking up ambient sounds (like from the game). The vocals are the only portion of the game that do not scroll vertically but, instead, move horizontally across the screen. The notes are represented by pitch lines that vary in both height and length. Vocals are easy to pull off, with the exception of expert mode, where your timing really needs to be flawless. I found I had to sing more like a robot than a rock star in order to not fail miserably. Achieving overdrive with the mike requires nailing a vocal section and then simply making a loud sound during an activation strip. During overdrive, there is reverb added to the vocals, and it sounds pretty good. There are also speaking and clapping sections (which are a bit odd if you ask me). The clapping sections act like a solo and you are rated on the percentage of accurate claps or grunts.
Arguably, the peripheral that people were looking forward to most is the drum set. Thankfully, whoever designed the set included with the special edition pack made sure it was sturdy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the posts the drums sit on are metal, no cheap plastic here folks. The set is adjustable in height and the foot pedal can be moved to be comfortable for both short and tall drummers. The drum heads are also a decent size, but I would have preferred them to be a bit wider in diameter (similar to a real drum set).
I feel pretty proficient in the guitar and vocal department, but drumming is a new experience for me. I am certainly not without rhythm, but having to pay attention to three different body parts and timing strikes exactly is tough for me. By no means is this a complaint. It is refreshing to play a game that presents me with a new challenge.
Rock Band can be played in solo mode, where you choose an instrument and play through a set list, similar to GH. While this is useful for learning the dynamics of each specific instrument, it pales in comparison to the Band World Tour mode. Band World Tour involves at least two players (and up to four) performing sets together and progressing to new venues. This is clearly how Rock Band was intended to be played and it is easy to lose hours without blinking.
In World Tour mode each player can choose his or her own difficulty setting, so a proficient player can rock hard with a beginner. As each song progresses, the individual instruments fill into a band meter. Anyone who does not perform adequately will have their audio dropped from the game. However, if another band member can activate overdrive, the dropped player will be revived which is a great way of getting everyone to work as an actual band and not just as individuals.
Each participant in Rock Band can create a unique character to use in performances. These characters are available in both solo and multiplayer. As you progress you’ll earn money that can be used to customize the look of your character as well as purchase instruments which is an incentive to keep playing and improve your rock Band skills.
Online play is surprisingly good, but not as fun as being in a room with friends. Worth noting though that World Tour mode is not available online. I am not sure why, but such is life (and the reason for the ½ point deduction in my rating). In addition to online multiplayer, the game features downloads of tracks from some pretty fantastic bands. At release the likes of The Police and Metallica (3 song packs or individually) were already available for a price. These songs can be played as part of your World Tour sets, so they’re certainly going to be popular. Down the road, it may be possible to download entire albums, but none are available as of yet.
It is hard to believe I am near the end of the review and I have yet to mention the songs available in Rock Band. Like the GH series, Rock Band contains something for everyone. There are some that are great and others that are forgettable. I am sure those that I wasn’t crazy about are probably must-haves for fans of the bands that released them.
The graphics in Rock Band are exquisite. The character animations and lip synching are very good and the game is more realistic than the GH games. There was never any stutter when I played, not even with 4 players jamming in the most intense songs. The audio is great as well, and surprisingly, it is easy to hear whatever you need to while performing even with four players in the same room.
For me, Rock Band is a contender for game of the year (and what a year it has been). It is well conceived, fun, polished and expandable through downloads. In the realm of party games, there are none that can compete. If the downloadable content is updated regularly (unlike the GH games) Rock Band will maintain its popularity for a very long time. I cannot wait to see what they think of next!