The Beatles: Rock Band is well worth waiting for. The cynics (like me) will tie it in with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, or Guitar Hero: Metallica, or the Rock Band: AC/DC Live Track Pack. It is not like these things. What it is, is spectacularly fun to play, treating both Rock Band and the Beatles in a very reverential way.
The Beatles have always been a prime selection for a rhythm-action game of their own, not least because of the changes their music went through, eventually crossing a huge variety of genres. For possibly the first time in a Rock Band game, too, all of the arenas are instantly recognisable, from the Cavern Club to the Ed Sullivan Show to the performance on the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters. Performances of the more “unusual” songs, like I Am The Walrus, are performed in a a dreamscape, allowing for weirder costumes and environments. Octopus’ Garden takes place underwater. Even Back in the USSR comes into this, with Soviet imagery flashing up in the background during the performance.
It’s clearly an attempt to bring more of the casual market towards Rock Band, and let’s face it, The Beatles being the perfect band to do this. This emphasis can be seen immediately: every single song is open for Quick Play right from the first time you boot the game. Moreso than that, the No Fail option that was present in Rock Band 2 has been moved out of the menus, and can now be toggled on each individual song setup.
The other new trick is vocal harmonising, with the game supporting the use of three microphones. This isn’t used in only one or two songs, either, with (as you’d hope) every single song featuring it. It’s a tad confusing to look at the vocal bar on the game screen when there are two sets of lyrics scrolling, and more than one pitch bar, but it’s incredibly fun with six players – or four, if players with other instruments fancy singing along.
And that, really, is the key thing: it’s fun, and I spent more time than I probably should have playing it. The songs are challenging enough that I doubt anyone’s going to gold star them on expert difficult their first time through, but through the music itself and the way the game is structured, I’m pretty sure that anyone can have a blast. The real test will be getting my parents to play the games. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Speaking of spending more time than I should have, I also lost a lot of time with the other game at the MTV booth – Rock Band Unplugged, on PSP. It’s not really Rock Band really, but I don’t mean that in a bad way, because it’s a bloody brilliant rhythm-action game anyway, and is more a reimagining of the game for a hand-held console. Unlike the DS Guitar Hero games, there are no strange peripherals on display here. Four buttons (which seem to be up to you to decide) match the colours in the lanes, and you switch instruments with the shoulder buttons.
Yes, you switch instruments – Unplugged has you playing all four at the same time. This is what makes it unique amongst the Rock Band titles, and the staggering thing is that it works remarkably well. Solos still force you into using one instrument, but at the beginning of a song, you’ll have one instrument “open,” with notes coming down. Completing a short phrase (think of the length of the star power phrases) with 100% puts that instrument back onto full health, as it were, and locks it off for a short period, while another opens up. You hop between instruments, locking one off after another, performing an insane juggling act. Alternatively, you mess up a phrase, in which case the instrument remains “open” until you can complete a phrase – but other instruments will still start opening up, too. If you start making mistakes, all hell quickly breaks loose, with all four instruments missing notes. Thankfully, instruments that you aren’t playing don’t lose health particularly quickly, and if you’re really struggling with one instrument you can hop over to lock a few others if need be, so it’s not as bad as it sounds.
It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t, and while it’s got the Rock Band interface and the rough idea behind Rock Band, it feels more like a classic rhythm-action game in the vein of Frequency or Amplitude more than it does a Rock Band game. And you know what? That’s no bad thing, because they were brilliant.
The downside of Unplugged is that all of the tracks in it are culled from the Rock Band games or the DLC on the Music Store, barring a few tracks which are PSP-exclusives for a short period. As a novel take on the Rock Band theme, though, it may well be worth a look.
So, Harmonix is doing a lot of interesting things. Both of these titles are the sort which could be cheap cash-ins, but are being treated with a lot of care and attention, and I suspect they’ll both stand up as solid titles on their own come release.
Rock Band Unplugged should hit shelves in Europe next Friday, while The Beatles: Rock Band is due out 9 September.