Harmonix launched music games into a whole new arena with the release of Rock Band last year. No longer did music games have to be about just playing the drums or the guitar or singing. All three elements were merged together into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable package. But while Rock Band was a breath of fresh air, it did have some issues. With the release of Rock Band 2 less than a year after the original, Harmonix addresses many of the past concerns and adds an awesome new online mode, certain to keep gamers rockin' for another year.
The biggest addition isn't a new feature or function, but 84 new songs
. All master tracks, these 84 songs represent the single greatest collection of songs in a game to date. Headlining the new tracks is the first Guns N' Roses single in more than a decade
, "Shackler's Revenge." Along with these are a slew of incredible songs that span the '60s right up to today. AC/DC, Metallica, The Talking Heads, Pearl Jam, Journey, Megadeath, Modest Mouse, Rage Against the Machine, Bon Jovi, Jane's Addiction -- I could keep going, but you get the point. There are some brilliant songs here. And while there are going to be a few tracks each person will not care for, there's far more good here than bad.
What makes Rock Band 2 special is that it doesn't end with 84 tracks. All of your previously downloaded DLC for Rock Band 1 is automatically useable with Rock Band 2. For 400 MSP ($5), you can export 55 of the Rock Band 1 tracks for use in Rock Band 2. Add to that an additional 20 free DLC songs available to anyone who purchases Rock Band 2. Though the songs in this 20-pack haven't been announced and the only release date we have is "before the end of the year," it's still an extra 20 songs at no additional cost. Both the RB1 tracks and DLC are integrated seamlessly in all of RB2's game modes. There are challenges built into different modes just for specific DLC and original Rock Band tracks. Plus, your bonus content appears in mystery set lists in World Tour. Conceivably, you could boot up Rock Band 2 for the first time and have more than 300 songs available. That's pretty awesome.
Most importantly, the 84 tracks play better than those from the first Rock Band. Let's face it, the RB1 tracks went a bit easy on guitarists. That is not the case with RB2. While there are a good number of warm-up songs that are a breeze for even moderately skilled players, there are a lot more challenging songs for all instruments this time around. Bassists are in for a treat, as there are some truly slick bass lines this time around. "Livin' on a Prayer," "Shackler's Revenge," and "You Oughta Know" are all standouts. Drums have also seen some real progression as there are even more challenging tunes this time around. By the time you reach the conclusion of World Tour, you'll be facing a ton of metal songs that will be a true test for your entire band. Prepare for "Painkiller." It is an epic endeavor for all four band members.
One thing that became clear following the release of Rock Band is that there is a distinct dichotomy between players. There are those who are really hardcore and want to be tested as they progress through a deep career mode. Then there are those who just want to bring out Rock Band at parties or when friends and family are over. These folks just want to have a good time. Rock Band 1 didn't service either properly, as there weren't enough difficult songs for the hardcore and the set-up for casual play was a pain in the ass. Both those areas have been addressed.
You've already read about the increase in challenge for some of the songs, but let's talk about the new pick-up-and-play aspect. This is not something that should be glossed over, as it makes Rock Band 2 so much more accessible right out of the box. Bands no longer have to be tied to a specific character and characters are no longer tied to an instrument. And you no longer need to sign in each player to a different account. Just hop in, grab any of a number of pre-generated characters, select your instrument and you're ready to go. It's easy to have people pop in and out during World Tour or any other mode. And you can set fill-in characters for your band so if someone isn't available to play an instrument, one of your created characters will still show up on stage.
If you just want to play and have fun, there is a "No Fail" option you can switch on. You can't compete in the majority of modes with this on, but you can enjoy quick play setlists. This is perfect for parties or casual gatherings where all you want is to create a setlist and rock out. And yes, you can now create a lengthy playlist so that you don't get bumped out to a menu between each song.
When playing, you aren't going to notice many gameplay differences from RB1. All of the stages from the first game are back with only 15 new arenas added to spice things up. The on-stage presentation has been strengthened with smarter camera cuts and more active band members, but the core gameplay is nearly identical to RB1. That's not such a bad thing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. However, there are a few minor tweaks. You'll notice a lot more hammer-ons on hard and expert difficulties and the "talky" parts on vocals have been made far easier. Yes, the talky bits needed some fine tuning, but Harmonix went too far. It's stunningly easy to earn 100% on expert vocals in "Give It Away" and "Testify."
Rock Band 2 has a few new welcome features, but let's face it -- most folks will go straight to World Tour. They may be a bit disappointed to find World Tour largely unchanged. Though the core functionality is the same, there have been a few important additions and changes to World Tour. You can now play World Tour solo with no penalties. You still earn fans, cash and stars even if you play alone on drums. And you won't be forced to play on harder difficulties for the majority of World Tour, allowing gamers to enjoy the campaign at their own skill level and pace. Should you be home alone and want to play with friends, you can now hop online with World Tour and rock out with friends or strangers without any real stress. The online options are fairly limited (it would be nice to be able to search by skill level), but works well.
The progression in World Tour is almost completely identical to last year's. The world map uses the same art and the challenges are set up the same way as in the original. The only wrinkle is that you can now hire from a variety of managers, publicists and whack jobs. I recommend hiring my cousin, "Swami Ben" Goldstein who helps you win big (or lose huge). Some staff members can help you get gigs you wouldn't normally come across. These occur in the form of impromptu challenges that pop up before you play a set. One might suggest that your drummer has been getting off too easily and offers you a bonus if you switch your selected song with one that's really tough on drums. Another gives the opportunity to shoot a music video for MTV. It's a nice little touch, but doesn't do much in the way of innovation. This is just too much like the World Tour from RB1.
Also a let-down is the character creator. A few new faces, a new clothing store and some new tattoos do little to improve upon what was offered last year. You still can't modify faces or create a good range of body types. The tattoo creator has such great depth, it's a wonder why the character creator is so simplistic.
Though World Tour is a bit disappointing, there are a few new features that are great. Battle of the Bands is an online challenge mode that is really going to catch fire. Though the term "Battle of the Bands" might make you think this is a mode where bands battle head-to-head at the same time, that's not so. Those battles do exist (in the forms of Tug-of-War and Score Duels), but BOTB is more than that.
Battle of the Bands is a series of rotating challenges where your score is compared against those of your friends and the rest of the online gaming world. The challenges change regularly, with Harmonix promising at least one new challenge every day. A challenge might be something as simple as getting the highest score as a band in a set of select tracks. Or it can be much more specific. The Steely Dan Expert Streak Battle, for example, is for guitarists only. You must play "Bodhisattva" on expert (though "No Fail" has been added so everyone can finish). Your score doesn't matter for this challenge, just the length of your best note streak.
Most challenges will stay up for about a week, but some will come and go in a matter of hours. Just the other night I happened to be on and caught a late night challenge designed for those who were playing Rock Band 2 into the wee hours. Those early to bed will never see this. Challenges will be made based on genre, themes (i.e. creepy stalker songs), DLC packs and Rock Band 1 tracks. Everything is fair game. And if you don't find any challenges you like one day, come back the next. Something new will be there.
Should your score be passed, you are notified the next time you hop onto Rock Band 2. You'll also be able to see where you stand in a battle at any time. You can always retry a challenge -- there's no limit to how often you and your friends can give it a go. When playing a challenge, you will see the score of the person directly ahead of you as well as a progress bar showing whether or not you are taking the lead. This is a good idea that doesn't go far enough. Even if you destroy the other score, Rock Band 2 never switches the score to the next person above you. So when you first hit a challenge, often you will trounce a low score right away and have no idea how close you are to getting near the top of the list.
Battle of the Bands changes how you'll approach online music gaming, and the new Player Challenges will alter your view on the typical play-through-a-list campaign. Think of this as a complete reworking of last year's single-player mode. You begin on the "Local Upstart" level with a basic three-set song test on vocals, drums, guitar, or as a full band. Beating this opens new and more difficult levels and challenges (including ones for bass players). As you progress, you'll have tougher set lists for each instrument, but you will also see some of the cool new dynamic challenges. Rock Band 2 is designed to read all the RB music content you own (be it RB1, RB2 or DLC) and create challenges on the spot. Have at least three Metallica songs? A Metallica challenge awaits. The Infinite Metal challenge will be there just for owning Rock Band 2. But if you have additional metal songs on your hard drive, those will be added. DLC packs also have challenges, and on and on. It's a pretty deep mode that rewards you with a hefty amount of cash and some unique clothing items.
Lastly, there is a Drum Trainer, which can help you become a better drummer. It puts you through a series of common drum patterns and works well enough. The Trainer also includes a free play mode, where you can beat the drums without a track. And you can import any music on your hard drive so you can bash along to it.
Rock Band 2 doesn't initially ship with an instrument bundle. Assuming you own RB1, then it's just $60 to own 84 new tracks (plus 20 free DLC tracks) with some nice tweaks and additions. That's a great deal. But what if you want new instruments? Well, there is a new guitar and a new drum kit each sold separately. Both are upgrades on the originals, but only one is worth the cheddar.
The guitar features the same mold as the original, but has a slick new starburst faceplate. The strum bar has been tweaked to be "less mushy," but the guitar itself is still inferior to previous Guitar Hero offerings. The bonuses for buying the new guitar is that it's wireless and that it has an auto-calibration feature. That is not worth $69.99. I'd recommend against it.
The drums, on the other hand, may just be worth the $89.99 price tag. Though from the same mold as the original, the drums are wireless and much quieter than before. The pads are velocity sensitive, measuring the speed and force used to hit the pads. During fills, hitting a pad softer creates quieter sounds. And the drum more accurately counts hits. The pedal, which broke for many people last year, is now metal and should be impervious to destruction.
©2008-09-12, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved