Metallica, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones -- these are some of the legendary bands in rock. And now, thanks to Harmonix's Rock Band, you and your friends can join the legendary pantheon of rock gods. The latest game from Harmonix ups the ante on other music titles by combining guitars, drums, and singing into one awesome package. You and your friends will rock out with some of the greatest bands in history. And Fall Out Boy. While Rock Band doesn't offer the insanely intense (and perhaps impossible) challenge of Guitar Hero III, it's a game that everyone will have fun playing. This may just be among the best party games ever released.
The Rock Band box set comes with the game, a wireless guitar, a wired mic, a wired drum kit, and a dongle for the guitar. If you want a full four-player band with bass guitarist, you'll need to purchase a separate guitar or use one from Guitar Hero. At $169.99 and with 45 licensed tracks (and 13 bonus songs) included, Rock Band is a fairly good deal. You will certainly get your money's worth playing the engrossing and seemingly never-ending career mode. So long as you have some friends or paid associates willing to jam, Rock Band will give you plenty of reasons to sing for joy.
Rock Band has one major difference from other music games: it's not about one person's experience. This is a group effort and the gameplay is geared towards teamwork. While the four members of your band must all be concerned with their own performances, you must work together to earn epic scores in Rock Band. Each instrument comes with its own Overdrive (AKA Star Power) system. Individually, they kick in a x2 multiplier for the player who enters Overdrive. But you can stack other member's Overdrives to creative massive multipliers for the entire group. Get all four members in Overdrive at the same time for a bonus x8. To do this, though, requires communication with your other team members.
Continuing the theme of playing together, Overdrive can also be used to save a bandmate. Should your drummer perform poorly and fail out of a song, another player with sufficient energy stored up can go into Overdrive and bring their buddy back from the brink. In fact, if you want to finish a song, someone must save the failed player. The crowd won't stand for losing the backbeat for too long. They will boo you off stage if the band member isn't saved. If you know your guitarist has trouble with the solo in Metallica's "Enter Sandman" you may want to save your Overdrive just in case he needs a rescue.
There are also "Unity Sections" in each song. If the guitarists and drummer nail these sections perfectly, the band earns a bonus. On select songs there are similar bonuses offered with big finishes, where the guitarists and drummer can play whatever they want to close out a song. The catch is that they each must hit the final notes of the song or forfeit the hefty bonus.
All of this pushes gamers to be a band. You aren't punished for playing selfishly, but the rewards for being cooperative are considerable. This is a fairly unique concept for a music game -- heck for any game -- and it forms the foundation of Rock Band. This is not Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution, or Donkey Konga. It's called Rock Band for a reason.
Though this is a game that works best when playing with others, there are solo career modes for mic, lead guitar, and drums. Bass solo career isn't included for some odd reason. Solo career mode works much like Guitar Hero, where you play through a list of songs that grow progressively more difficult. It's not a particularly inspired option, but works as a way to practice your chosen instrument for when the band gets together.
Rockin' the Mic -- Hil's Take
Singing is a unique experience compared to the guitar and drums on Rock Band. The instrument you play has no buttons to press and doesn't consist of hundreds of individually-counted notes. Your voice is your tool. You don't have to be a good singer or even have the ability to reach a high octave; you just have to match the pitch line that appears on screen.
Each song is broken into phrases and your performance is measured on how well you nail each phrase. You'll spot a small meter at the bottom of the lyrics that fills when your pitch matches the one shown on screen. Fill that meter completely before the end of the phrase and you'll be rated "Awesome" which counts as one perfect phrase and boosts your multiplier. Where guitarists and drummers can land 200-note streaks, singers often only have 15-25 phrases available for an entire song. It should be noted that there is no penalty for singing before a note or holding it longer. This does allow for a bit of improvisation, even if it's only minor. It also allows a singer to test for the right pitch leading into a new phrase.
Cranking up the difficult adds considerable challenge as a singer. Pretty much anyone can beat the majority of songs in Rock Band (so long as they've heard them before) on medium. Crank the difficulty to hard and there is a considerable jump. It takes more accurate hits on pitch to fill the scoring meter, thus making it tougher to get "Awesome" ratings. With some of the more challenging songs, hard difficulty can be incredibly tough. There's far less of a jump in difficulty moving from hard to expert. Many will have more fun leaving the difficulty lower so they can enjoy the karaoke aspect of rockin' the mic without having to fret over the technical aspects.
Along with hitting pitch, there are also "talky parts" in Rock Band. These do not measure pitch at all, but your ability to accurately hit the words that pop on screen. These account for when a singer says "Alright!" or "Yeah yeah yeah!" And it makes up the entirety of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." I won't lie, I hate the talky parts. And that's saying something, since I never shut up. Some will dig the "free talk," but I tend to lose my multiplier in the talking sections.
Overdrive for a singer is very different from guitar or drums. When your energy meter is full, you must wait for an empty section of the vocals. At this point the screen turns yellow. Say anything you want -- "Hello, Cleveland!" -- to kick into Overdrive. This can make it difficult to properly time the use of your Overdrive because sometimes you won't have the option to turn it on. This can be particularly frustrating if a band member is in danger of failing out.
The singer is the frontman for any band. In Rock Band, he is often the odd man out as well. The person holding the mic is not included in any of the unity sections; they are not key to any of the big endings that offer massive bonus points; and they are scored differently than the other players. One of Harmonix's oversights was in excluding the singer from some of these gameplay elements. Does it hurt the enjoyment of being a singer? Not really. Still, there's no question that the singer is not always on equal footing with the other players.
Wailing on Guitar -- Brudvig's Take
Thanks in no small part to Harmonix, we're all pretty up to speed on how the guitar part plays in a game like Rock Band. The company that started the craze by making Guitar Hero I and II has slightly tweaked the gameplay for Rock Band, but largely stayed true to the foundation it laid down.
Overdrive can now be accumulated while it is activated, allowing you to extend the length of your bonus time with some skilled playing. There's also a designated solo section or two in most songs. Outside of the big finishes at the end of some songs that allow you to play any notes you want, everything else is the same as we're all used to at this point.
There's going to be a split reception when it comes to the guitar part of Rock Band. Those who have been shredding and mastering the Guitar Hero games will find that these parts don't come close to offering the same challenge. There are a few tracks that can test your merit (Deep Purple's "Highway Star" comes to mind), but any expert won't be pressed hard with these note layouts. That may suit most gamers just fine, especially those who have felt burned by the high difficulty level the Guitar Hero games can lay down.
The guitar note layouts, much like most of Rock Band, stay true to the idea that this is a party game. Expert players will be able to use their extra Overdrive to revive their friends if they fail out, while novices will simply have a good time. If you're looking for another game to whittle away the hours perfecting guitar parts by yourself, Rock Band likely won't live up to your expectations. Everything just becomes a lot more fun when you have a few friends at your side. Showing off and rocking out with a group of friends makes any complaints you may have about the game feel unimportant.
For my money, I'll take the Guitar Hero III wireless Les Paul controller over the Rock Band guitar. The new switch to adjust the effects during solos in Rock Band is a nice gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. The same goes for the added fret buttons at the top of the neck. The Rock Band Fender model is entirely playable, though it will take some getting used to if you've played many hours on another controller. Still, even after getting used to it the guitar never feels as good as the alternative -- especially on Xbox 360 where you're tethered down with a wire on the Fender model.
Playing Bass -- Clayman's Take
The bassist doesn't have the most glamorous job in a band. Rarely do they take center stage over the other the drummer, lead guitar, or vocalist and the same is true with Rock Band. On many songs the bass plays like dumbed-down versions of the guitar parts. Since there's often far fewer notes than the other instruments there's slightly more emphasis on holding a steady rhythm and hitting more notes over the course of the entire song.
On the harder difficulty levels a decent bassist is the glue that holds the band together. Their part has fewer notes and players are more likely to accumulate Overdrive to save ailing band mates as they struggle to hit high notes and complicated riffs. The instrument also serves as a great way to bring less talented gamers into the mix. This is the instrument you hand to your little brother, your rhythm impaired buddy or the guy at the party who's had one too many glasses of Night Train.
Unfortunately the bass's best asset is also its biggest downfall. When playing with a group of skilled fake musicians there isn't going to be arguments over who gets to rock the bass. In our office there's been plenty of jostling to play the drums, sing, or show off on the guitar, but the bass is viewed as a little bit of a pariah. There are highlights, like Bang Camero's "Pleasure (Pleasure)", anything by The Who and of course "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. These songs prove that the bassist can rock, just not as hard as the other members.
Poundin' the Skins -- Tal's Take
As everyone knows, the drummer is usually the least stable person in any band -- just look at The Who's Keith Moon, The Police's Stewart Copeland, and Animal from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Luckily, that's not the case with Rock Band.
The drum kit itself is actually quite stable and well built. Comprised of 10 pieces out of the box (12 if you count the sticks) -- six metal tubes, two feet, a kick pedal, and the four-panel drumpad itself -- you can put the drum set together in less than five minutes, and the lightweight aluminum and plastic actually feels like it will take a licking. Two of the tubes on each side fit together to make the drums fully adjustable for a variety of heights, and you can even take one of the leg tubes out on each side and clip the drumpad on the feet to create a very short drum set for use on a table or other flat surface.
Overall the build quality is great for the price. The drum pads themselves seem like they'll withstand a lot of pounding and as I tend to play the drums pretty ferociously, that was a big concern for me when I first sat down on my throne and took control of the beat for the band. As sturdy as the drumpad feels, we do have some concerns about the kick pedal. During my play time, I had a pre-production foot pedal snap in half during a particularly driving session of Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive on expert. Admittedly, the song does feature a lot of bass drum, but the problem seems to be more of an engineering design flaw than anything else. The kick pedal is surprisingly thin around the main pressure point in the middle where the spring meets the underside surface of the pedal itself. While there are criss-crossing lines of plastic cross-hatching the bottom of the pedal, it appears that the area around the pressure point is the least enforced, and thus our pedal snapped in half right where the spring meets the pedal.
Although the production pedal does look like it was reinforced in places with thicker plastic tubes and extra screws over the pre-production model, it didn't look like the main pressure point where the spring meets the pedal has been altered at all. We haven't had a problem with the production pedal yet, but it is a concern for the future, as it definitely looks like the most vulnerable part of the entire drum set.
With the exception of the maracas in Samba di Amigo, more than any other physical instrument, the drums operate more like their real-life counterparts than we've seen in any rhythm game. While neither Guitar Hero nor Rock Band will teach you how to play the guitar or bass, it will teach you the strum rhythm. Since drums are a rhythm instrument, you are actually learning how to play the real drum beats for the songs in Rock Band. That is if you opt to play on expert, of course. In addition, the set comes complete with a set of real Ludwig drumsticks, so you're using the real-deal tools when you're swinging the lumber. Since the drumpads are made of plastic and not a stretched skin like a real drum, there's not quite as much rebound or bounce, so it's a little harder to get a true roll with the drumsticks going, but overall we were very happy with the performance, accuracy, and feel of the drum kit.
Since it's a new gaming experience, we quickly found that everyone wanted to play the drums. In my opinion, the drums are the most fun instrument to play in Rock Band, again most likely because it's a new experience and because it's the instrument that translates the closest to its real-life counterpart. It also helps that a lot of the songs in Rock Band are really tailored to the drums, such as Rush's "Tom Sawyer," "Cherub Rock" by Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixie's "Wave of Mutilation," The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," and of course BOC's cowbell-laden "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." Based on that song alone, I'm planning to purchase a real cowbell to attach to the drum set just to throw in on a few songs.
Also, as the drummer, you're pretty much the true leader of the band because you're making actual noise as your drumsticks slap the plastic drum heads. Play well and hopefully you can keep everyone else on track, but play off rhythm and you risk throwing everyone else off as you act as a demented metronome. That means that the drummer is one of the most important parts of your faux band, so you better pick someone who actually has a sense of rhythm.
Like Erik said in his guitar portion of the review, the guitar parts in Rock Band are a bit easier than Guitar Hero 3. I can't say I found that the drum parts in Rock Band were easy, but that's actually a good thing because the World Tour mode becomes a good learning tool for aspiring drummers. I can get through the entire Guitar Hero series on expert, but I had a hard time just keeping up with medium on drums on a few songs the first time I played. However, the experience itself was great fun, and pushed me to work even harder. I eventually got through all the songs on hard, and can get through many on expert now. I will say that the transition from medium to hard seems like a big leap. Not only do you add the dreaded kick pedal (getting my foot and hands to do something completely different from one another proved to be a Zen experience where I had to turn off my brain and become one with the drum set), but you'll also be hitting two pads at once on several occasions, sometimes in conjunction with the kick pedal. On expert you're basically playing the real drum parts, so if you can do that, start a real band. You can also use Rock Band as a workout regimen, as you'll work up quite a sweat playing on hard or expert.
Although for the most part the drums are a solid, satisfying, visceral experience, there are a couple of issues I found while playing the drums. First off, kicking in overdrive is a lot different than it is with the guitar or bass. While the melody makers in your band have it easy when it comes to kicking into overdrive to rack up bonus points -- just tilt the guitar -- the drummer has to wait until a fill in the song to add his own flair with the drums and tap the green pad in perfect rhythm to deploy overdrive. This makes overdrive much more regimented than when playing the guitar parts, and means the drummer is locked into situations where he or she can save other players or get score multipliers. It's also sometimes difficult to see the orange kick bar on the note scroll as soon as overdrive begins because it's accompanied by a glittery yellowish-orange splash on the screen, which somewhat conceals the orange of the kick note. Let me tell you, it really sucks to miss a note right at the beginning of your overdrive passage because it's difficult to see.
Overall though, the drums are the most fun part in Rock Band, at least in my opinion, and add a whole new dimension to rhythm games. Sure, we've had bongos and taiko drums before, but you have to have at least a five-piece drum set to get the full power of rock on, something that Rock Band achieves wholly.
Band World Tour
The meat of Rock Band is the unbelievably cool Band World Tour. The BWT requires at least two players with AI filling in any missing roles. Though currently only available locally, BWT will get a patch to allow for an online career mode at some point in the near future. Out of the box, however, you will only be able to enjoy this mode if you have someone else to play with (or want to sing while playing an instrument).
Using Rock Band's robust character creation system, you'll design your own band member. Though there are only a few facial options, thanks to a deep tattoo creation program, makeup options, and tons of clothes to choose from, you can manage to invent a unique-looking individual. The band itself has a name of your choosing, which shows up in lights in some arenas, on posters, and even on album covers. By the time you are finished fleshing out your characters and band, you should have a fairly original product to take on stage. And boy are there a lot of places to play -- more than 40 venues in total, set in major cities around the world.
The BWT starts you out in small clubs in the early part of your career. You will have limited options on the sets you can select. There may be just a single song to play, the option for a mystery set of random songs, or the ability to create your own set list. In later arenas you will get some awesome set lists for things like Southern Rock Bands and even the Endless Setlist, which includes every single song in the game. Playing well earns you stars and fans. Stars indicate your level of fame and are never lost. Fans are a measure of your popularity and can be lost. Fail a set and fans will abandon you. The number of fans won or lost is determined by the size of the venue. The more people who see you play the more fans that can be won or lost by your performance. You could make your way to major arenas, collecting a significant number of stars along the way. You could well be the most famous band in the world. But have a series of flops in a some big arenas and your fans will turn their backs on your band. It's possible to have a massive fall from fame and be barred from bigger venues until you can grow your fan base back up to acceptable levels.
Along the way in BWT, you'll gain a manager. He assists you in winning a tour bus, jet, roadies, and a PR firm. The end goal, if you need one, is to be inducted in the Rock Band Hall of Fame. This is no easy task. It will take many, many hours of excellent play to make your way to such a lofty plateau. It should be noted that there is a cap for fans based on the lowest difficulty level set by a band member. Once you his a quarter-million fans, you can no longer play on medium if you want to add more fans. To get to the top, everyone will need to be playing at least on hard difficulty, which could prove an issue for those not adept at music games. Even when you enter the Hall of Fame, your tour never ends. You will find more gigs to play and plenty of value to rocking out long after you gain Rock Band's top accolades.
To add some interesting twists on your rise to fame, you will receive periodic challenges that gamble against your success. You may be offered to do a gig for charity, for example. This forfeits cash earnings (used to buy new clothes and instruments) in favor of doubling the number of fans earned. Or you can take the bet that you will finish the set with five stars in each song. Do so and you gain four times the fans. Lose and you will have four times the normal number of fans tearing up their posters of your lead singer and swearing love for your next door neighbor's virtual band.
When on stage, you will be treated to the best presentation and visuals Harmonix has ever created. The band looks as if they are playing their instruments. The lip-synching from the singer, while not perfect, is good enough that when seen out of the corner of your eye, you'll swear is spot-on. The cartoonish look Harmonix used in Guitar Hero has been toned down. It's now a nice balance between caricature and realism and it looks great on screen. But the real treat is the crowd interaction. If the band is playing well, the crowd will start singing the song. It's an awesome feeling to have the crowd backing the vocalist and gives the sense that you are on a stage actually playing to a massive audience. Even the load screens have a cool touch to them with postcards and magazine covers that feature your band members in their various costumes. Top to bottom, BWT does a great job of making it feel as if you are in a band.
The only issue with Band World Tour is the one major fault of Rock Band: There are only 45 licensed tracks. Because of the set-up of BWT, you will end up playing dozens upon dozens of sets on your way to the Hall of Fame. With 45 songs available, you are going to see repeats often. In one five-hour stretch, our band, The Ignorant Sluts, must have played Nirvana's "In Bloom" six times. By the end, our love for Nirvana's classic had wilted.
The remedy is to purchase downloadable content, which adds to the BWT song list. If you have no interest in purchasing DLC, be prepared to face a considerable amount of repetition. There is obviously a balance between the number of songs included on disc and the overall price of Rock Band. Still, it's impossible to ignore that, particularly in the early goings of BWT, we were playing the same tunes again and again. It doesn't help that some of the songs in Rock Band just plain suck (Coheed and Cambria, seriously?). The good news is that all downloadable content is fully integrated into BWT. If you buy new songs ($5.49 for 3-song packs, $1.99 for individual songs) you can keep the Tour going indefinitely.
If you want to take your game online, both the PS3 and 360 versions offer three options. You can get a band together for quickplay. This means you play some songs together, but none of it progresses you in a career mode. Score Duel is an instrument head-to-head where two players compete for the highest score on the same song. Tug of War is the most interesting multiplayer mode. In it, two players using the same instrument play different sections of the same song. The player who performs better will slowly win over the crowd. The goal is to have more of the crowd cheering for you than your opponent. It's particularly fun to play Tug of War with the drums.
Online play is surprisingly smooth. There were no issues when competing online in terms of latency. The only reason for a loss was because the other fellow was simply better. This may not be the case when four people with suspect connections get together online for quickplay, but the online worked fine for us. The online modes are a nice distraction, but they pale when compared to BWT. Get that online and then we're talking business.
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