IGN Review of The Beatles: Rock Band
Editor's Note: This review refers to the $59.99 game version. A separate review of the $249.99 bundle will be posted on September 8.
The first record I ever listened to was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was six and lucky to experience The Beatles at such a young age. I sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish, then listened to it again. And again. The Beatles have been a part of my life since some of my first memories. So for me, The Beatles: Rock Band is the ultimate gift, crafted for anyone who loves the Fab Four. There's a care and attention you won't see from Activision's Metallica or Aerosmith one-offs. This is a labor of love.
But as you can tell, it's special to me because The Beatles have a place in my heart. First and foremost, you have to like The Beatles to even bother with the third iteration in the Rock Band series. After all, there are only 45 songs on disc, all of them coming from The Beatles' brief but prolific recording career. The Beatles: Rock Band can't interface with the previous two games and all upcoming Beatles downloadable content is only usable with this game. It is a singular entity -- a sort of private Hall of Fame for the greatest band that ever lived.
You can hop right in to Quickplay (online or offline) and enjoy the full track list (minus one song), if you like. There are no costumes to unlock, no characters to create. You play as The Beatles and their hair styles and wardrobe change to match the look from when a particular song was first played. This lack of customization might bum some folks who've grown accustomed to making an outlandish band, but after playing through The Beatles: Rock Band, I think removing these options is one of the better decisions Harmonix made. While playing "Get Back" on my plastic guitar, I never once thought, "If only Paul had a Viking helmet and an eye patch." In eight years, The Beatles not only made dramatic changes in their music, but in their appearance. It's actually just as stunning to see the evolution of their look as it is to experience the growth of their musicianship.
The focus of most people's initial playtime will be the Story mode. This takes you through The Beatles' career, from their early days at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England to their final performance on the rooftop of Apple Corps. You only need to play each song once, rather than the traditional Rock Band formula of recycling songs to extend your playtime. This is the best way to allow people to see the changes that occurred over The Beatles' all-too-brief career.
In their earliest phase, The Beatles were nothing more than a boy band. Sure, they had charisma and talent, but they weren't pushing music to new limits. The songs in this era are catchy tunes, fairly easy to play, and fun at parties. From The Cavern Club, The Beatles move on to the Ed Sullivan Show. Beatlemania has hit -- and you really get that sense playing in Shea Stadium and Budokan.
If you turn on the "realistic" option in the menu, the crowd's volume is pumped up to the point that you can barely hear some of the lyrics amidst the screams of teenage girls. The stadiums have been faithfully recreated and there are some great reactions from the audience as well as the overwhelmed police officers tasked with containing the crowd. It's a little odd that Japan's Nippon Budokan stadium is filled with American teenagers, but The Beatles: Rock Band isn't striving for perfect historical accuracy. The scenes in these arenas is enough to make anyone realize why The Beatles felt they had to give up touring. Who could create great music when girls shriek every time Paul bobs his head?
Halfway through Story mode, The Beatles give up touring to focus on making albums at Abbey Road Studios. Showing the Fab Four sitting in a studio for twenty songs would get a little boring, so Harmonix created dreamscapes for each song recorded during this period. These wondrous, fantastical environments are custom-crafted for each song and have a visual style unlike anything I've seen in a music game. Harmonix transports us from the reality of the studio into a dream world that seems to have limitless possibilities. For the first time, people don't have to play a music game to have a good time. They can just sit back and watch the dreamscapes, marveling at the imagery.
George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is one of my favorites. It doesn't have the whimsy of the "Yellow Submarine" or "Octopus' Garden" dreamscapes. Instead, it takes place on a simple hillside, where the once bright sky grows dreary as the mournful song progresses. The trippiest dreamscape of all is "I Am the Walrus," which puts The Beatles in their Magical Mystery Tour animal forms -- it's some of the weirdest stuff I've seen in a game in a long time.
Just about every song is precluded by audio taken from the studio and/or rooftop sessions and there are even some variations if you play songs multiple times. This really brought me in and made me feel as if I was just an inch closer to being the fifth Beatle.
Story mode ends with a half-dozen songs on the roof of Apple Corps. Though The Beatles played this rooftop concert before recording Abbey Road (which you'll have played through earlier in Story mode), it was a smart choice to end this way. Let It Be was meant as a "return to basics" for The Beatles and that really comes through in this final videogame hurrah.
Through Story mode, you can also unlock a ton of photographs chronicling The Beatles' history. Each image comes with anecdotal information verified by Sir Paul, himself. There are also a half-dozen short videos to unlock. The first video you unlock happens to be the best -- the entirety of The Beatles' Christmas album, sent to members of the fan club. "It's been a really gear year for us," John says.
To add a bit of replay value, each section of the Story mode has its own Chapter Challenge. The challenge is always the same -- beat all of the particular chapter's songs in one playthrough, getting five stars on each song. The difficulty setting doesn't matter (though you can't change it mid-way through a challenge) so you could just set it to easy and burn right through to collect the remaining photos. Or you can be a true gamer and play through on hard or expert, which makes the final few Chapter Challenges quite a bit tougher.
The photos and videos are a great addition, but they (and the cut-scenes between chapters) offer a very brief glimpse at The Beatles' career. A lot more could have been done to illuminate the full history of the band and the Fab Four's impact on modern music. For example, the soon-to-be-released The Beatles Box Set contains a short four-minute-long documentary for each album. Adding these would have provided a more robust look at The Beatles.
The Beatles: Rock Band is less about being "a game" and more about enabling people to experience The Beatles in a brand new way. Though their creativity was far beyond anything we'd heard before, The Beatles weren't known for their technical mastery of their instruments. Don't get me wrong; George has a handful of wicked guitar solos, a few of the vocals can be tough to nail on higher difficulties, and Ringo's drums will definitely keep you active. But this is not at all the same type of progression typically found in music games. Past Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles have taught to believe that music games are about starting easy and progressing into impossibility. That's just not what The Beatles: Rock Band is about. If you want an epic challenge that makes your fingers fall off, you won't find that here.
Credit Harmonix for staying true to its formula of not manufacturing difficulty in songs. If the song doesn't call for an impossible guitar riff, they aren't going to force it in there. Ultimately, the lower difficulty doesn't bother me, because The Beatles: Rock Band gives me an emotional experience that I don't get from any other music game.
While I'd love to spend thousands of words detailing the changes and updates to the gameplay, there's really no need. The Beatles is almost identical in play to Rock Band 2. The major change is the addition of vocal harmonies. Up to three mics can be used so that you and your friends can butcher The Beatles' harmonies together. Vocal assignments aren't given -- that is, no one is designated as being lead or backup vocal #1 or #2. Anyone can sing any part they like whenever they like. All you have to worry about is filling the vocal meter for one of the three parts in each phrase. But if your duo or trio can nail both the lead and backup vocals, you can earn Double Fab and Triple Fab bonus points. Screwing up the harmonies won't hurt you, so there's no harm in trying. Surprisingly, three-part vocal harmonies is the toughest thing to master in The Beatles: Rock Band.
The one other addition worth mentioning is something new in the Training mode. Aside from the vocal harmony training, there's something called Beatle Beats. Here you can master more than 80 of Ringo's classic rhythms. Completing these sections requires you to play them at an expert level, which is not so easy unless you are already an expert on drums.
The Wii edition of The Beatles: Rock Band is virtually identical to the PS3/X360 versions. It features full online functionality (including the ability to download new songs) and has some impressive visuals. There is aliasing in the Wii version, but it otherwise holds its own. The one thing to note is that the disc costs $59.99, which is $10 more than the standard Wii title. You get nothing extra for this -- just the right with play as The Beatles.
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