As most of us know, the music-game genre has been practically monopolized by a certain guitar-wielding giant of a franchise. However, there is no “I” in “rock,” a fact Harmonix is trying to prove with its latest creation, Rock Band. To be fair to snubbed bass players, Guitar Hero did have co-op and multiplayer modes, but the two instruments (lead and bass guitar) were played exactly the same. Yet Rock Band does its best to live up to its name, doubling up not only the guitar options, but also by adding vocals and drums. The addition of these two roles really gives Rock Band a unique shape, and it’s the closest many of us will ever get to being part of an actual rock band.
You shouldn’t be shocked or even slightly surprised by the fact that the guitar and bass are played almost exactly they way they were in Guitar Hero; after all, Harmonix did make Guitar Hero 1 and 2. Still, there’s a reason those games were great, so these two instruments are as fun to rock with as always. The guitar that comes with Rock Band looks more realistic than other options out there, but it requires a slight adjustment in playing style. Fortunately, Harmonix made the money-wise decision to allow the use of Guitar Hero instruments with Rock Band, a fact that I took advantage of quite often, as I personally enjoyed using the more-familiar Guitar Hero axes.
Difficulty wise, Rock Band doesn’t go overboard with cruelty, as its Expert difficulty is about level with the Hard mode from Guitar Hero III. Keep in mind that’s just on average, because some songs are quite difficult (Green Grass and High Tides makes Freebird seem brief).
But enough about the axes; the drums and vocals are what make Rock Band special. The drums are realistic and play just how you think they would in a game like this: four drums correspond to the green, yellow, red and blue buttons on the guitars, and a drum pedal serves the role of the orange note. Drum sessions range from easy beats to Tom Sawyer nightmares, and overall the drums take some time to get used to, mostly because they’re more difficult to play than is really necessary. In addition, the drumsticks are fragile, so taking it easy on the equipment is definitely advised. The hardest part about drum playing, though, is probably the exhaustion you’ll feel from playing them. Tired feet and sore wrists are common, and you’ll likely not want to play the drums on higher floors or late at night, as they can get quite noisy.
All that noise is great, but somebody’s name has to go first on the albums, right? That’s where the vocals enter the picture. If singing is your game, then the Rock Band microphone is your only weapon. The mic is also used to play cowbells, tambourines and other bits of noise, even though it’s simplistic and has no buttons. That doesn’t mean just anyone can sing, however. Being a good singer is more than just knowing the words, as anyone who has been to open-mic karaoke can testify. You’ve got to be aware of pitch, and Rock Band is very good at recognizing whether you’re in the right octave. The pitch you need is displayed at the top of the screen, with a bar that ranges from high to low pitch following syllables. Mumbling the chorus or singing the whole song in falsetto will only lead to disaster, yet singing has its own rewards and still manages to easily be everyone’s favorite role.
The difficulty of the mic and drums mostly comes from inexperience. These instruments take some time to adapt to, and the guitar is always open if you might be the next Jimmy Hendrix. As usual, bass is on average easier than lead guitar. A new feature involves the use of Overdrive. In theory, it is reminiscent of Star Power’s 8x multiplier and is obtained through completing white-note frets activated in the same way (tilting that guitar up, with the optional use of scissor kicks). Aside from style and points, however, Overdrive has some welcome new uses. If a band member is floundering and fails out of the song, the rest of the band can activate Overdrive to resurrect the failed member from the bowels of mediocrity. However, three strikes and you’re out, so don’t drag the band down forever. Also, if every band member activates Overdrive at the same time, the multiplier flies off the charts, and five stars become that much closer.
Another subtle feature is the knowledge of your score before the song is over. The stars appear in the corner of the screen throughout the song, and you can estimate how much more “hardcore” you need to jam in order to get that fifth star. Jam sessions are also present, and they give you the freedom to rapidly mash notes in order to gain a higher score. Singers get to shout whatever they want, and the drummer pounds away. Still, everyone in the band has to hit the notes following the jam session, or it will all be for naught.
Rock Band definitely does not disappoint on the tracks. You’ll hear all kinds of tunes ranging from KISS and Metallica to those beasts of rock, OK Go. You’ll recognize some hits such as Mississippi Queen and Sabotage from Guitar Hero 3, but rather than be upset at the repetition, you’ll find it just as easy to welcome them here. New songs are constantly being added to the Xbox Live Marketplace as well, and downloaded songs get mixed in with all the others in Career Mode, a particularly cool feature. Speaking of career, the multiplayer band tour is obviously the focus here, but solo tour for each instrument is available to those lonely gamers as well. Sadly, no love goes out to the bass players (what a surprise), as the bass solo tour is mysteriously absent.
A few other nitpicks exist (the game “randomly” picking the hardest songs for the mystery setlists — constantly — plus some incredibly tedious Achievements on the Xbox 360 version), but with four instruments to play and room for all your roadies, this game is all the bliss of rock fame without any of the horrors of compilation albums.
– John Dempsey