It seems like just yesterday that I wrote my review of the original Rock Band. In fact, it was actually less than a year ago.
Since then, gamers (myself included) have clocked hours of plastic-instrument rocking, spent countless dollars on the game's weekly downloadable music content, and have heard Weezer's "Say It Ain't So" no less than 947 times. The first game changed how we play music games, giving us more options, more music, and more reasons to get together with friends to play "make-believe" rock star.
When Harmonix and MTV Games announced Rock Band 2, no one was really surprised. But it did seem a bit soon for another game, especially considering how fresh the game still felt due to new weekly content.
So are we really ready to hear Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" 947 times over the next year, or should Harmonix have continued to release songs and left well enough alone? Hit the jump to find out.
Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360)
Developed by Harmonix
Published by MTV Games, Electronic Arts
Released on September 14, 2008
Let’s get this out of the way right now: calling Rock Band 2 a "new game" is a bit of a stretch. Just about everything from the original game -- released less than a year ago -- makes its return in the sequel; there’s just more of it. Clearly, Harmonix took the past year building on the "platform" they had already created, rather than reinventing it.
What this means is that a lot of Rock Band 2 is going to look familiar. The game’s create-a-rocker hasn’t really been changed, but rather, it’s expanded -- there are new face types, new hair styles, and new clothing options on top of every bit found in the first game. The same can be said about the in-game venues, most of the game’s modes, and even the available songs. Drum solos have been added to some songs, and many songs now contain hammer-on and pull-off chords, but even the basic gameplay remains largely unchanged.
With a few exceptions, if it was in the first game, it’s in Rock Band 2. So while it’s easy to say that the sequel is just the original with some new assets and songs, that’s not entirely fair. In truth, there’s a decent amount of new gameplay content and options that have been added that should have most fans of the original throwing up their devil horns (as opposed to filling an empty water bottle with pee and tossing it at the lead singer).
For instance, the Band World Tour mode makes its return, and much of it is going to be familiar. This time, however, a band can be created by a single player -- there’s no need to have friends tag along. As a solo performer (on vocals, drums, guitar, or bass) you can hop from city to city and venue to venue at your leisure, completing gigs, gaining fans of your band, and cash to line your pockets. The tour can also be played with up to four players, as it was with the original. Hint: make some friends -- playing Rock Band in a group is recommended over playing by yourself in your basement.
If you’re looking for a more linear progression through songs, there are the Tour Challenges, a completely separate set of gigs designed around different play styles. Beginning at the Local Upstart tier, you work your way through different types of challenges specific to vocals, drums, bass, guitar, or full band play. As you go up the tiers, you’ll unlock more difficult set lists, as well as other types of challenges.
Downloadable content will also create new challenges, like the David Bowie challenge or the "Doolittle Album Challenge," where you’ll play through the entirety of the classic album by the Pixies. Fortunately, you can quit mid-set -- the game will save your progress -- and resume at a later point.
Rock Band 2’s biggest addition is the game’s Battle of the Bands mode. Rather than the head-to-head band competitions you might expect, Harmonix will be offering up new challenges daily. Some challenges might be centered on scores, note streaks, or total stars gained across a set list or single song. Many even have special requirements, like playing the song on Expert difficulty, having a drummer in your band, or receiving no Overdrive throughout a song. Challenges run from anywhere for a few hours to a week (or longer), and results are posted to a persistent leaderboard.
Taking a cue from the brilliant Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2-style leaderboards, you’ll see what score (and what band) you’re trying to overtake. If your friends have played the challenge, it’ll automatically put you "head-to-head" with that particular user, keeping track of your score versus theirs in real-time, by way of an on-screen meter. This right here is the hook that will have you playing a challenge over and over again, working your best to eke the last bit of score or stars out of a song. The game will also let you know when you’ve lost your place on a leaderboard, which is a good reminder that maybe it’s time to set up your game. And the fact that new challenges will be posted daily is the real kicker, too; there are already multiple challenges available, with many one-offs that can take place in the span of a few hours (a late night challenge, for example).
Battle of the Bands is definitely a brilliant way of getting people involved and sneaking competition into a game that’s normally focused on a cooperative experience. Still, it’s not perfect. When playing a challenge for the first time, the score you’re up against is often times pathetically low. Once you quickly surpass it, the game doesn’t automatically jump to the next name on the leaderboard, so you have no idea what your next hurdle is. This is a small but noteworthy oversight, one that doesn’t necessarily ruin the mode, though I hope it will be corrected in a game update sometime in the future.
So here’s the big news: all of this -- the city hopping tour, the Band Challenges, and the Battle of the Bands events -- can be done online with up to three other players (note: multiple players can join in locally, as well, provided they have active Xbox LIVE Gold accounts). It works nicely, too -- you can invite friends in to your band or have the game search for substitute bandmates. Alternately, you can have the game search for other players and ride another band’s road to success.
The online World Tour stuff works as advertised, with little lag or connection issues found in my time with the game. Adding players to your band is relatively easy: it’s simply a matter of inviting others from within the character select screen or having the game search for random rockers to join in. Once connected, the game works exactly like it would offline, with no significant menus or options removed or added for online play.
In fact, playing World Tour online is not much different than playing locally; people asked for the functionality and Harmonix delivered, sans any real bells, whistles, or any changes made to adapt to online play. For example, when searching for random players, there’s no way to search for an "Expert" player -- the game will simply search to fill an empty instrument spot -- so you might end up with someone whose skill level is well below your own (or vice versa). Additionally, in order to play downloaded content in mystery and created set lists, all players will have to have purchased said content. It’s understandable why that would be the case, but considering one of the strength’s of the game is its wide variety of available content, it limits the experience somewhat.
Speaking of strengths, that brings me to the game’s soundtrack. It’s huge (84 tracks), it’s varied, and it’s probably one of the best setlists you’ll find in the genre, hands down. You’ll hear and play everything from familiar favorites to songs you may have never heard before, but should. The on-disc library of songs in Rock Band 2 is truly an education in rock n’ roll and music in general; Harmonix has done an amazing job collecting a wide variety of songs across different styles of rock that spans some forty years. Oh, and they’re all master recordings, if that means anything to you.
As impressive as 84 tracks is, that’s not the half of it, really. All of the currently available downloadable content (more than 200 songs at the time of writing) is playable in Rock Band 2 immediately; anything you might have downloaded will populate the set lists in quickplay, World Tour, and even Challenges. And if you have the original Rock Band, you can export most of the songs (55 in all) for $4.99. Here’s some advice: do it, even if you have to borrow a friend’s disc, rent the game, or buy it used at GameStop and then return it. The fact that Harmonix have included the ability is unprecedented in the genre, and despite the fact that we’re seeing a sequel so quickly, makes good on the promise that they’re looking at Rock Band as a "platform."
Harmonix also promised that they’d make a drummer out of your no-rhythm-having ass, too, and that hasn’t quite come to fruition ... yet. This time out they’ve included a “Drum Trainer,”which is meant to teach gamers (and potential musicians) the basics of drumming outside of the context of songs they know. The mode throws out a handful of different beats and fills, the beats per minute of which can be modified on the fly. It’s a noble attempt, but not necessarily one that I think will set many people on the dream path of becoming the next Keith Moon. The mode essentially has you playing along to note highways that are identical to what you see in-game, so simply having good hand-eye coordination (not necessarily rhythm) can get someone through many of the beats. The true test may be dropping these beats without a note highway, something you can do in the game’s Freestyle drum mode.
Visually, Rock Band 2 is on par with the original, which is to say that it contains all of the same brilliant and slick animations that made the on-screen action come alive in the first game. Beyond some new and more cinematic camera cuts (the singer playing to the camera more often is particularly great to watch), you’re looking at more of the same here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, just watching what’s happening behind the note highways is a joy in itself.
With that said, it’s unfortunate that one of the game’s announced features, a Jukebox mode that would allow you to queue up songs that you could just listen to and watch, was yanked from the final build of the game. Harmonix and MTV Games are saying that they won’t be “rolling it out until [they] have it perfected,” which I hope is sooner rather than a later. It sounds like a great way to experience the music outside of the game, and certainly could add value to downloadable content.
In addition to the obvious new feature sets, there are a slew of tweaks and added features in Rock Band 2 that should be mentioned, all of which make the game feel far more polished and tighter than the original. Browsing the game’s massive set list, for instance, is made far easier with new sorting and navigation options that are indispensable considering the game’s massive library (which is said to be over 500 songs by year’s end). You can also create set lists in Quickplay mode, so there’s no need to keep hopping back to the menu if there’s a handful of songs you want to play; there’s even the option to queue up an entire album (if available) or all songs by one artist in a single click.
The bottom line is that while much of Rock Band 2 is going to feel extraordinarily familiar to fans of the first game, most of them won’t mind -- picking up the game for them is a no-brainer. The software is an incredible value, with 84 on-disc tracks and a laundry list of game-perfecting, albeit arguably small, tweaks. If you’re a fan of the music-rhythm genre (or purely a fan of music, for that matter), you’re running out of reasons not to own the game -- there’s simply more content packed into this series than any game that’s come before it, and by a frighteningly large margin.
Harmonix doesn’t necessarily break any molds with Rock Band 2, but it does a damn good job of perfecting the one it created. There’s little doubt that this sequel will be the life of just about every party for at least another year. Whether you're mentally capable of the inevitable -- having to hear "Livin’' on a Prayer" 947 times at parties over the next year -- is debatable.
Overall Score: 9.5 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
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