E3 2007: Hands-on with Rock Band

When I was a kid, I went through a few phases. In my earliest stage, I wanted to be Michael Jackson, who was quickly followed and replaced by Prince. At some point, I heard my father’s vinyl of Ziggy Stardust, and then being David Bowie sounded like a good deal. Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton, Journey’s Steve Perry, Tom Waits, and the Boredom’s Yamatanka Eye all were on a decent sized list of musicians I was fully ready to become.

Now, I don’t really care who I’m pretending to be, as long as I’m playing Harmonix’s upcoming PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game, Rock Band. If your heart beats, you likely already are familiar with the concept — take the break-out commercial success of the Guitar Hero franchise, toss in a little Karaoke Revolution, and throw a drummer into the mix. You hear that sound? That’s the sound of the police that your neighbors called on you because you were just having too much damned fun. 

I had a chance to play a bit of Rock Band at this year’s E3 … wait, let me rephrase that: I had a chance to play a lot of Rock Band at this years E3, and I’ve got plenty to say about. Got a second?

To get it out of the way, the build of Rock Band I had a chance to play contained a number of tracks not previously announced including: “Go With the Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age, “Learn to Fly” by Foo Fighters; “Reptilia” by The Strokes; “Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones; “Tom Sawyer” by Rush; “Vasoline” by Stone Temple Pilots; and “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi. Of the songs I just mentioned, only one (“Tom Sawyer”) is not a master. Impressive.

Also revealed, but not playable, was Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” That’s right, “Enter f***ing Sandman.” If this game contained one song and “Enter Sandman” was it, I’d likely purchase the game at full price; it’s that serious.

Aside from high-end dance pads, videogame retail has never seen a peripheral as hulking and solid as the drums used to play Rock Band.

The experience, as a non-drummer, was a bit disorienting at first. Keeping my eye on the screen while also landing precise hits with the provided real, wooden drum sticks was no easy task. With no audible click track (it was very loud in both rooms I played the game in), at first I found myself focusing solely on the visuals — bad move. I fumbled through the first few bars of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” before it actually clicked that I needed to actually start thinking like a drummer. 

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. This was truly the first time in a game which I was forced to think like I was an actual musician, instead of being fully aware that I was just playing with a toy. The not-so-simple act of coordinating the visual aspect of the game along with your hands and foot soon began to make sense, and the break-through feeling and overall sensation this provides is unparalleled.

For the inexperienced, even completing the game’s easiest mode might seem like an unsurmountable task. But much like Guitar Hero, the payoff for mastering the game even in its simplest form seems like it will be one of the most rewarding experiences in gaming. It’s also a hell of a workout — I think Wii Fit has a contender this holiday.

There does seem to be one glaring issue with the setup — the sounds of the sticks hitting the pads is often louder than anything else you hear coming from the game itself. Even in the loud Electronic Arts show room, and the private suite I played Rock Band in (for many hours), this was noticeable. Not noticeable enough to ruin the experience (and something that headphones might help out with), but noticeable enough that it’s a safe bet your neighbors will leaving a flaming bag of crap on your doorstep in protest.

I also noticed that many people who played (myself included) would miss a pad and instead, hit the set’s plastic rims. It appeared that the game would register this as a hit, but I fear for the set’s construction after a few weeks of use. At one point, I also found that the set was getting further and further away from me; in using the game’s kick pedal, I was pushing it slowly away with my foot. Perhaps replacing my coffee table and mounting this to a giant, metal base will be in order.

These gripes, however, are more user error than anything else, and the overall drumming experience is overwhelming a highlight of Rock Band.

The game’s vocal portion works nearly identical to games like Karaoke Revolution or Sony’s Singstar, with scrolling lyrics and a line that will rate your pitch. With the exception of freestyle singing parts (where making noises, shouting out to the “crowd” —  or in my case, screeching like a rock n’ roll God — will get you extra points) and vocal-less portions where tapping the mic in rhythm can earn you a bonus, this is pretty much the same solid karaoke gaming experience we’ve played before.

What will determine the success of the vocal portion of Rock Band is the song selection, and it doesn’t appear if that is going to be a problem. Having MTV involved puts quite a bit of muscle behind the game, and it’s already evident in the track listing that’s already been announced. Add the strong commitment to ongoing downloadable content (the Who’s Who’s Next? will be available for download in its entirety, for instance), and this doesn’t appear to be an issue.

Take Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” for instance. During a small invite only gathering, a room full of gaming journalists and developers erupted into song, shouting and hollering the song’s lyrics. Just think — if this game can get a room full of jaded videogame journalists going after a long day of running all over Santa Monica for meetings, you and your friends are going to tear it up until all hours of the night.

The microphone itself feels similar to those that shipped with various version of Karaoke Revolution. Disappointingly, it lacks the weight and quality feel of Sony’s Singstar peripherals, but it’s certainly serviceable. 

Again, with some exceptions, the game design for the guitar and bass portions of the game is essentially the same as what you might already be familiar with. The big news, and whatever wants to know about, is the new guitar (there is one peripheral for both bass and guitar).

Modeled after the the popular Fender Stratocaster, the controller looks less like a toy, and more like a bona fide instrument. At first glance, you might even be convinced you’re looking at an actual guitar, it’s that impressive. The peripheral shares a similar button configuration to the Red Octane Guitar Hero controller, with one exception.

The controller also features a second set of smaller buttons lower down the neck of the guitar; these buttons can be used for solo sections, with no strumming necessary … just tap away, Slash style, and leave your other hand free for the important things like smoking and drinking Jack Daniels. These buttons are scary, apparently, and not once did I or anyone I was with attempt to use them in my time with the game.

The guitar itself features a solid construction and is slightly larger than the Guitar Hero controller. I was surprised by how light the controller was, something it took me awhile to get used to. Something else that’s going to take some warming up to is the new feel of the buttons. No longer raised, you have to rely on instinct and practice if you intend on knowing where your fingers are placed. The middle (yellow) button and the last (orange) button both had very, very slight braille-like marks on them, presumably to help you keep your position. Unfortunately, even as a veteran Guitar Hero player, I found it very easy to lose my fingering.

Another small issue that kept coming up was players accidentally hitting the start button on the controller, which sits dangerously close to the whammy bar. More than a few times, games would be interrupted when an overzealous player would touch the sensitive button. The game would pause and without fail, everyone would jeer and shout “Peter Moore,” in reference to the Microsoft execs similar SNAFU at the Microsoft press conference. Because the guitar attempts to replicate a Stratocaster as closely as possible, moving the dial is likely not an option. However, I can hope that the smart cats at Harmonix will figure out some way to work around this common issue.

The peripheral is an interesting step in the evolution of the controller, and with some tweaks (or maybe me just not being lazy and committing myself to getting used to it), rocking out won’t be an issue. The new design makes people look less like goons playing with a toy and more like genuine rockers. Maybe with the new design, I can convince Ron “I’ll give you $200 if you ever catch me playing Guitar Hero” Workman to join my band.

Splitting up Rock Band across four different instruments could have potentially led to problems. Overcrowding or a messy GUI could have ruined the four-player experience of the game. Fortunately, that’s not an issue, as the the split between the four instruments works well across the screen. The instruments are broken into four sections, with the drums in the center, the guitars on either side, and the vocals scrolling along the top.

Keep in mind, this looked fine on a large, widescreen high definition television — I can’t really imagine what the game would look like on an SDTV. The game was clearly designed to take advantage of the 16:9 aspect ratio; let’s hope Harmonix doesn’t leave our poor 4:3 pals in the dust. Alternatively, maybe the game can ship with a 52″ high-definition set.

As an observer of the game, at first I did find keeping track of the various in-game meters and other bells and whistles. As I spent more time playing and watching others play, this became less and less of an issue, however. There are a few things to keep track of, but if you’re paying more attention to your score and less attention to how hard you’re rocking the f**k out, then you’re doing something wrong. I’ve seen bootlegs of early Guns N’ Roses show and man, they didn’t sound very tight, but hell if they didn’t look good doing it (good in this case means heavily intoxicated and rowdy).

With promised online play and and one album already announced for download, Rock Band already seems like a no brainer for gamers who get down the rhythm based peripheral titles. Whether or not the public is going to be willing to pony up the dough at retail remains to be seen, but based on what I played of this early build (despite small gripes), I’m already sacking away some cash to pick one (or two) up.

Hell, whatever the price point is, it’s bound to be cheaper than packing all of my crap into a duffel bag and taking a bus to Hollywood with the dreams of making it big. I’ll also have to clean less peep show booths with a wet rag before I get a record contract. God, I sure hope that’s not in the game …

Rock Band hits PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this Holiday.

Nick Chester