Destructoid review: Rock Band

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The dream of being in a rock band is not one that everyone will be able to fulfill. Be it lack of talent, lack of charisma, or an overwhelming shyness, we weren’t all born to be the next Steven Tyler. Well, I was, but let’s assume you weren’t.
Whatever the case may be, we can’t all be rock stars. Guitar Hero might have gotten some of you close, but let’s face it — the life of a solo guitarist is lonely, and while you might get respect for your killer chops, there’s truly nothing like performing under hot arena lights in front of a sold out crowd. Not that I’d know, of course, but all of those bootleg VHS tapes I bought in high school were very convincing.
If Harmonix’s attempt at bringing the crowds to us is any indication of what it’s like to truly rock the world with a heavy metal fist or a punk rock sneer, I’m thinking maybe it’s time to start a band. But can Harmonix’s game rock Guitar Hero into irrelevance, or should we be content furiously tapping away at our plastic guitars alone?
The short answer to the former question is most certainly “yes.” But the longer answer depends on what kind of experience you’re actually looking for. Throw on that sleeveless jean jacket with the Iron Maiden patch on the back, and hit the jump for the goods.

Rock Band (PS3, Xbox 360 — reviewed on Xbox 360)
Developed by Harmonix
Published by Electronic Arts
Released on November 19, 2007

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Harmonix have spent the past two years training us to play Rock Band. So if you’re already familiar with Guitar Hero, the guitar/bass portion of Rock Band doesn’t offer a significant number of surprises. Gems on a virtual fretboard scroll towards the screen, and using the guitar peripheral, you press corresponding buttons and strum along with the song. It sounds simple in practice, and it is, but anyone who has spent a significant time with Guitar Hero can tell how rewarding and complicated it can become. “Star Power” even makes its return as “Overdrive,” and is still activated by tilting the controller up in full rock out position (or, alternately, you can still the use select/back button to fire it up). But for all of its similarities (it was developed by the same studio, don’t ya’ know?), there have been a few changes worth mentioning.

By and large, the guitar (and bass) note charts for the songs that ship on the Rock Band disc are significantly less difficult than those found in competing games. While Harmonix swore up and down to me that it wasn’t intentional, I’m not sure I’m buying it. It does seems that the emphasis for Rock Band was less on face-melting difficulty, and more on cooperative and social band play, so I can see why staying away from Dragonforce-esque guitar solos would be beneficial. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t contain its fair share of furious fretwork; Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” for instance, contains a number of solos that will haunt me until the day I die. The learning curve, however, is far more forgiving than that found in some of the more recent Guitar Hero titles, which is a great thing when you consider that Rock Band will likely be played by large groups of people with varying experience levels.

Rock Band is less forgiving in terms of timing, and the window of opportunity for hitting notes has been closed significantly. This does make hitting some of the faster sections of the songs more difficult; there are more than a few riffs that I know for a fact I’d nail with ease in a competing game, but found myself having trouble with here in Rock Band. It doesn’t help that hammer-ons and pull-offs seem a bit more difficult, too, in no small part due to the on-screen changes in how these sections are displayed. There is absolutely no significant difference in how notes that you can hammer-on/pull-off look. During my first few rounds of gameplay, I was pretty sure that it was entirely a matter of guesswork. Upon closer inspection (much closer), you can see that the notes are indicated — the gems are smaller, but not by much. During faster sections of the songs, it’s nearly impossible to tell which notes will react to a hammer-on/pull-off, unless you’ve already played the song. On my large HD monitor, it’s hard enough to see these notes, but those with standard definition televisions are going to have serious issues.

Up front, let me say it — as a videogame peripheral, the 3/4 scale replica Fender Stratocaster that ships with the Rock Band doesn’t work quite as well the solid Gibson models created for Guitar Hero (wireless or otherwise). That’s not to say it’s not a great controller, and it does look way cooler than any other guitar controller on the market. The effort put into making this peripheral feel like an authentic instrument in your hands is astounding. Having played a Fender Stratocaster all through high school, I felt right at home with the controller in my hand.

The buttons on the fretboard lay flat, with the colors only visible from above and below the neck; this gives the controller a more “realistic” look and feel, and in doing so, really allows you to get into the mindset of being a guitarist, rather than a gamer. Still, it’s nice being able to feel where your fingers are on the neck, and the tiny bumps on the buttons didn’t quite do it for me. After many hours of gameplay, I was able to feel my way around the fretboard, but still found it too easy to lose my fingering.

The controller’s strum bar has also been modified to be tighter and quieter, and no longer makes the clicking sound veterans might be used to. The design of the bar itself has also been tweaked, and is slightly larger, with a little indent for easy grabbing or plucking with your fingers. The lack of the clicking does take some getting used to, but the absence of the extraneous noise works wonders for making the experience feel more authentic. I did find that quickly strumming a long, fast serious of single notes was next to impossible with the Stratocaster controller, which I found to be extremely frustrating (during some sections of Radiohead’s “Creep,” for example). Chalking it up to user error, I attempted the same sections using Guitar Hero III‘s wireless Gibson, and found that I had no problems nailing those same sections.

Perhaps only as a way to placate Fender (who were reportedly sticklers for detail) and make the peripheral look as close to possible as the real thing, a switch to change “tone” is also included on the guitar. When a guitar is kicked into “Overdrive,”  the switch can be used to add effects to the sound of the guitar (chorus, wah-wah, flanger, echo), which can alter the feel of the song. It’s a nifty feature, and offers a great way to further customize the experience, but has absolutely no impact on scoring, making it nothing more than a nifty gimmick. The addition of the smaller buttons higher up on the neck can also be thrown into that gimmick category as well. During solo sections of songs, these buttons can be tapped (with no strumming) to perform the solo. This opens up a world of possibilities, including one-handed solos (the other hand used for showboating) or two-handed finger tapped madness. Again, whether you nail the solo with these smaller buttons or go the more traditional route, this doesn’t change how you’re scored. For those interested in the physical performance (read: rocking the f**k out), this is perfect, but for those interested in nailing sections with perfection, they’ll likely steer clear of the lower portion of the guitar’s neck.

Besides Guitar Hero, the other title that put Harmonix on the map was the Konami published Karaoke Revolution, and its gameplay (for the most part) is a perfect fit with Rock Band. Lyrics pass along the top of the screen (or bottom, depending on whether you’re playing solo or cooperatively), and you sing along into the included USB microphone. The catch? You’re being judged on pitch, buddy, so if you sound like a howling wolf trying to sing “Run to the Hills,” you (and your neighbors) might have a problem. Rock Band also adds percussive notes during non-vocal sections, and tapping the mic or even clapping your hands will do the trick (cowbell sales are set to go through the roof). Additionally, there are a number of “talky” or “rapping” parts in which simply saying the lyrics in time is necessary; The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” for example, is made up entirely of these kind of “notes.”

Here’s the thing about the vocals in this, or any other karaoke game — perfect pitch is for the birds (and Celine Dion, who looks like a bird), especially in rock and roll. On the game’s easiest difficulty, it’s forgiving enough that the vocalist can really go to town with it, adding all of the embellishments and energy that a good rock singer should. On the higher difficulties (Expert in particular), Rob Halford of Judas Priest wishes he could sing as well as the game wants you to in order to get a perfect score. The tiniest breath out of place or a slight metal growl will result in the game calling you on being a tone-deaf monkey. The result is not so much fun, and more paying attention to meeting the game’s strict standards. This ultimately leads you sound more like Britney Spears than James Hetfield while singing “Enter Sandman.” Bottom line — most people will end up playing on easier difficulties, regardless of how well they can sing, if only to be given some leeway to take liberties with the song.

So let me finally get to what everyone really wants to get their hands (and feet) on — the drums. Vocals and guitars are all well and good, but most of us have been there and done that before. For many, the drums will be the most appealing part of the entire experience, and for others, the most frightening. Unlike the guitar portion of the game (in which success has next to nothing to do with being able to play a real guitar), mastering the drums in Rock Band requires the same rhythm and coordination you’d need to play an actual drum kit.

I feel silly calling the drum peripheral a controller, because while it is the way in which you’ll interact with the game, it’s essentially an actual drum kit. The four pads can be translated to a real drum set — the red drum is the snare, the green is the crash, and the yellow and the blue are cymbals. Then of course, there’s the the dreaded orange kick pedal, which is where all of that time you’ve spend trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time comes in. As the drummer, you’re tasked with keeping the beat for the entire band, hitting the correct colored drum pad when the matching gem crosses the on-screen target. The way the notes flow identical to what you’ll see while playing guitar, except for the inclusion of a wide orange note that’s saved for the kick of the bass pedal.

The drum kit also have its own version of “Overdrive,” which can be activated by nailing free-form drum fill sections. During these parts, you’re free to go to town on the pads any way you see fit, as long as you nail the final green note in the sequence. It’s nice that you’re given the ability to get creative with the fills, but inexperienced drummers will likely bash pads in a random fashion, something that might throw off the rest of the band. Unless you’re Neil Peart, coming up with a signature fill and sticking with it might be your best chance of success. And if you’re Neil Peart, the time you’re spending behind a Rock Band drum kit is questionable.

More than any other gaming experience, the beat and timing of the song directly translate to Rock Band’s drums. Unlike some of the bizarre rhythmic choices found in games like Taiko Drum Master or even Dance Dance Revolution, everything here is spot on. It’s for that very reason that a non-drummer might sit down at the kit and fail as they try to simply match what’s on the screen. Without counting in your head or having an innate sense of rhythm, there’s no way you’re going to be successful. But when it clicks, it really clicks, and even on the game’s easiest modes (which can pose quite a challenge for some) the drums are definitely the most rewarding part of Rock Band.

The kit is large and sturdy, and ships with full-sized, wooden drum sticks. The kit comes apart for easy storage and assembly, which is helpful for moving from gig to gig (read: bringing the set to a friend’s house). Out of the box, between removing things from cardboard and plastic, setting up the kit for the first time took about 15 minutes. Subsequent break down and set up sessions take less than five minutes, and after a few times, I felt like my roadie resume had been beefed up considerably.

Rock Band features solo modes (called “Solo Tours”) for the guitar, drums, and vocals. This mode is straight forward, and reminiscent of the tiered structure seen in Guitar Hero‘s “career” modes. Each instrument has a different progression of songs, based on their difficulty level as it pertains to that particular instrument. There’s nothing particularly fancy about these modes, and they’re relatively straight forward affairs. As I mentioned before, the guitar portions of the game as found on the disc probably won’t satisfy those who are looking to tear up the fretboard (with some exceptions), and singing to yourself is a bit creepy, but the drumming career should provide a nice challenge for most.

It’s in this mode that the game’s character creator rears its head, and you’re given the option to customize the look and feel of your rock avatar. On its surface, the creator offers a limited number of options — choose your gender, skin tone, a face-type from a small variety of looks, height, weight, etc. The number of hair options and extensive Rock Shop should be more than enough to make your rocker stand out from the crowd. The shop features tons of clothing options (broken down by genre, but you can mix and match), as well as a massive number of tattoo designs, which can be layered to create complicated sleeves and patterns. The Rock Shop is also where you’ll be able to purchase new instruments, and customize those as well (including color and stickering options).

This is all well and good, and while the solo experience provides a nice foundation for practice and learning the songs that the game offers, it pales in comparison to the game’s real meat and potatoes — the Band World Tour. In this cooperative-only mode (two to four players), you can take your created character, choose a band name, create a band logo, and work your way from dive bars to stadiums as you attempt to rock gigs in cities around the world. The game features a number of cities, each with its own unique venues and gigs, making up the game’s 40-plus play locations. The mode is deep and could, with downloadable content, theoretically never see an ending as you gather fans and money from all parts of the globe. There’s truly nothing like a group of people fighting hard and working together to complete a gig in order to get that jumbo jet your band manager promised you.

The cooperative experience of Band World Tour is really where the game shines, and it truly cements itself as one of the best party/social games on any console to date. After playing the game cooperatively with a number of groups, I can say without hesitation that the single-player experience is dead … beyond wanting to get better so you can play with other people. During one particularly telling band experience with a room full of non-gamers, the end of the night found everyone in the room wanting to get in on the action, slapping hands and cheering our band’s name after a successful gig. If Wii Sports forced the hands of soccer moms and grandmothers throughout the world, Rock Band is going to be the game to get the few “too cool for gaming school” hipsters wanting to play a videogame. The energy and excitement of playing an “actual” rock show in front of a crowd has been captured perfectly by Harmonix. And because it’s geared toward group play, Harmonix was smart enough to include the option to be able to choose difficulty for each instrument on each gig, perfect for playing with a group of people with varied experience.

As amazing as the cooperative experience of World Tour Mode is, it is certainly not without its flaws. Because Rock Band has a limited soundtrack (hovering around 50 songs), you might find yourself repeating some songs more often than you’d like. During one play sessions, the “random” mystery set lists consistently picked two songs — “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage. Fun turned into monotony very quickly, as we all grew very tired and annoyed at having the play two songs repeatedly, when we knew for certain we had unlocked a handful of other songs. It has to be noted that subsequent tours with different bands had us playing much more varied mystery gigs, but it does bring up an issue with the game’s short setlist.

Still, you do have the option of creating your own set lists in many cities, which opens up the options for the band, making the set lists only as stale as you decide to make them. Additionally, all downloadable content purchased for Rock Band get dumped into the Band World Tour, significantly increasing the life of the game and the mode.

Another issue I ran into was an extremely confusing save and band system (on the Xbox 360), which I’m not even sure I can explain properly … it’s that confusing. When one player is signed in with their gamertag, they create the band and a character, and that character becomes the band’s leader. From that point on, you can only continue the tour if that band leader is signed in and they are using that character. In fact, because individual characters are tied to gamertags and saves, the system becomes even more confusing when attempting to continue world tours after being away from the game for a day or two. Remembering who did what under which gamertag is brain-bending, especially when all you want to do it take your balls out and rock. Additionally, characters who are created as a guitarist can only be used as a guitarist, so any desire to break out and play some drums must be squashed — an entirely new character must be created to fill that role. While all of this is certainly annoying, none of this breaks the game, and can hopefully be tweaked for easier use with a forthcoming patch.

Because the cooperative and social aspects of Rock Band are so strong, the included versus modes are a nice (and expected) addition, but definitely take a back seat here. Versus modes are available in all types of configurations, included the fabled drum versus drum battle. The game also offers a new mode, Tug of War, in which two instruments battle it out for supremacy, fighting for crowd approval. All of these modes, including cooperative band modes, can be played online. Unfortunately, World Band Tour mode is only available as a local mode, which is quite disappointing for those who can’t seem to get together with friends. Still, I strongly urge that the game is played with other people in the same room — much of the success of Rock Band hinges upon the vibe and energy that only comes from being with other people.

The passion for music and all of the attention to all of the details that make up the culture really shine through in Rock Band. Visually and in the presentation, the game shirks the over-the-top approach seen in the Guitar Hero series, and goes for a grittier, more “realistic” design. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of recognizable nods to different genres and rock staples, with references to everything from grunge to arena rock found everywhere in the game. Surprisingly, what’s going on behind the note charts is actually interesting and varied, so you’ll want to pay attention, too. Each character animates convincingly with their given instrument, and camera angles and song specific filters give everything a nice live rock concert video feel. For instance, during the finale sequence of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” a psychedelic filter is applied, which will immediately be recognizable to fans of 1970s live UK performance television programming.

Rock Band is one of those rare instances where downloadable content is not only a welcome addition, but is essential to the overall experience. Harmonix has promised weekly DLC on the music front, and in order to get the most out of the game, you’re really going to need it. While some people will argue that the game’s high price point shouldn’t leave you needing to purchase more content, I’d have to argue that the true experience of Rock Band really has no end.

The songs that ship on the disc are (for the most part) solid choices, but may not be your cup of tea, and in some cases you might not even recognize the track. This might have been OK in Guitar Hero, but in a game where four people must cooperate to reach a common goal (with one of them being a singer, something you can’t really fake if you don’t know a track), actually knowing every tune is key to success. Unfortunately, unless you’re playing the game with rock historians or “Rolling Stone” writers, there will be enough instances where at least one or two people will have to fumble through some songs. The way to remedy that, of course, is the forthcoming a la carte song DLC, and once you get your feet wet with the content on the disc, you’ll no doubt find yourself uncontrollably reaching for your wallet.

Truly, Rock Band is really more than the sum of its parts. Taken individually, everything is a solid from top to bottom, yet nothing is quite perfect. If you’re planning to buy the game and play it in your basement alone with a bag of Cheetos, Rock Band might not be for you. But in the company of friends who are willing to take the plunge and hop into a role, there’s absolutely nothing that comes close to it on the market, be it in the music/rhythm genre or otherwise.

If you’re ready to rock as a group, I can’t recommend the game enough. And if you’re not sure if your friends are going to be down to jam, make some new ones — the experience really is that good.

Score: 9.5

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.
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