Reviewed: December 1, 2007
Released: November 20, 2007
As much as I hate diving into corporate politics and infrastructures, it’s probably a good idea to discuss the origins of the greatest music game ever released…so far. Of course I’m talking about Rock Band, the music game to end all music games, or at least severely redefine the genre, and single-handedly obsolete Guitar Hero III less than a month after its release.
Created by Harmonix and MTV Games, this joint venture got its start a few years back when Harmonix, already famous for their Karaoke games published by Konami, released Guitar Hero, the cult phenomenon that has spread across the globe. While Harmonix created the software RedOctane created the innovative guitar controllers that allowed millions of gamers to experience the magic of air-guitar like never before. After a few successful titles the corporate piranhas started circling, and RedOctane got snatched up by Activision and Harmonix was purchased by MTV Networks.
With the power of MTV and their influence in the music industry, Rock Band is now home to 58 of the best song selections in music game history, most of which are performed by their original artists. Guitar Hero III managed to lock in some original recordings of their own but not nearly the caliber as Rock Band. But before this turns into an apples vs. oranges review, back to the game.
Released for the Xbox 360 and PS3 (and coming soon to PS2 and possibly the Wii), Rock Band takes the concept of Guitar Hero and enhances it to include a complete four-person rock band. While Guitar Hero II and III are just now perfecting their co-op modes, Rock Band delivers full support for four players out of the box…well three players out of the box until you purchase a second guitar.
Released as a standalone game (because it will work with your Guitar Hero controllers and Karaoke mics) or as a bundle, complete with drums, one guitar, and a stage-quality microphone, Rock Band is quite literally a “band in a box”. All you need to do is supply the talent.
Rock Band offers several modes of play including the ability to go solo or create a complete band of your own. If you don’t have local talent you can go online and recruit other games for online jam sessions. Playing alone is very much like the Guitar Hero experience where you make your way through song lists, unlocking new venues and more songs until you finish them all.
Rock Band is unique in that it offers four possible ways to play each song. You can play lead guitar or bass, sing along with the vocal track, trying to maintain a consistent pitch with the original lyrics, or rock out on the 4-pad drum kit complete with kick drum pedal. Anyone with experience at Guitar Hero or Karaoke Revolution will instinctively know what to do with those parts, but the drums are a completely new and unexplored animal when it comes to music games.
Unlike the guitar, where knowing how to play a real guitar will likely hinder your ability to play a game like this, the drums and the gameplay around the drums was designed so that you could actually slip out the fake drums and put in real drums and you’d hardly notice the difference – at least that’s what Harmonix says. Having never played real drums, all I can say is that the drums are much harder than the guitar, forcing you to coordinate your hands and foot and actually hit the drum pads without looking down…much. It can be a bit embarrassing when you actually hit the Xbox button with your drumstick and pause the song as you exit to the gamer profile screen.
Thankfully, there are some excellent (and fun) tutorials that cover guitar, drums, and vocals, and they are even hosted by real musicians. These tutorials will teach you basic and advanced lessons and by the time you finish you should be ready to hold your own with most of the songs in Rock Band, at least on Easy mode.
The overall screen layout of Rock Band is quite similar to Guitar Hero, especially if you are playing alone. The first thing you’ll notice is the notes are now thin bars rather than circles, which greatly reduces your window of opportunity for hitting a valid note. There is a bit of forgiveness built in, but compared to the huge window recently introduced in Guitar Hero III, Rock Band can seem quite advanced, even on the easier skill settings.
Much like Guitar Hero, you can play the songs on Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. As you go higher in difficulty more notes are added, the stream of notes is faster, and the blue and orange frets are added to the mix. The same goes for the drums, where the four drum pads match the upper fret colors and the kick drum replaces the orange fret, but unlike the guitar parts, you’ll be hitting on orange, even on easy mode.
Harmonix has definitely stepped up their game from the early days of Guitar Hero with new features that will really make you feel like a rock star. Almost every song has a solo specific to your instrument. These are noted by a blue shading on the neck of the guitar and are even tracked separately for accuracy. Other band members might continue to play, even if it’s just the casual kick drum thump or the tambourine-style tapping of your palm on the mic to tap out the indicated beat.
Star Power has been replaced with Overdrive, even though it’s really the same thing. Watch for the glowing note streams and hit all the notes in sequence to build your energy bar. Once it’s at least halfway full you can tip your guitar, yell into the mic, or perform a drum fill on the drums to unleash this energy and double your combo bonuses. The great thing about Overdrive vs. Star Power is that even while in energized mode you can continue to hit glowing sequences and replenish the bar, effectively keeping the Overdrive alive for extended periods of time.
A handy vertical bar on the left keeps track of each player’s performance in relation to crowd frenzy. Icons will slowly move up the bar as you do well or sink when you screw up. If any one player fails another player can save them by unleashing their Overdrive, but you only get three saves per song. This is a great feature that allows seasoned guitarists to save a struggling drummer or singer, or vice versa.
It’s moments like these and the occasional “Unison Phrases” where your band is rewarded when everybody plays a section of a song perfectly, that the cooperative nature of the game really shines. Otherwise, it is easy to slip into your own little world and focus on your own note track to the exclusion of all else. And it does take some focus, especially with a full band, as you will have three note streams taking up most of the screen with a vocal track including words and pitch scrolling along the top.
For those who don’t want to play nice together you’ll find Tug of War and Score Duel modes that provide exciting versus play. Tug of War alternates parts of the song to each player allowing them to swing the crowd meter in their favor, while Score Duel gives each player the same stream of notes and sees who can play them the best.
Another new feature to help you feel like a rock star is the Big Rock Ending. These are shaded sections for all the frets where you can just go crazy and hit anything as fast and frantic as you can. The more notes you hit the higher your bonus score builds, but the trick is to actually register that big bonus you have to hit the note or notes after the shaded section to complete the big finale. You can rack up an 8,000-point bonus and miss that final note and lose it all.
The Band World Tour mode is by far the best multiplayer mode ever invented for a music game. Not only does it allow up to four players to embark on a music career than spans the globe, you get to perform in special events to earn items like a van or tour bus. Your career success is tracked not only by cash payouts but also in your growing fan base. You’ll need to achieve a certain number of fans before you can advance to higher stages in the career. You’ll need cash to purchase new clothing, instruments, or hire roadies or a band manager required to go deeper into the career.
As you unlock and travel to new cities and venues you’ll find an original concept at work when it comes to your song selection. Rather than predetermined song lists you have a few songs you must perform and then you have other options like random tracks, or having the crowd pick. Since your progress is tracked by the star rating for each session, it makes it hard to stack the deck in your favor by picking only the songs you are good at.
Speaking of star ratings, I have to mention the excellent real-time rating system at work in Rock Band. Unlike Guitar Hero where you don’t know your rating until the song is over, in Rock Band you’ll slowly see a circle filling up as you perform well. As each circle is completed a star appears in the center and a new circle starts. The best you can do is 5 stars. There will even be challenges where you’ll be offered double-or-nothing your pay if you can perform all songs in a certain session with a 5-star rating. Fail to do so and you’ll get no cash, but you can still pick up new fans.
For those purchasing the special edition of Rock Band, you’ll be getting your own band in a box (roadies not included). It takes about 15-20 minutes to setup everything. The drums require the most assembly, and you’ll need to snap the end piece onto your guitar neck. All of the controllers are corded, which could have spelled disaster (or at least major inconvenience) had there not been a powered USB hub included in the box. Simply plug this into an AC outlet and one of your USB ports on the Xbox 360 and you are ready to connect the entire band.
The drums are really cool, even if they don’t look like conventional rock drums. They are more like those electronic drum pads that were popular with 80’s bands. They are adjustable in height, but you might find you’ll need a special stool to sit on to get that 90-degree angle on your knee. I ended up sitting on 3 throw pillows on my couch to get a comfortable position. My only minor complaint is that unless you really crank up the sound you’ll hear the annoying clack of drumsticks on the pads, which can be quite distracting.
The microphone is top quality with a nice weight and feel to it and little to no distortion. Sadly, there are no buttons on the mic so you'll have to activate a game pad and keep it handy to join in on songs and make menu selection. For those with true multi-tasking skills, you can fit this mic into a stand (not included) and sing while playing drums. You can also use an existing Xbox 360 headset for singing, which would work well for drums or guitar combined with vocals. Personally, I find it nearly impossible to keep up with the drum tracks, let alone worry about singing on pitch.
And finally we come to the guitar…the Fender Stratocaster…a guitar you will either love or hate. Personally, I love it and it has ruined me for all of my other 10 guitars I have accumulated over the course of three years worth of guitar reviews. The guitar in Rock Band not only has the size, weight, and feel of a real guitar, the frets and strum bar are designed in such a way that they are silent when pressed. The frets are also invisible when viewed from the front because all the color-coding has been moved to the top edge.
The Stratocaster also features a second set of identical frets, smaller in size and located closer to the body of the guitar. These are a great alternative for people with smaller hands or younger kids. Plus, during those aforementioned guitar solos, you can tap those frets to hit the notes without even strumming. You’ll feel just like Eddie Van Halen.
The whammy bar is much larger than the Gibson SG guitars from Guitar Hero, and it might take some adjusting to find a sweet spot where it doesn’t get in the way. It serves the same purpose; to “bend” the note pitch and extract extra power from those overdrive sequences. And you can’t miss that new lever down by the Start and Select buttons. This 5-position switch is easily the coolest feature of the guitar and allows you to cycle through various guitar effects like flanger, echo, wah-wah, or chorus.
First off, kudos to the design team for an outstanding opening movie that really gives Rock Band the perfect launch. It’s one of those movies you can’t help but watch…at least part way through…each time you start the game. Once in the game you’ll need to create at least one rocker…probably more. You have the standard assortment of limited choices up front and you’ll be awarded new clothing and accessory options as you finish songs and complete the tours. Visit the store to purchase all sorts of clothing grouped by categories like Goth, Punk, Rock, etc. You can tweak your hairstyle and colors, get piercings and tattoos or purchase new guitars.
The one thing I loved about the entire character design system is that between the songs you’ll get these load screens with composite photos that are like snapshots of your band out on the road, or perhaps posing for an album cover, and this artwork uses your most up-to-date character model and all their accessories. It really personalizes the game. To make things even more personal, your character’s name will often appear on billboards, the side of your bus, and even written in the stage lights.
I never had any complaints with the stage show presentation in Guitar Hero, but the venues in that series were always fictional and the camera angles were pretty generic. Rock Band makes the most of the MTV rock video format with all sorts of realistic stages, awesome camera angles and sweeping moves plus all these crazy aftereffects like going into a grainy black and white filter for a drum solo. My only complaint is that you can’t watch a stage show replay because if you are playing the game you seldom have the time to appreciate all the background animation, and if three or more people are playing most of the screen is occupied with guitar necks and drum patterns.
Rock Band is a music game and therefore is only as good as its song selection. Guitar Hero III offered many more songs than Rock Band but most of them were songs I had either never heard, didn’t like, or both, so the game wasn’t that much fun to play. Rock Band shares several of the same (good) songs as Guitar Hero III, but only a few, and the rest of the tracks that make up the 58-song library are all songs I have heard and love. It’s almost as if Harmonix had consulted me when making this game.
Additionally, there are also a handful of “lesser-known” artists that make up the Rio bonus tour in Rock Band. This is the equivalent of the unlockable store songs you must purchase in Guitar Hero, but in Rock Band you finish one song to unlock the next – no cash required. Plus, many of your favorite (or at least MY favorite) groups like Freezepop and Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives from Guitar Hero II have stuck with Harmonix and are back in Rock Band. Oh yeah…for all you South Park fans, “Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld” is one of the songs.
Sound quality is amazing with a fantastic multi-channel surround mix that allows you to hear each instrument being played, unlike Guitar Hero where some notes from one player would drown out the other. Everything is balanced just right between the instruments and you can even tweak the volume of the vocals to fit with your singer’s style. The guitar effects are excellent, but best of all, when you miss a note you simply don’t hear it – unlike the distracting broken string effects that dominated your performances in Guitar Hero III. Oh yeah, the Overdrive effects is excellent and really pumps you up, rather than simply turning up sound levels and adding a reverb like they did in Guitar Hero III.
The track list is simply the best and I will list the songs in a moment, but I did want to mention that many of the songs were either recorded live or had live effects added in during post. In many of the songs you can actually hear the crowds singing along with their favorite choruses, like in Bon Jovi’s, Wanted Dead or Alive. This makes the entire experience totally immersive, so don’t be surprised if your singer starts talking to the crowd through the mic.
Now here is that song list. Since there are no fixed set lists in Rock Band I’ll just list them alphabetically.
Master Set List (Cover versions noted in italics - all other songs are master tracks by original artists)
I can’t imagine myself ever not playing Rock Band at least for a few hours each week. For the first few days you couldn’t tear me away from it. I’d play the drums until my ankle got stiff then I’d switch to guitar until my vision got blurry. I still haven’t tried doing vocals, but I have other people willing to do that for me…thankfully.
With nearly 60 amazing tracks built into the game and plenty more coming to Xbox Live, Rock Band is going to keep most rockers busy for the next year. The $169 price for the big box might scare away some, but you can always get your friends to pitch in. Even better, if you don’t care about the drums you can always just pick up the game and use your existing Guitar Hero controller. I haven’t seen any of the actual Rock Band instruments being sold separately yet, but I’d highly recommend picking up the Stratocaster. It feels great in your hands and those sound effects are pretty cool.
Xbox 360 gamers will find 50 Achievements spanning solo tours for each instrument including vocals, as well as multiplayer tour objectives and completion objectives for finishing each city. There are also some cool objectives like getting signed by a record label, getting one million fans, and of course, the whole gold and platinum ranking system is in place. There is even an Achievement for teaming up with a Platinum Artist in co-op mode.
Rock Band is everything Guitar Hero III could and should have been, but without all the corporate shuffling over the past two years it probably wouldn’t have been this good. I fear the Guitar Hero franchise has been shaken to its core and may never recover. Anything they attempt at this point will just be playing “catch up” to a far superior product. MTV certainly has the clout to get the big bands and original music and Harmonix, with their years and years of music experience, has their own little stable of indie bands that bring their own unique flavor to the musical mix.
With the pairing of those two companies, you now have an unstoppable force in the video game industry when it comes to future guitar and music titles. I can’t imagine what lies in store for us in the future. As a keyboard player I know one instrument I’d like to see added in Rock Band 2. And hopefully they will add the use of the Live Vision camera so we can record ourselves and perhaps even make our own music videos. Who knows…but I can’t wait to find out.