Reviewed: September 17, 2008
Released: September 14, 2008
There’s a battle raging on right now for the domination of your living room. On one side you have Activision and Neversoft with their upcoming Guitar Hero World Tour and on the other side you have Rock Band 2. Both games are so similar in their appearance, construction, and gameplay that I’m surprised there haven’t been some legal issues being tossed about. But Rock Band not only has the luxury of pioneering the concept of a 4-person rock band, they managed to sneak in their sequel a full month ahead of Activision’s attempt to compete in this increasingly popular genre.
Rock Band has won countless awards and critical acclaim from fans and reviewers alike. For me, on a personal level, Rock Band has achieved the impossible becoming the first and only game I was still actively playing when the sequel arrived. I kid you not when I tell you that the day I popped my Rock Band 2 DVD into my 360, the game I had to remove was the original Rock Band. That’s not to say I’ve been playing nothing else for the past year, but I guarantee you not a week goes by when I don’t play a few venues. I’ve also downloaded nearly the entire library of (DLC) downloadable content.
Rock Band 2 raises the bar, perhaps not as high as it could or should have, but the bar has gone up to say the least. Coming at you with more than 80 new licensed songs, plus 20 more available for free download using the provided code, and the unprecedented ability to import all 55 tracks from the original game (for the nominal cost of 400ms points) and instant access to any of the DLC you may have already purchased, Rock Band 2 has the largest built-in library of music available at launch of any music game in history, and by the end of the year more than 500 songs will be available.
With the power of MTV and their influence in the music industry, Rock Band 2 not only has the largest library of music ever assembled for a game, they also have the inside track to amazing exclusives from AC/DC, Bob Dylan, and Axl Rose. The sheer immensity and eclectic mix of genres in this library guarantees that there are dozens of songs to fit with anyone’s musical taste, and who knows…your tastes might evolve after playing some of these amazing songs.
Rock Band 2 builds on the successful formula of last year’s game and creates something that is refreshingly familiar while broadening the scope of gameplay for both solo and multiplayer. We start with local and online modes for the World Tour. Last year you had to have at least one other real person to join the World Tour, but this year you can do it all by yourself. If friends do happen to drop by, you can have them join your tour by simply dropping into the band, either creating a character or choosing one that has already been created, then picking their instrument.
If you want the experience of jamming with real life rockers you can also head to the online version of the World Tour where you can form your own band and have others join you, or you can see what other bands are already out there looking for some filler. The Band World Tour replaces last year’s solo tour where you picked your instrument then did the entire tour. Now you can switch from guitar, to drums, to vocals on the fly and even change-up the difficulty level for each venue and set list.
Tour Challenges is perhaps the most fiendishly clever new game mode, at least from a marketing standpoint. Challenges are organized by tiers with several challenges in each tier. As you complete a challenge new ones are unlocked. These challenges may require you to play a specific instrument or perhaps play in a multi-person band, while other challenges will require you to have imported the tracks from the first Rock Band, or perhaps own a song pack or even an entire album from the DLC. This is an incredibly powerful inducement to get people to purchase extra music.
Battle of the Bands sounds awesome but the name is slightly deceptive, especially considering that Guitar Hero: World Tour will actually allow you to play 4-on-4 online. In Rock Band 2 the Battle of the Bands are merely challenges and contests created by Harmonix. You and your band will play the challenge and your score will be logged and tracked on the leaderboard of everyone else who has played that same challenge. New challenges are posted frequently and many have time limits, so you have to get your entry posted before the challenge expires.
Quickplay mode lets you dive into the game without all the trappings of the career mode. You can create your own customizable set lists and just jam out to your favorites songs. With such a massive library of music, Rock Band 2 does an amazing job of categorizing it all, allowing you to sort by band, songs, genre, decade, difficulty, and even the source of the songs (RB1, RB2, DLC). There is usually additional info like artist and year and an album or CD cover, as well as a difficulty chart that tracks the difficulty for each instrument for that song.
I’ll be the first to admit that I suck at the drums, but the new Drum Trainer has given me a small ray of hope. This interactive and highly engaging tutorial allows you to learn the fundamentals of drumming, performing fills, and useful techniques in how to hold the sticks and work the foot pedal without your ankle cramping up.
For the rest of the instruments, the same tutorials are back from the first game. 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 hasn’t changed from last year, so if you played that game you’ll feel right at home. You still 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.
Other staples remain in place like guitar solos, bass grooves, vocal improves and tambourine taps, freestyle drum fills, and of course, the big rock finish where you simply go crazy on whatever instrument you are playing and rack up a huge finishing score bonus. Overdrive remains the same where glowing note streams hit in sequence will 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 excellent real-time star rating system remains untouched. 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 in normal tour mode, although, as the challenges and battle of the bands events will show you, the counter does go higher.
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.
The Band World Tour mode also tries to emulate the politics and business aspects of playing in a band. You can now hire staff that can range from your mom, to some enthusiastic groupies, and later down the road you will hire regional managers, roadies, sound technicians, and other backstage personnel that are required to get you shows around the world, make money, and build your fan base.
While you are traveling the world you will often get random challenges thrown your way, even after you have picked your set list. You may get offered a private party or asked to play at a charity event, or perhaps record a music video, or even film a DVD version of your next show provided you can get 5 stars on all your songs in that set. These challenges offer their own risks and rewards, usually in the form of bonus cash or fans, and at the risk of losing the same if you fail the challenge. It’s pretty creative, especially when they asked you to switch out your last song to something “more challenging” for your drummer, or they want you to play a song without ever engaging Overdrive.
Most cities have several venues and each venue has several set list options including single songs, mystery set lists, make your own set lists, and specific themed or genre set lists like classic rock, punk, or grunge. Nearly all of the music you play other than the “make a set list” is determined for you, so you are rarely able to stack the deck in your favor by picking only the songs you are good at.
Interestingly enough, this year Rock Band 2 isn’t being sold as a kit, at least not at this time. Obviously, Harmonix is betting that most of you already have a room full of instruments and will only be interested in the software, but for those that do need to equip their band, Rock Band 2 has a new guitar and drum kit available – both wireless and both extremely cool.
The drums require the most assembly, but it still only takes 5 minutes to put them together. With telescoping vertical poles, you can adjust the drum pads to any level or collapse them entirely for storage. The new bottom cross pieces are redesigned as is the foot pedal offering a much more stable and secure option than last year. The drum pad surfaces are now much more resilient offering more bounce to your stick and a much quieter operation, and they are now velocity sensitive so the harder you hit, the louder the note.
There is no official Rock Band 2 microphone – you just use the one that came with the first game or any other 360-compatible mic or headset. 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. I also found tapping the A button was far more reliable than tapping the top of the mic for those tambourine sections of the songs. For those with true multi-tasking skills, you can use a microphone stand or a 360 headset for singing, while playing any other instrument.
And finally we come to the guitar…the Fender Stratocaster…just like last year only with some significant improvements, The first is obvious; it’s wireless. Next is the looks with a slick wood design, reinforced strum bar, and silent frets, so the only thing you’ll hear is the music and no clackety-clack. There is also a built-in calibration tool that will synch your game and instruments to whatever AV system you may have to eliminate any chance of lag.
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. And speaking of the Start button – it now has a raised ring guard around it, so you can’t accidentally hit it and pause your game during a song. Nice!
Rock Band 2 throws in a few game modifiers to make things either terribly easy or terribly impossible. First, you have the No Fail modifier that guarantees that no matter how bad you suck; you will never fail a song. This is great for kids and older rockers whose egos bruise easily. The Performance toggle used to be a cheat code on Guitar Hero but now it’s an actual option on Rock Band. Turn this on and the note stream will not be displayed – only the stage show. Let’s hope you memorized all 572 notes and their exact timing.
First off, kudos to the design team for another outstanding opening movie that really gives Rock Band 2 the perfect flavor of competitiveness this game will undoubtedly inspire. 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.
You now also have the ability to design a logo for your band that will appear on the front of your in-game drum kit as well as various splash screens. The sheer amount of available artwork and the powerful, yet simple multi-layer editing tool allows you to create an infinite possibility of designs. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve spent more than three hours playing around in this editor. This same editor can also be used to create elaborate custom tattoos for placement on your in-game rock star.
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. There are some new cool effects when you film a music video.
Rock Band is a music game and therefore is only as good as its song selection which at this point is beyond comparison. Sure, Guitar Hero has some great music in their games and some of it will never make its way to Rock Band, but this game has just as many, if not more, exclusives, plus a whole lot more downloadable content. And by making the majority of the music DLC, gamers can tailor their game experience and content to their own personal taste. Thankfully, the 80 tracks included with the game are almost all winners in my book, and I can’t wait to see what the other 20 free songs are going to be when they are released this fall.
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 effect 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 several of the songs were either recorded live or had live effects added in during post to create a realistic live performance atmosphere. In many of the songs you can actually hear the crowds singing along with their favorite choruses. Now, onto those songs:
Artist - Song Title - Decade
Bonus Artist - Song Title - Decade
Harmonix has done a fantastic job of not only selecting more than 80 songs that I like, but that are also indicative of the rock band theme. There is a heavy focus on classic rock mixed with contemporary rock and even a bit of grunge and a sample of metal, but each and every song makes the most of all the instruments and vocal tracks, which is the best way to entice gamers to replay these songs and try out the alternate instrument tracks. And best of all, these new tracks are comprised entirely of master recordings.
Last year when I reviewed the original Rock Band I made the comment, “I can’t imagine myself ever not playing Rock Band at least for a few hours each week.” How true that statement turned out to be, and now I can confidently say the same thing about Rock Band 2. In fact, if it weren’t for a few missing achievements, I may never go back to the first game. I have all that music as part of the sequel, and the game does a great job of mixing up the musical content from all sources and integrating right into the main game.
While I never really did catch on with the drums in the first game, the Drum Trainer has given me new hope, and the redesigned drum kit with the nearly silent pads actually makes me want to try learning to play them again. And it won’t belong before I am compelled to pick up the mic and get the neighbor’s dog howling.
The marketing of this sequel is also quite brilliant. If you already have the instruments all you need to do is pick up the game, or if you want to upgrade to the new official wireless instruments or any of the numerous third-party offerings, you can mix and match as necessary. You are no longer compelled to go out and drop nearly $200 for a full band in a box.
Xbox 360 gamers will find 50 Achievements spanning various game modes and challenges specific to each instrument including vocals, as well as objectives for playing in various regions of the world. There are also some cool objectives like getting your first van, then a bus, then a plane, getting one million fans, earning one million points (in a single song), making a music video, and even hiring your first staff member.
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. Combined, you have an unstoppable force in the video game industry when it comes to future music titles.
Rock Band was the logical evolution of Guitar Hero, so it’s no wonder that Guitar Hero is about to attempt to compete with Rock Band with their own World Tour multiplayer game coming out in October. Rock Band 2 beat them to the punch, but only time will tell who will win this epic battle of the bands. The war will be raging on in living rooms across the world this holiday season.
I found Rock Band 2 to be perfectly constructed and brilliantly marketed. You now have the ultimate freedom, not only in how much you need (or want) to buy to play this game, but once you get into the game itself you will be amazed at the level of freedom you have in playing and exploring the seemingly endless volume of content available within.
Rock Band 2 is more than a game…more than an obsession…it’s a way of life.