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Rock Band


When Harmonix first announced Rock Band, I was excited about the concept but wary of the execution. Rock Band seeks to expand the social aspect of music games by allowing 4 people to play in a band rather than Guitar Heroís limit of two. By adding the ability to beat on the drums and sing into a microphone, you really have enough to start your own little garage band and perform covers until the early morning hours.

Every time the game opened, I found myself watching the cinematic over and over. The production quality is wonderful in high definition and jumping from car to car while playing a song draws in a crowd of people around the television. The presentation value of the title is typical of the previous Guitar Hero titles as well as Electronic Arts titles. Every song puts the pseudo band up on a stage surrounded by thousands of cheering fans. Tour mode could have used a few more intermittent movies throughout the career, but itís still enough to keep your visual interest.

When you first unpack the hardware, you will be surprised how solid the construction is on the equipment. The Fender Stratocaster guitar comes in two pieces; the top portion snaps into the neck. I do love the size of the guitar as it feels more natural to hold for adults and the buttons are larger. The 360 version is also compatible with the previous two Guitar Hero controllers. The microphone has a nice heavy feel to the build and obviously works much better then the Xbox Live headset. The drums take a while to put together, but the design is on point. The kick pedal attaches via cable to the rear of the set and pads are adjustable in terms of height. The 360 hardware is unfortunately all wired, but a USB hub is included if you have a full band. The only piece of equipment that I felt was missing from the group was a microphone stand. I donít mind holding the mic, but it would feel more like a real band with the option of a stand.

Gameplay

Rock Band is essentially three games built into one. With each instrument, players can take their rocker through a solo career on the guitar, drums or vocals. There is no solo option for the bass though. Unfortunately, the solo career is a bit dry compared to the latest Guitar Hero. There are no boss battles and the story section is really light. Harmonix did include a more defined section for instrument solos though. Hitting 100% in these sections will award score bonuses and increase the number of stars assigned at the end of the song.

Setting up the character design for a new musician is much more expansive than the recent Guitar Hero. You can choose body build, size, attitude, hometown, and name. Also, the facial & hair options are pretty wild. The developers must have had a blast creating some of those ridiculous hairdos from the 80ís. Additionally, clothing can be altered as well as accessories like tattoos or varied hair color. Once the character is setup, itís available to choose in solo mode, world tour, or online.

The real meat of the game is located in the World tour mode. Players can setup their own band and start playing gigs to earn money / fans / fame. Harmonix included some excellent defaults for band names, most of which were more creative than anything I could come up with. After the Donkey Philosophers were ready to go, I started them off in Chicago and played a couple songs at the first dive bar. The game selects a few songs to start you off, but eventually you can create your own set list. There is also a mystery set list option for those feeling lucky. It can be risky if you donít know the song, but it will unlock the track for custom sets.

As you progress through the music in World tour, the number of fans will increase assuming you are doing well. Cities and gigs are unlocked by the number of stars and fans you have. Much like real life, you canít go straight to the huge venues until you have tens of thousands of fans following the band. Traveling to a new city requires a new mode of transportation, meaning a crappy van / tour bus. Higher quality vehicles will be awarded as you complete tasks in specific cities like playing mystery sets. The band will also gain a manager before too long who gives advice on the best city for career advancement. Itís a nice inclusion, but I never found myself needing the managerís advice to play a gig.

The main problem with World tour mode is severe repetition of the opening songs. You will find the band forced to repeat certain songs incessantly regardless of the city you arrive in. Also, mystery sets have a nasty habit of repeating songs over and over which really started to grate on everyoneís nerves after a couple hours of play. Itís even worse if your band mates stink at playing their instruments. This will lead to frustration and eventually quitting after hearing the same tune for the tenth time.

Rock Band does suffer from balance issues in terms of difficulty. Most Guitar Hero fanatics will find the guitar / bass portions to be overly easy compared to their Activision counterparts. This is excellent for bringing in new blood to the series, but fails to captivate those seeking a tough challenge. On the other hand, the drum parts are insanely difficult just on medium. Unless you already have knowledge on playing the drums, itís exceedingly difficult to get your brain to tap that foot pedal and hit two drums at the same time. Kicking back into simplicity, the microphone can be 5 starred on expert with little to no problem. Even when you donít know the word to the song, making an effort to groan the correct pitch into the microphone will produce ďAwesomeĒ results. Harmonix did included player specific choices for difficulty rather than an across the board selection. Thatís excellent for those new to the game.

Online play is very entertaining, but sadly doesnít support an online World Tour. You can hop into a song for a ranked co-op play as well as invite friends to play a song with you. Up to 4 players can rock out online; each on a separate instrument. There are also versus modes for players seeking a bit more competition. You can battle out scores on the same song / difficulty or trade off on portions of a song in an attempt to win over more audience members. Additionally, ranked leaderboards keep track of the best players over the various multiplayer modes.

The achievements arenít necessarily difficult, but rather time consuming. Some of the achievements require beating solo modes on all the instruments / difficulties while others require finishing out the entire sets in every city on the World Tour. Harmonix thankfully made the difficulty achievements stackable so you arenít forced to replay an instrument on easy if you beat it on expert. Thatís a welcome change from the Guitar Hero series, especially for those who hate forced replay value. Overall, the set is a solid challenge and offers gamerscore points for all levels of player.

There was a selection of downloadable content from Day one of launch, thankfully priced slightly lower than Guitar Hero content. Song 3-packs sell for 440 marketplace points and are specific to the artist. You can also purchase the songs as singles for 2 bucks each. There was little that attracted me to the available songs, but the cover for the Credence Clearwater Revival song was pretty solid.

Graphics

Visually, the title is extremely polished and absent of any major problems. Bands look great up on stage in high definition and each song uses a variety of filters / angles to accentuate the characters. The color choices are varied and often illuminated by the moving lighting effects while on stage. The crowds are very lifelike and the motion animation is typical of any rock show audience, floor level anyway. There are tons of locations to play and each has a distinct aesthetic. Between songs, the player is treated to splash screens of the band in different poses or a bit of rock trivia. Overall, the visual appeal keeps the player in tune with the experience of growing your own band.

Audio

The 50+ songs are a broad spectrum of rock tunes ranging from alternative rock to heavy metal. The musical quality is fantastic and, unlike Guitar Hero, most of the songs are original tracks rather than covers. Bands like Weezer. Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, The Stones, Foo Fighters, and Kiss are all smattered over the soundtrack. My only complaint with the song selection is a general lack of older rock, specifically the 60s. This type of rhythm game is so perfect to attract the baby boomer generation into playing video games, yet the song selection is heavily geared toward kids that have never seen an MTV channel that only plays music videos.

The sound effects work well with the player interaction. Guitars will emit high pitched flubs when frets are missed, tambourine / cowbell will play when hitting the microphone correctly and the drums sound exactly like a regular set. There are limited voiceovers in the game, mostly just crowd noises. They scream and shout during a show as well as boo / applause when the music is playing.

Conclusion

The steep entry fee ($170) will deter many 360 owners for a while, but its holiday release was timed well. While some folks should wait for the drums to be released separately, owning the entire set makes for a great time if you are a social gamer. While the lack of online tour mode is a huge letdown and the song selection is geared too much at younger generations, Rock Band is still above and beyond anything the Guitar Hero series has offered as of late. Feel secure in picking up Rock Band for a holiday gift or just to start up your own video game rock band.