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Rock Band 2

Rock Harder
The Game:
Harmonix has proven time and time again that they are the leaders in the simulated music game genre. While there had been rhythm games prior, Guitar Hero created the current paradigm that has defined the marketplace. And their first title after splitting with instrument manufacturer Red Octane, Rock Band, shifted the paradigm again. Instead of focusing on a single instrument, Rock Band went for the whole shebang, adding bass, drums, and vocals to the mix. They also took a step away from non-linear gameplay with World Tour Mode, which allowed your band to start in one location and open up new areas as you gained popularity. The warm reception has forced Activision to step up their next Guitar Hero title to follow in Rock Band's footsteps. But once again, Harmonix beat them to the punch with the release of Rock Band 2.

Rock Band 2 is a near-perfect sequel. It takes pretty much everything you like from the first one and expands upon it, while dumping most of what you didn't. To start, the main game mode is now World Tour Mode. Gone are the sequential brackets you had to pass. Now, after you've created your burgeoning rock god or goddess, you get to choose how your band moves on up. In addition to choosing from a non-linear set of venues, you also have various choices to make as your band gets larger. Do you want to go for the big cash at the risk of alienating fans, or gain a devoted fan base but have less cash to show for it? Granted, none of the choices are really permanent, but if you're not paying attention, you can find yourself losing either a lot of fans, or money, or both very quickly. In a move fans have been clamoring for since the last game, World Tour Mode is also now available online, so you can rock out with your gaming buddies from all over.

For those looking for something a little more conventional, there's also the Band Challenge mode. While this doesn't fully replicate the traditional Guitar Hero experience, it does allow you to play songs in a mode that feels more straightforward. For the more competitive, there's the Battle of the Bands where you can go head to head against other players, and timed contests that Harmonix curates which change when the previous one expires. Of course, there's always the Quick Play option, and you can now select multiple songs in a playlist of your choice. And for those not so musically inclined, Harmonix has introduced a "No Fail" mode that is just how it sounds: When you turn the mode on, no matter how poorly a band member plays, you never actually fail out the song.

Of course, all of these improvements mean nothing if the songs aren't fun to play. And with 80 songs on the disc, and another 20 free tracks on their way (you get a redemption code inside the case, although the songs haven't been announced or made available yet), you certainly have plenty of options to choose from. Harmonix has tried to make a wide selection of tracks, although it seems to me that the 80's are best represented. But for people who like rock, there's something here for everyone. In addition, if you can get your hands on a copy of the first game, you can import all but three of Rock Band's tracks to Rock Band 2 for a $5 fee, and all downloadable content runs natively on Rock Band 2. While I don't like every song on the disc, my biggest problem is that too many of the songs, especially the easier tracks, suffer from what I call the "never-ending series of notes." Basically, you end up playing the same note in succession over and over and over for half the song. A few songs in the first Rock Band had this problem ("Highway Star" being the worst offender), but I noticed it popping up much more often in 2. Still, as you get into the meatier tracks, the complaint no longer applies, and some of the songs are the most fun to play in the entire series.

Responding to valid concerns about the instruments created for Rock Band (and feeling the pressure of competition from the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour), Harmonix and EA have gone back and made improvements to the drums and guitar. The most obvious change is that both are now wireless. The drums are also much more quiet and responsive, and the kick pedal is now reinforced with metal, so no more pedals snapping in half. I've heard that some people have had issues with the drums registering extra hits, or that hitting the blue pad too close to the yellow will trigger the yellow as well, but my set has worked flawlessly. The guitar has also been reworked to be more quiet and responsive. I still wish that the buttons on the neck of the guitar were not flush, so I could position my fingers more easily, but even after just a single evening of playing, I was able to adapt pretty quickly. The guitar now includes an auto-calibration feature, where it will automatically detect the lag on your TV and sound system. I tried it out last night and it worked very well. In addition, the guitar now has a simulated wood finish that looks very classy. Overall, both are worthy upgrades for the serious player, but Harmonix and Activision have announced that Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour instruments are fully compatible, so those looking to only invest in one set may want to wait for the reviews of the Red Octane instruments.

The Graphics:
Rock Band had a distinctive look, with a wide selection of clothes and hairstyles to choose from for your character, and tattoos and designs you could put on their bodies. Rock Band 2 doesn't expand much on that, offering only a few new customization options. On the plus side, character animated have been improved, with some fun new interactions between band members. Less interesting are segments where your band is chosen to shoot a music video, which generally look cheesy and distract from the gameplay.

The Sound:
As it should be with games of this type, the sound is impeccable. The songs come roaring out of the speakers, with a decent mix between the instruments. When you activate overdrive, your instrument takes the focal point, but otherwise, the song normally sounds as it would when run off the album. I noticed that the volume of the vocalist was turned up more loudly than it was on Rock Band. That is, the volume of the person singing, not the original vocalist.

While it doesn't feel as revolutionary as the jump from Guitar Hero II to Rock Band, Rock Band 2 makes a lot of moves in the right direction, improving on the instruments and allowing you to import almost all the songs from the first game, in addition to offering an overwhelming amount of downloadable content (Harmonix has promised over 500 songs by the year's end). While a few songs suffer from note repetition, the overall mix is robust and fun to play. For anyone who enjoyed Guitar Hero or Rock Band, Rock Band 2 is a no-brainer. Highly Recommended