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The Beatles: Rock Band

Harmonix brings a revolution to music gaming
The Game:
Ever since developer Harmonix split from the Guitar Hero franchise to make their own creation, Rock Band, the two series have taken very different routes to success. Guitar Hero, owned by Activision, released multiple standalone discs, eschewing cross-compatibility until their most recent release, Guitar Hero 5. Harmonix, now teamed with EA, worked on developing Rock Band as a platform that could support a continuous stream of downloadable content, making the end result more customizable for the user. As a result, Activision has released a glut of Guitar Hero titles, many based around individual artists such as Aerosmith, Metallica, and Van Halen. To date, Rock Band has only released Rock Band and Rock Band 2 (a PSP version of the game is mostly an afterthought), but the grand total of songs available for Rock Band 2 is close to or over 800. It seems Harmonix didn't need to do anything but release Rock Band 3 and rake in the cash.

But then it came. The announcement. Harmonix was in fact going to release a band-specific game. And who do they choose to kick start their side project? None other than The Beatles. Yes, you read that right. The Beatles. The most universally acclaimed, best selling band of all time. The band whose songs everyone knows practically from birth. Harmonix worked diligently with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and the George Harrison estate, along with Giles Martin, son of Beatles' producer Sir George Martin, to craft a game that would be more than just another rhythm game. It would be the rhythm game to end all rhythm games. It would be The Beatles: Rock Band.

Popping in the disc, it's clear as day that Harmonix has great respect for The Beatles and their legacy. The game begins with a video that starts in Liverpool, and, filled with a multitude of Beatles references, takes us all the way to a psychedelic cliffside, with the band riding a massive bipedal elephant. It's bizarre, but effective. From there, you're offered the choice of free play or story mode. Unlike previous Rock Band games, all the songs are available at the outset. However, there are plenty of incentives to play the story mode. For one thing, it actually is a story, starting in Liverpool's Cavern Club, where you play early Beatles songs. You then move on to the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium, and beyond. In between each venue is a stylized video that shows the evolution of The Beatles during that time period. It doesn't go into specifics, but then again, who doesn't know the story of The Beatles?

For those so inclined to learn more, as you play songs in Story Mode, you unlock photos, many never before seen, and each comes with accompanying details. Further, you also unlock challenges, which, when beaten, award you with prizes. I won't spoil them for you by listing them here, but suffice it to say that like everything else in the game, it's clear Harmonix took great care to make this the ultimate Beatles experience.

Harmonix has said that Beatles: Rock Band is its own platform, and will not be integrated into the main Rock Band series. This position is bolstered by the fact that Beatles: Rock Band is getting its own DLC that will only work for this specific title. Thus far Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, and Rubber Soul are on tap for full album downloads in the coming months. Of course, if these won't work in Rock Band 2, then it goes without saying that the Rock Band 2 DLC will not work in Beatles: Rock Band. No chance of seeing John Lennon sing David Byrne or Paul McCartney play Kim Deal's bass lines, folks. But, despite this, Beatles: Rock Band is, at its heart, a Rock Band game. The user interface is exactly the same as in Rock Band 2, just with a Beatles skin applied. In terms of gameplay, I found hard to be a little too easy, and expert to be surprisingly difficult. Not difficult because of the songs, which have always been more complex than people gave them credit for, but because even simpler songs tend to be significantly harder than many of the Rock Band 2 songs. Also worth noting is that the tracks run slower in Beatles: Rock Band, but there is a "Super Speed" option that can bring it back to a decent speed.

The other major gameplay breakthrough is the introduction of three-part harmony. If you choose to sing vocals, you can either sing solo or with up to three people. For those playing the game on the 360, you can use the wireless Lips microphones for the quickest and easiest way to achieve three mics (two Lips and one USB mic), otherwise you will have to jump through a few hoops to hook up three USB mics. Finding the right harmony can be surprisingly tough, so there is a tutorial available, but it should be noted that all you need to keep your score multiplier is to successfully complete any of the three vocal lines in a given phrase. But you get more points for getting all three together.

But beyond that, it's just good fun to play these songs. I was going through the song list with a friend, and we were constantly amazed at how many fantastic tracks were stacked one atop the other. At a certain point you stop and come to the realization that you're playing as The Beatles in a video game. Sometimes it feels like it's all too much. And all the charts are a blast. Everyone I introduced to the game quickly got swept up in the guitar and bass lines, the vocal harmonies, and most especially Ringo's drumming. Every time I tried to end a session, I'd be stopped by cries of "No! Just one more!" That's the kind of gaming experience that only comes around once or twice a console generation.

The Visuals:
One thing that sets The Beatles: Rock Band apart from Rock Band or Guitar Hero is the visual style. This game looks like no music game that has come before it. The interface puts you in the Technicolor world of the 60's, with bright colors dominating. All of the venues, based on real world locations, are wonderfully recreated, complete with screaming girls (who go nuts when you activate "Beatlemania," this game's version of Star Power or Overdrive). For the period where The Beatles did not perform live, they begin each song at Abbey Road studios, only to have it morph into a druggy dreamscape, some more abstract ("Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds") while others are more literal ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends"). All of them are full of treats for the eye to behold. The Beatles themselves progress, from young kids at the Cavern Club to the marching band costumes of their Sgt. Pepper phase, and finally to their renegade appearance on the top of the Apple Corps building. This is the one music game where it's as much fun to not play as it is to play, because you can simply look at the visuals and be entertained.

The Audio:
Of course, in a game like this, the audio is absolutely paramount, and with Giles Martin at the boards, we know we're in safe hands. There aren't any surprises within the songs themselves, which is honestly a good thing, because these songs are so well known that any deviation from the current recordings would certainly upset millions of ardent Beatles fans. In addition to the music, which is meticulously recreated from the original master tracks, we also get little snippets of in-studio or in-concert conversation, whether it be John addressing the concert goers at Shea Stadium or George noting that you missed some notes when you fail. These little sonic cues add authenticity to the experience, making you feel fully immersed in the world of The Beatles.

The Conclusion:
Harmonix has raised the bar once again. Beatles: Rock Band is the new gold standard for music games. Between the thorough recreation of the band's look and sound, everything about the game shows care and attention to detail. And with replayable elements such as challenges and DLC, Beatles: Rock Band stands on its own two legs. Whether you're a casual fan or a Beatlemaniac, a Rock Band guitar god or a neophyte, Beatles: Rock Band is the game for you. I've got a feeling that if there was ever a game that should be played by anyone and everyone, here, there, and everywhere, Beatles: Rock Band is it.