One of the most anticipated games of the season, Rock Band has built on the tried and true formula of music game play brought forth by Guitar Hero. With the additions of new instruments such as the drums and microphone Rock Band is leaps and bounds an improvement over Harmonix’s last offering, Guitar Hero II.
Inside the box you’ll open and up and first things you’re going pull out is the game itself and the 4 port USB adapter. The USB adapter has its own power supply so plan accordingly. The Fender Stratocaster guitar is packed in its own box directly underneath the game. The guitar is separated into two pieces with the fret board and neck. Getting the neck to snap to the fret board takes a bit of force so don’t be afraid to apply it, you won’t damage anything. You’ll hear an audible snap once you have it in correctly. Underneath the guitar is the microphone and drum kit. The drums require some assembly. Thankfully, putting it together is a snap and only requires placing a few metal poles in between leg stands to support the drum pads. The orange pedal is the last thing you will remove from your package. It comes with a telephone-like chord that attaches to the drum kit. Ensure to stretch the chord out as much as possible before attaching it to the drums to avoid any controller throwing moments with your drums especially if you are a tall rocker.
The guitar aesthetically is the best looking guitar to be included in any music game thus far. When compared to the Guitar Hero II and III guitars, the body of the stratocaster is the slimmest. Interestingly, it also has thickest fret bar. This is counter balanced by two sets of frets one at the end and one very near the strum bar so people with varying hand sizes or presumably younger kids can choose which set to use. While the guitar looks great, strumming with it during the game can be a progressively hit and miss experience. Especially when playing songs on hard the strum bar and buttons on the stratocaster feel stiff and unresponsive. Many times I was sure I had hit a note perfectly and the game counted it as a missed note. Needless to say, the Guitar Hero III Gibson has been my go to guitar throughout the playtime with Rock Band. The Gibson guitar performs just as well as it did in Guitar Hero III and easily outperforms the Stratocaster guitar during game play. Hitting notes feel right and precise which is a huge help during difficult portions of songs. Plus the fret buttons on the Gibson are larger than the Stratocaster’s. Although the Gibson looks a little more toyish than the Strat guitar when it all comes down to how the game plays and feels, the Rock Band guitar falls a bit short.
The microphone is a bit confusing to use the first time you unpack it. The microphone has no buttons on it so it requires a controller to make selections before and after you sing. The microphone that comes with Rock Band is very sturdy and is a decent quality microphone. There isn’t much to say other than the build quality feels solid and it performs very well within the game when a band member is singing which I will get in to in a bit.
Without question the most anticipated instrument of the entire set however is the drum kit. The drum kit is simply a few practice pads outlined with the corresponding notes you’ll see on the screen stretching from green to blue. A bass pedal serves as the orange button for the drum portion of the game. I can’t stress enough the need to height adjust the drums and grab a comfy yet sturdy chair when you play because the drums are challenging, even on easy. Rock Band comes with a set of drum sticks that aren’t exactly musician quality (I have a drum stick from 311’s Chad Sexton to compare) but they do get the job done. The drums are the funnest and yet my most hated instrument in the game because I feel as though sometimes I am hitting the correct pad and the game is just not responding. Strictly from a how to play point of view, it’s best to hit the drums as hard as you can as close to the center of the pads as you can. The drums also come with a d-pad and face buttons which are forgettable and frustrating to use.
Presentation: The presentation within Rock Band is outstanding. You get the Rock Band feeling from the moment you load up the game and the opening cut scene is a character singing out the window of his band’s moving van. The menus are all very easy to navigate. Between gigs you are sometimes shown photos of your band and one thing I instantly noticed that was such a nice added detail was that not only was your custom character in the scene, but also with the clothes you have currently dressed them in. Other games tried similar things with cut scenes between songs, but Rock Band gets it done right.
Visuals: The visuals in Rock Band put prior music games to shame. The art style is far more realistic than Guitar Hero and the amount of filters and lighting effects are superb. The game very much has MTV’s stamp in that department. For example, if you play a gig in Seattle (the grunge capitol of the world) your on stage presence will be in black and white and a bit snowy much akin to the music videos from the early 90s.
The character models are detailed and allow for a decent amount of customization. As you play gigs you earn money to buy more clothes and guitars. I made a few pretty good looking rocker characters with all the stereotypical gear worn by your favorite bands and musician on TV. My favorite combo was supergirl short shorts and topless torso (it’s not topless, but a bikini top). On stage the animations really impressed me. Your characters are not aimlessly banging things or doing things that do not seem natural to playing music. Say you’re watching the drum solo prior to the start of Dani California, the drum hits by your character are in sync with the music. Your leader singer’s lips are synced to make the proper shapes of the words in the songs. There is no disconnect between the player and what’s on screen like in some other music games when you get those rare moments to admire what’s really going on in the game.
The venues and crowds are also the best thus far in the genre. Venues vary from your run of the mill dive and bars to grand stadiums all around the world. These venues don’t have as much character as the ones in Guitar Hero (for example, Satan won’t be popping out in a hellish arena) but the venues feel a lot more true to life for what a concert really looks like. The crowd is also varied and there is very little if any repeated use of the same crowd model. The crowd also jumps around and interacts with you on stage much like the crowd would at a real show.
The next thing I have to hit on is the lighting in the concert atmosphere is spot on. Sometimes you’re rocking out in a solo and all the lights in the arena are off except a solo spotlight on you. Sometimes you come out of a slow portion of a song and the pyrotechnics are right on cue just like in a real show with fireworks and flames everywhere. Rock Band does a tremendous job using these visuals to suck you in to the Rock Band and playing a concert experiences. It’s so true to life I’d expect it to be copied in the future. Anything less from here on out in this department would seem second fiddle.
The fret board may take some getting used as things are a bit different. The notes themselves seem a bit smaller than they did in Guitar Hero games and overdrive notes are white instead of notes highlighted by stars. The over drive effects on the note board may be distracting for some at first but it’s something you’ll easily get used to. When in overdrive mode, the note board has some wavy effects on the edges. Harmonix also did a great job visually on getting more pertinent information to the player on screen which I will get into in the game play section.
Harmonix paid just as much attention to the audio portion of the game as the visual when it comes to immersing the player in the feel of Rock Band. The one thing that hit me right off the bat from the audio side of things was the fact that when you play some songs and you hit a popular portion of the song you can actually hear the crowd singing it a long with you. This detail alone makes the sound portion of the game a cut above the competition. The crowd also does the other animations such as react appropriately to your play or to a difficult portion of a song with cheers and when in overdrive mode.
Rock Band is very smart with the options it gives you in the menus. Not only can you adjust the volume of the music and crowd but it also comes with the ability to turn on and off dolby sound from within the game as well as provide a bass boost option. Rock Band like Guitar Hero suffers from muted tracks when in 5.1 mode presumably because music is rarely recorded in 5.1 . In Guitar Hero, I would have to exit the game to adjust this setting, not so in Rock Band.
In 2x stereo mode the music is crisp and clear. The transfer of tracks from source to the game sounded superior to my ears than in Guitar Hero. I still hold disappointment with music games on next-gen systems that do not produce or at least re-master tracks to come out of all 5.1 channels rather than 2.1. Playing music in Rock Band using dolby sound is unfortunately muted so make the adjustment accordingly when playing the game to meet your needs.
The track listing itself is more robust and will be able to please a variety of audiences and be great for parties which is one the game’s huge strengths. Everything from Blitzkreig Bop by the Ramones to Learn to Fly by the Foo fighters are all a blast to play. The game had to license music that was fun to play as a band and it’s done an adequate job in delivering. After my first play through I did have a favorite set of tracks mostly from the 90s and 2000s that I will go back and play for fun. However, with more tracks than prior music games the list of “I will come back to this one” is definitely larger. There are unfortunately a good group of filler tracks from bands many people have not heard of that will probably never be given a second go round outside of absolutely must play situations such as Band World Tour. The strong DLC line up for Rock Band should be able to offset the filler tracks.
Harmonix did not go back and re-invent the wheel in the game play department. But, they did an absolutely fantastic job of polishing the rough edges around Guitar Hero game play. The mechanic is mostly unchanged on the guitar. See the note, hit it, increase your multiplier, and bank more points. Get over drive (it’s Rock Band’s “star power”) and use it to double your points. The drums have the same mechanic but where you need to step on the bass drum pedal will be highlighted as lines that go all the way across the fret board that you will have to time right to hit. For singing, you can see the words along with the voice pitch you need to be using to sing or rap them and the game will indicate to you where it thinks you are so you can make adjustments as needed.
The guitar portion of Rock Band difficulty wise is more on par with Guitar Hero II. It’s not all that difficult especially on easy and medium difficulties. Hard and expert will require you to slide your fingers more and hit notes in higher difficulty combinations. But it’s not “bs” difficulty like GH3 which is a welcome improvement. You can tell Harmonix has making proper feeling note boards down to a science for the guitar. Veterans of Guitar Hero will have zero problems with the guitar portion of Rock Band. At the end of some songs you will be given a open fret board to hit as many notes as you can as fast as you can to simulate a burn out at the end of a song. There will be a few notes after the burn out section which essentially houses your bonus. Hit these notes and you’ve got it made. Miss them, and you’ll literally see your bonus go up in smoke on screen.
The vocal recognition while singing is phenomenal. You will not be able to fool Rock Band with random grunting and making sounds to get through songs. You won’t be able to make up words either. As you go to the higher difficulty levels the margin for error will become progressively smaller and you will do as Rock Band thinks you should or you will fail. Don’t rap Sabotage fast enough? Prepare to fail. Don’t got the pipes to hang with Dave Grohl or Brandon Flowers? What was a cake walk on guitar will quickly turn into a nightmare with vocals. It’s a lot of fun though. Words will come at you in the vocal portion with a straight line denoting the level of sound you need. You can bank and activate over drive by screaming into the microphone at designated times where the vocal fret board will be highlighted orange but have no words to sing. Certain portions of songs where there are no words and other instruments are in solo may require you to tap your hand against the microphone in rhythm to simulate a tambourine. The vocal portion will be the hit of many a holiday party featuring Rock Band. It’s a supped up karaoke machine, next-gen style.
The most popular instrument in Rock Band is also hands down the most challenging. The drums are fun and very rewarding when you have it down. However, more than a few gamers may get very close to breaking their drum set. Even on easy the drums use all 4 drum pads and the bass drum kick. For those of us who aren’t musically inclined, the drums have the steepest learning curve and will take a lot of practice to get used to. Even on easy I the drums presented a challenge. Sometimes I felt as though I was hitting the proper drum pad and the game simply would not register it. The drums were difficult enough, but non-registering pads in the game made it almost impossible. It’s hit or miss which is why at the start of the review I recommend anyone playing the drums to hit the pads as centrally as possible and as hard as possible. Anyone who can successfully play the drums on hard or expert definitely has my gaming respect. In addition, the drums are loud when you play them and that was before I was trying to hit them hard. It’s not drown out loud, but the sound that is made when you hit your drums is a bit annoying. Having played real drums in my earlier years it’s not the same feeling and it’s nitpick to even make that assessment in a game but the feel and sound of playing the drums in Rock Band combined with the difficulty and unresponsiveness make it a real sore spot for me. Activating overdrive on the drums consists of a guitar-like burn out section in what seemed like predetermined sections in songs where you had to hit the drums as fast as possible while hitting a pre-determined note at the end of the burnout which will activate the overdrive.
Game play wise, Rock Band is much improved over Guitar Hero in terms of pertinent information on screen during play. Game play rules in Rock Band are even tweaked to make it deeper and more strategic overall. In Guitar Hero II until you finished a song it was a mystery as to how many stars you got for your performance. In Rock Band, you can see live as you’re playing how many stars you have. Were you ever frustrated at yourself in Guitar Hero for activating your star power at the wrong moment and playing through another section of a song that had more star power ? That’s been resolved in Rock Band. Just because you have over drive on, doesn’t mean you can’t bank more to sustain and extend an overdrive period. In fact, if strategically played you can juggle overdrive for a pretty lengthy period of time in some songs which can lead to some impressive scores. In multiplayer modes such as Band World Tour you can easily see where your teammates are since all 4 instruments are displayed on one single rock meter. Which brings up another strategic point in the game when playing in a band. If a band mate is about to fail out, activating over drive can save them. The window to save them won’t last forever though so if it’s not done fairly quickly you all fail. This makes for some very interesting decision making mid song if for example you know the guitar solo for Enter Sandman is downright impossible and you’re going to need to save your guitarist’s ass. This becomes serious business especially in Band World Tour.
It all comes together in Rock Band with the showcase mode known as Band World Tour. You and up to 3 other friends have to decide which instruments you each want to play as you co op your way to the top of the charts. You’ll have to pick a leader for the band. A piece of advice is to choose your leader and instrument wisely. This person along with the instrument is locked and will need to be present to play BTW mode. I recommend choosing a guitar player as lead. While other band mates will come and go and be able to change instruments, you the band leader cannot. This made for some frustration at first when playing through Rock Band as I made the mistake of making the leader of my band the drummer.
Once you have assembled your band you will start out as the proverbial small fries playing small venues without much fanfare. But as your band’s legend grows so will your fan base, your loot, and the size of the venues you play. Successfully completed gigs will net you fans, stars, and money that you will need to unlock new cities. Every few gigs you’ll be able to play for a tour bus, a better tour bus, a private jet, bouncers, PR firm etc. You continue on in the Band World Tour mode to unlock to turn your band into a real headlining act. This is where a design decision was made by Harmonix that troubled me. If you play on easy or medium as a band, it’s impossible to finish the game and unlock all the venues because your fan base is capped at a certain number. You have to play on as hard to carry on. I know some may say this separates the real rockers from the garage bands but it ruins and closes off a lot of fun in the game. Not only that, but your band mates need to be present in Band World Tour locally to play. Best of luck finding 4 people who are all proficient in each of the different instruments. They’ll be few and far between. Another low point for the World Tour is that the Rock Band song list is currently at 58 and you end up playing the same songs a ton of times to move on. I get it’s supposed to be like playing in a real band where you’re stuck playing the same songs every night, but it gets repetitive for what is at the end of the day a video game. I don’t mind playing 2, 3, and 4 song set lists in a row but when the same songs keep coming up that I’ve already perfected and aced it makes me want to stop playing the mode. On top of that, if your band fails out on a song you a lot of fans. So if you know a band mate struggles with a particular song or a section, it may be wise to save your over drive to save them rather than increase points. Everyone needs to be alive at the end of a song to count as a successful finish. You can earn bonuses by playing through unity sections successfully and stacking over drive (up to 8 since each member of your band only provides a 2x multiplier in cooperative play). The World Tour game mode is a great concept but really needs some work. The fact that I can’t co op World Tour online really is a downer and the repeating of tracks made me want to move on to something else.
The solo game mode is quite plain and boring. You will play through songs on the difficulty level of your choice until you’re through all the songs. There’s nothing to break it up. No insane story of a lost soul and no struggling band making it big. It’s just one venue to the next rinse and repeat. Despite being a real yawner, it is the quickest way to open up all the songs in Rock Band. Needless to say Rock Band is more a cooperative game where you’ll need more people to fully enjoy it which I think makes it one of the best party games ever made by combining Guitar Hero, Drum Hero, and karaoke.
The online modes are very standard. You can get together with friends or random strangers for a jam session over Xbox live. Which one again begs the question, why can’t I Band World Tour over live ? Versus play has the standard tug of war mode in which you and an opponent can play on the same instrument on varying difficulty with an alternating note board to see who has more skills. There is also straight up score challenge which is you against an opponent on the same difficulty, same instrument, and same note board in a contest for highest score. The jam session will be fun with friends because you can just mess around and play songs. Did I mention this before, why oh why was Band World Tour left out of Xbox live play again? The online longevity of this game is really hampered by that absence of that mode and online Rock Band doesn’t do a good job of separating itself from the pack. However offline, welcome to your holiday party smash title that will be tons of fun for everyone.
Presentation: 9 / 10 MTV has its stamp all over this one in terms of presentation and Harmonix has done a good job of bringing the Band concept to your living room.
Visuals: 9.5 / 10 Realistic art style, on cue lighting, and moves on stage that actually suck you in more to the experience. Plus, it’s all in sync with the tunes!
Sound: 9.0 /10 The tracks sound great and the crowd is involved singing choruses along with you. But once again dolby sound sounds muted.
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10 There’s a ton of fun to be had here. Unfortunately some of the hardware in Rock Band is hit and miss. Band World Tour suffers from some problems but you can’t fault Harmonix from going out there and getting innovative. In game improvements are substantial over other titles.
Longevity: 8.5 /10 Some inexplicable design decisions and very generic online play modes. Band World Tour not being accessible cooperative via live makes me scratch my head. This will however be the new ultimate party game.
Overall (Not an average): 9.2 / 10 Harmonix tried something new and it works. Never before has a game taken such a stance and fresh look at the music game genre cooperatively focused like Rock Band. Some gambles paid off, some didn’t but Rock Band is a solid game offline. Good luck finding this on store shelves this holiday.
Update: I am told an update patch adding Band World Tour via Live is coming shortly after release. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. If it’s released I will update the review to reflect the improvements.