Players: 1 to 4 Player Game | Genre: Music
I think it’s safe to say one of the more highly-anticipated titles at E3 that everyone wanted to get their hands on was EA and developer Harmonix’s upcoming music-rhythm game Rock Band. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Harmonix’s last project, Guitar Hero, was a runaway success, as was the sequel - despite requiring an expensive peripheral. Maybe it’s because Rock Band seems poised to be the only title capable of dethroning Guitar Hero as the ultimate music-rhythm franchise. However, a lot of it probably has to do with the way the game lets you rock out your way, however that may be.
A lot of people are looking at this game from a perspective of “It’s gonna’ cost me $200 to play everything!”, but the folks at Harmonix are quick to respond that this is actually quite the opposite scenario – included here is a full guitar game (with the additional option to play bass in multiplayer), a full drum game, and a full karaoke game, and everyone who fell in love with their previous hits like Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution probably wouldn’t complain a bit if those titles suddenly got a new feature allowing you to add new instruments if you choose to do so. Add to that the fact that the game works just fine with the old Guitar Hero controller (on the Xbox 360, at least) and standard USB mics, and it’s apparent that they’re trying to make the process as painless as possible.
Of course, the peripherals are going to be one of the prime points of interest here, and everyone involved with the game is still mum as to pricing and pack-in details, so the best I can tell you is what everything feels like. The guitar seems pretty similar to the old Guitar Hero controller (you even tilt the guitar for the game’s version of Star Power!), albeit with some additional buttons. First off, there are five more fret buttons, and while these are completely optional, they do add an extra element to the game, allowing you to play one-handed without using the strum bar (and in fact you can earn a bonus by soloing this way). There’s also a new fender five-way switch that changes the sound of your guitar.
The drum set has four drum pads - one snare and three that change depending on the context, becoming your cymbals, hi-hat, rind and crash, as well as tom-toms. No need to worry about that while switching from song to song, though – your on-screen cues while playing drums are similar to what you see while playing guitar, so as long as you hit the right pad (at the right time), you’ll get the appropriate instrument. In addition, there’s a foot pedal for the bass drum, which has an on-screen indicator that looks like a solid orange line across all four bars, making it difficult to miss.
The game’s creators are also delighted with the fact that the game’s hardest difficulty replicates the drums exactly, meaning that you’re actually playing the song’s drums like you would in life, meaning that while Rock Band, like Guitar Hero, can’t actually teach you how to play guitar, it can teach you how to play the drums. It should be noted that while playing, the drums did have a few odd quirks – the game played best when you really nailed the drums like in real life, and when doing so, the two to either side seemed to flop around a bit. In addition, both myself and a few other drummers I saw accidentally hit the big Xbox dashboard button and throw off the performance by popping up the dashboard, much to the disappointment of onlookers.
As for the mic portion of the game, Harmonix stresses that the game will be much more fleshed-out than the Karaoke Revolution titles, detecting not just your pitch and timing, but also detecting phenomes. In other words, the game makes sure you’re actually singing the words to the song and not just humming along. While this is bad news for those who played Karaoke Revolution with their own "Weird Al" Yankovic versions of the lyrics, it does ensure that singers getting high scores in the game are actually earning them. In addition, parts of the song with no singing often have circular marks showing when the singer should clap to simulate a tambourine or a cowbell (in the case of Don’t Fear the Reaper), giving the singer something to do when not crooning.
The game’s on-screen indicators for instruments all look like familiar Harmonix standbys, with lead guitar (on the left), drums (in the middle) and bass (on the right) all featuring an indicator similar to Guitar Hero, while the singer (on the top) has indicators much like those in Karaoke Revolution. However, there are a few new twists, such as the ability for any of the instruments to freestyle when they’re doing well, with this represented by an area filled with a green highlight. These freestyle moments take on an added importance in multiplayer too, because it’s the only way to bring back a band-mate who’s poor performance has dropped him out of the song (you only completely lose if everyone in your band fails out).
While the ability to play through the game using one of various instruments is nice and all, the game really shines when you look at the wealth of options for playing, especially when it comes to multiplayer. While the game includes fairly standard single-player modes, as well as a multiplayer versus and co-op modes, with all multiplayer modes allowing for any combination of local players and online players. However, the real highlight here is the World Tour mode, which looks to truly flesh out the experience of being in a rock band.
In the world tour mode, players create a custom character (or multiple characters, if they choose), and essentially try to carve out that character’s place in the world of rock online, amongst the game’s other players. You can get invited into other players’ bands, acting as a guest performer (or try to join a band who’ve put out a call for a replacement singer, bassist, or whatever), or you and up to three buds (local or online, like everything else) can start a band of your own.
Upon doing so, you collaborate on a band name, logo and hometown, and from there on, it’s your job to build your band into the most bitchin’ group in the world (or for the less ambitious, try to not suck so much). This also brings into focus an aspect of real-world cooperation – if your band doesn’t work well together, it doesn’t work, and you may even choose to kick out your drummer if he sucks, or fire your bassist if you discover he’s been sleeping with the singer’s girl.
It doesn’t just stop at getting the highest score, either. Playing well can earn you access to all sorts of in-game luxuries (from extra equipment and bling to an upgrade for the group’s ride – from van to bus to private jet). In addition to in-game frivolities, I’m also hearing that possible future plans include the option to buy real paraphernalia with your band’s characters and logo via Rockband.com, so you can head out into the world wearing your band’s tee shirt, or sip out of a band-branded mug.
While it’s unlikely that you’ll spend much time looking at them, it’s well worth knowing that the game’s graphics look pretty sweet, with even more detail than what we saw in the 360 version of Guitar Hero II. The game will feature huge crowds and all sorts of lighting and smoke effects one would expect from a rock concert (complete with nice use of light bloom). In addition, Rock Band boasts a character-creation utility with tons of options for you to make a unique in-game persona, complete with the ability to choose their style on-stage, letting you choose if your character will be twirling his drum sticks, jumping around the stage or throwing up "the horns". In this way, you can build not only the way your on-screen persona looks but what kind of personality they have. What’s more, the game will have around 40 different venues for you to jam in, giving plenty of variety.
And then there’s the tracklist. So far, Harmonix has announced 14 of the game’s packed-in 40 songs ranging from the 60s to today. For those that missed them when they were announced earlier, they are as follows:
Bon Jovi - "Wanted Dead or Alive"
Black Sabbath - "Paranoid"
Blue Oyster Cult - "Don't Fear the Reaper"
David Bowie - "Suffragette City"
Foo Fighters - "Learn to Fly"
The Hives - "Main Offender"
Metallica - "Enter Sandman"
Mountain - "Mississippi Queen”
Nirvana - "In Bloom"
Queens of the Stone Age - "Go With the Flow"
The Ramones - "Rockaway Beach"
Rush - "Tom Sawyer"
Stone Temple Pilots - "Vasoline"
The Strokes - "Reptilia”
Weezer - "Say It Ain't So"
The Who - "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Surprisingly, the majority of these are the actual master tracks rather than covers. What’s more, Harmonix has also announced an intention to continue releasing content for the game via Xbox Live (and presumably PSN) on a weekly basis after the game is shipped, with the intention of releasing singles, multi-song packs, and a historical first – entire albums, ultimately laying claim to a catalog of hundreds and possibly thousands of songs. And while, as with everything else, no prices have been announced as of yet, the continued emphasis on making this game affordable for consumers (as well as the backlash at the ridiculously-overpriced Guitar Hero II song packs on Xbox Live) should hopefully mean that those wanting to play their favorite tunes on Rock Band shouldn’t have to shill out an arm and a leg to do so.
It all comes down to this – if you are a fan of music-rhythm games, or a fan of Guitar Hero, or a fan of Karaoke Revolution, or if you like to play music, or if you’d like to improve your singing and/or drum skills... or if, quite simply, you are a fan of rock, then you’ll understand when we say we can’t wait to get out hands on this game, crank it up to 11, and shake the neighborhood.
A few minor details to iron out, but assuming they do, this game could rock the world. Maybe even literally.