|Rock Band (2007)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PS2
Let’s be honest: while all of us wannabe rockers absolutely love shredding it up to the latest tunes on “Guitar Hero,” it doesn’t even compare to the level of excitement and anticipation that's been building around Harmonix’s “Rock Band.” There’s always been a certain element missing from the music/rhythm genre, and “Rock Band” rectifies that with the addition of two new instruments (microphone and drums), a superior soundtrack, and the best multiplayer experience money can buy. It’s definitely going to cost you ($170 for the complete bundle), but it’s never been more worth it.
The real allure of the game is undoubtedly the variety of instruments, but anyone who’s ever played “Guitar Hero” or “Karaoke Revolution” will likely be itching for the chance to get behind the drum kit and bang on some electronic skins. And for good reason, too. Not only is the drumming experience brand new to the genre, but it’s also the best aspect of the game. Seasoned veterans will find it easy to jump right in, but those who lack the hand-eye coordination necessary to make three completely different movements will be better off starting on Easy. You might even want to think about spending some time in Training mode before playing your first real song. Still, once you rise above the initial learning curve, you’ll never want to put your sticks down.
Gameplay for the drums is a little different than guitar. The four colored pads correlate to the notes on screen, while a long orange bar that runs beneath them is for bass kicks. Many have complained about the lack of options on the pads (most times you’re only working with a hi-hat, snare, tom and crash), but each song uses the pads differently. You’ll also notice that while you might use the blue pad as a crash during one portion of a song, it might also be used as a ride cymbal or large tom in a different part. Not only does this force naysayers to bite their tongues, but it also helps retain the realism of the experience. Every note is played in the correct area of the kit (like splitting duties between a ride and large tom), and lefties can even flip the drums to their specific needs.
The drum kit itself is incredibly durable, and I found that the harder you bang the better. That isn’t to say the pads are unresponsive, though. In fact, they’re actually quite sensitive, so if you’re trying to keep the noise level down to appease your neighbors, it’s possible to do so without missing a beat. The drum pedal in particular is surprisingly responsive, and while past issues with faulty pedals on electronic kits initially had me worried, the final product couldn’t be any better. The included drumsticks also do the trick, but for anyone who’s truly serious about drumming will probably want to pick up a better pair somewhere down the road. This is about as close to playing the real drums as you’re ever going to find, and it’s just the beginning of the “Rock Band” experience.
Though drumming is certainly the most exciting aspect of the game, singing comes in a close second, if only because it’s the first time that Xbox 360 owners have been able to experience virtual karaoke with a soundtrack that doesn’t suck. It’s also surprisingly fun, since the player isn’t judged on how good he sounds, but rather his ability to match the pitch and tone of each song. The microphone itself is well made, but nothing special, and lasted several tests of swinging it around by its cord. Along with acting as a microphone, the peripheral also serves double duty as a cowbell/tambourine for certain songs, which helps to keep the singer active during long guitar solos.
As for guitar play, fans of “Guitar Hero” will know what to expect. Notes stream down the screen in the shape of candy-colored rectangles, and score multipliers are achieved by hitting successive notes in a row. The only real change worth mentioning is in the guitar itself, but it makes a world of difference. The miniaturized replica of the Fender Stratocaster features a longer neck and actually looks like a real guitar. The colored fret buttons are hidden so that they’re only visible from a bird’s-eye view, five solo buttons have been added closer to the head of the guitar (which require absolutely no strumming to play), and a 5-way switch offers a variety of sound effects including the traditional wah-wah, flanger, echo, chorus or none at all. The strum bar is also much tighter and doesn’t make an annoying clicking sound, which results in a higher efficiency when playing notes. In fact, the only problem that occurred during my experience with the Stratocaster was that the solo fret buttons seemed to get stuck in the down position. This could either be an isolated incident or something Harmonix will have to deal with post-launch, but whatever the case, it’s nothing that’s going to immediately hamper gameplay.
The meat-and-potatoes portion of “Rock Band” doesn’t diverge too far from familiar territory, either. Songs are still selected, played and unlocked in much the same manner as “Guitar Hero,” while a Star Power-like ability called Overdrive can be used as a score multiplier or to save a troubled bandmate. You can only save a bandmate twice during the course of a particular song, however, so if he can’t keep up with the beat, you’ll have to figure out a way to play without him. The trouble with Overdrive, though, is that it works differently for each instrument. While it’s activated on the guitar by simply tilting it upwards, singers and drummers don’t have the same luxury. For the former, you can only activate Overdrive by singing something in freestyle mode (marked by a yellow pattern during parts of the song with no lyrics), while the latter does so by playing impromptu drum fills at appropriate times. Play well enough and you’ll even get the crowd involved to the point where they actually sing along.
Along with unlocking new songs (58 in total, including one courtesy of Harmonix co-founder Greg LoPiccolo’s former band Tribe), a series of standard multiplayer modes are also available. They’re nothing special, but they do the trick if you’re looking for some friendly competition. On top of that, players can also access the aptly titled Rock Shop to purchase new clothes (choose from Rock, Punk, Metal and Goth), accessories and licensed gear, as well as change your haircut, apply make-up and design tattoos. It’s a pretty extensive collection of possibilities, but don’t get too excited about personalizing your rock star. The name of the game is “Rock Band” – not “Rock Barbie” – so act accordingly.As for the music you’ll be playing, well, it’s probably the best soundtrack yet. There is some crossover between this set list and the one that appears on “Guitar Hero III” (including “Mississippi Queen,” “Sabotage,” “Cherub Rock” and “When We Were Young”) – something both companies should have avoided when compiling their respective lists – but it just goes to prove how much better “Rock Band” is. After all, you get to play four different versions of each song (including bass), so it’s really like buying four games in one. It doesn’t get any better than that. Oh wait, it does – when you have three friends to join you. Like I said, it’s called “Rock Band,” so no matter how hard you can shred a guitar, belt out lyrics or bang on the drums, it’s not as much fun unless you’re doing so with three of your closest friends.