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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
he Beatles: Rock Band” is one of those games that seemed destined to be stuck in development hell for eternity. We know now that isn’t the case, but after sitting through the ridiculously long end credits, it’s difficult to imagine how it didn’t all go terribly wrong. Not only was this a lawsuit just waiting to happen (with practically everyone even remotely connected to The Beatles sticking their grubby little hands into the creative pot), but it required Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono getting along for it to even be a possibility. In the end, however, everyone put their differences aside in order to create a game meant to celebrate the greatest band of all time, and what a celebration it turned out to be. “The Beatles: Rock Band” is, as the Fab Four would say, the gear – a visually stunning tribute completely deserving of the same unique identity that the band brought to its amazing, decade-long career.
Designed as a standalone title not meant to work with past or future “Rock Band” releases, “The Beatles: Rock Band” is really about one thing and one thing only: Story Mode. After a beautifully animated opening sequence that is worth watching every time you fire up the game, you’re sent on a musical journey of the band’s career – beginning at historic venues like The Cavern Club, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Shea Stadium, and the Budokan, before moving on to Abbey Road Studios, and finally, to their last performance on the rooftop of Apple Corps. Divided into distinct chapters based on the venue (with the Abbey Road recordings split up into three parts), the game bookmarks each section with its own animated cutscene that acts as a preview to the next collection of songs.
Along the way, you unlock various rewards created with the ultimate Beatles fan in mind. Receiving three-star and five-star ratings on each song will earn you a photo with trivia about the band, while hitting certain photo milestones will give you access to a special theater section with audio and video clips like the annual fan club Christmas record and rehearsal tape from the “Ed Sullivan Show" performance. Once you finish a chapter, an additional challenge is also unlocked where you must five-star the entire set back-to-back. You only get one photo for each challenge completed, but if you hope to unlock all six special prizes, you’ll need to collect every single photo in the game.
The game itself doesn’t play any different than past installments of “Rock Band,” with the exception of three-part harmony, an essential component of The Beatles’ catalog. Though it may sound difficult in theory, Harmonix has done a great job of simplifying the experience for everyone to enjoy. Using colored lines (blue for lead vocals and orange for back-up) to distinguish who sings what part, the game also allows for up to three players to sing the solo portions and then assigns the best of that group as the official scorer. In addition, players can further perfect each harmony in Vocal Training Mode, while percussion enthusiasts can brush up on drum basics and practice actual drumbeats made famous by Ringo Starr in Beatle Beats. There are even a few competitive modes (Tug of War and Score Duel) for those aching to challenge a friend, but most people will probably be perfectly happy teaming up as members of the band.
What ultimately makes the game so unique, however, is its presentation. Though The Beatles themselves look a little cartoony, it’s all done with the understanding that the game is more of a fantasy-based reality than a factual retelling of their history. That would certainly explain why there’s no mention of Stuart Sutcliffe or Pete Best, why some songs that were never performed live are on the set list for certain venues, or why Ringo is shown playing some songs at Abbey Road (like “Back in the U.S.S.R.") that he never actually recorded. The psychedelic dreamscapes that the band is transported to during their Abbey Road sessions, meanwhile, are almost too stunning for their own good. I found myself often missing notes just because I was staring at the visually seductive environments meant to depict the band’s musical transformation during their later years, and for the diehard Beatles fan who thinks they know their music inside and out, you can even better appreciate the dreamscapes by turning off the scrolling notes.
The attention to detail doesn’t end there, either. Every song is prefaced by never-before-released audio clips of in-studio chatter, while Overdrive (the score multiplier you earn during each song) has been aptly changed to Beatlemania. Heck, there’s even an option to turn up the audience volume to “realistic” levels, making it virtually impossible to hear anything you play. That might not be enough for some people, who will likely be turned off by the all-too-brief Story Mode, but then again, they’re probably not real Beatles fans. Anyone that does like their music (and you’re in the minority if you don’t) will enjoy every second, because while the set list may feel a bit short at only 45 songs, nearly every one is better than a majority of the stuff in the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” vaults. It’s the least you’d expect from a band as popular and prolific as The Beatles, but to see Harmonix so successfully translate the spirit of their music to video game form is almost beyond belief. Forget about ponies. You're gonna dig this game.