Meet the new boss; Same as the old boss
Rock Band is an amazing game made impossibly more fun with a fully formed foursome of wannabe rock stars. I don't need to tell you that. You have already heard it from every corner of the World Wide Web, as fans and critics describe struggling through falsetto abominations of Boston's Brad Delp in Foreplay/Longtime or unleashing the otherworldly scream of adolescent rage that is Roger Daltrey in Won't Get Fooled Again with infectious enthusiasm. You already understand that Drum Hero alone may be worth the price of admission, a nuanced article of play that perhaps makes you feel more like playing an actual instrument than the artificial guitar ever could. You know that Rock Band meets expectations, offering a playstyle that calls back the Guitar Hero series while introducing a new dynamic to the experience.
You do also know that you should own Rock Band, right?
There are several definitions of the word review, and the one that I think best describes this exercise is less the noun and more the verb. I'm willing to take it for granted that you've already been exposed to the evangelized idea that Rock Band is a game of such base pleasure that to not play it is to not know joy. In a season of great games, Rock Band has already been established as a verifiable hit, so rather than simply heap my own identical praise onto the pile, I thought we could explore another definition of review; take the things we've already heard and see how it all balances out. So, let's review:
Awesome things -
1) Song list and note chart – Almost without exception this game offers songs that are fundamentally enjoyable to play. Crossing decades and genres Harmonix has a reliable grasp for figuring out which songs provide the best kind of experience for the instruments, and then demonstrate the ability to layout a note chart that enhances the play experience. This is a success not to be understated and defines the subtle difference between say, Rock Band (fun) and Guitar Hero III (much less fun). It is not necessarily quantifiable in a precise and objective way, but having played both for far more than mental health professionals would likely recommend, it is clear that Harmonix is working on some other plane of fake-rock-fun.
It's kind of like coffee. Coffee is just, after all, running water through some crushed beans. You can't really look at the process and easily see why one man's coffee is a divine expression of flavors and another man's is an exploration of what it must be like to squeeze a skunk above a cup of pond water and then drink it. The conceit is simply that colored bars or circles fall and you hit the buttons at the right moment in the song to accumulate points, but the strategy employed by Harmonix is clearly superior to that of Red Octane. Where Guitar Hero III sought fun from difficulty and repetition, Rock Band spends more time in crafting a stylistic experience of play.
Anecdote time! In Guitar Hero II I could play Jessica time and again, enjoying it more with each effort not because it was terribly difficult. It wasn't. In fact, bearing down through the struggle of sincere difficulty can obscure the pure sense of just rocking through a song, which is the cornerstone idea that makes these games so compelling. What made the song great was that there was a balance of flow, difficulty and the occasional impression that you were not playing a timing based puzzle game, but that you were making music. Rock Band repeats this sensation with amazing experiences like playing drums in Gimme Shelter or Won't Get Fooled Again or riding the notes through Foreplay/Longtime or Don't Fear the Reaper.
2) I am a Rock Star – This is a blend of animation, setting, sound design and character creation. These are all elements that are miles better than previously seen, with venues that feel gritty and real. Your avatar shimmies, shakes, jives and plays more like a real rock star and less like a malfunctioning animatronic robot. When Bon Jovi sings "I've seen a million faces, and I've ROCKED them all" the lead singer _should_ leap at the camera and scream it right in my face. That's how Mr. Jovi managed to rock all those faces to begin with, and if my on screen avatar isn't going to rock my face too then I feel left out!
I know it's a little unfair to compare Guitar Hero III to Rock Band, but it's an inevitable result of the split between developers, so I'm going to do it some more. In Guitar Hero III it feels like I'm leading a complete sell-out of a band as we make our video on the back of a flatbed with spinning rims, the Pontiac logo splayed everywhere while Red Bull cans wait at the edge of the stage. I'm playing ZZ Top, but I feel like Sugar Ray.
It's not that brand names aren't in Rock Band, but that the venues feel both more alive and I feel like it's all about the music, man.
3) The Band Experience – Playing Rock Band by yourself is an amazing experience with endless hours of play, but getting three friends to fill out the set is transcendent. Yes, I just used transcendent to describe a video game, a word of such ridiculous hyperbole that you might be excused from thinking I'm in my right mind, but allow me to explain. By playing with four people, the band moves beyond the virtual screen as the drums tap out time and the lead singer is clearly and often painfully audible. The music of the real world even overlaps and meshes with the gameplay experience, and the simulation of the thing partly becomes the thing. You're really singing, and you're really playing drums, and in a way you're really playing guitar. There is sound, tactile experience, sweat, laughter, maybe embarrassment and very occasionally you all will slip into the groove of the song and it will feel like the real thing in a way that not even Guitar Hero could. It transcends that simple experience of playing a video game where you are expected to invest yourself inside the fictional world. Instead, that fictional idea of being a Rock Band moves the other direction.
4) The Crowd Sings – This is a small point, but it deserves particular mention. Even when I'm doing my best Richie Sambora -- assuming that he practices Dead or Alive all alone next to his son's fold-out Thomas the Tank Engine sofa and a curiously troubled cat too -- that the virtual crowd follows "I'm wanted" with the requisite "Waaaaanted" in a glorious chorus of all that is great about rock adds a level of detailed immersion into the game that is worth singling out. I've been part of that singing cacophony that is the rock crowd enough times, belting out favorite lines from favorite songs in the secret hope that the singer will point to me and invite me up on the stage like I'm Courtney Cox in Dancing in the Dark, and bringing that element to the game is a stroke of unfettered genius. Whoever thought of it should be given a raise and named King of Fake Rock for a day.
5) All the Other Things – An effects bar on the guitar. World Tour mode. Rock endings. Giving me an excuse to bang on things with drum sticks. Tap frets for fast solos. Replayability. Downloadable Content. Online play. Etcetera.
The Less Awesome -
1) The Actual Equipment – Like making a gourmet meal and then spilling the plates on the way to the table, it's a testament to how great this game is that there isn't even more acrimonious outrage over how shoddy the drums and guitars actually are. One thing I'll give Red Octane, as proved with the outstanding accouterments to their overall mediocre Guitar Hero III, they know how to make accessories.
While I am grudgingly growing accustomed to the Strat that comes with Rock Band, its mushy and apparently flimsy strum bar is a decided step down. I have trouble keeping time in rhythm sections because I don't have a firm sense of striking a note. The feeling of the click in previous guitars, while perhaps noisy, was a familiar analog to the distinct sensation of striking the strings of a real guitar. The Stratocaster feels like trying to play guitar using a pillow as a pick.
But, what's really unforgivable is the failure rate on the instruments. My own guitar had questionable overdrive activation, and doesn't seem to connect properly with the headset. Sticking buttons, double strikes on the strum bar and other problems seem to be rampant, and there have been equal problems with the drum kit, though I've been fortunate so far. It's admirable that EA has been quick to respond to malfunctions, but they'd have all probably saved everybody a lot of time and money by getting it right the first time.
2) No online World Tour – Are you kidding me?
3) Price – This might have been easier to overlook if I had been happier with the packaged equipment, but once it became clear that malfunctions were common I begin to wonder exactly where the hell that extra $100 went.
Rock Band is a commitment, and you better be sure ahead of time that you'll be playing it longer than most other games. It's not like you can use your drums later on to play Madden or Mass Effect. They are as specialized an accessory as the confluence of buttons and joysticks had been for Steel Batallion. While Harmonix seems to be making good so far on their assurance that new songs will be a weekly endeavor, with an additional charge, if you get bored with the fundamental gameplay in a week then it's money essentially lost. It's not entirely unlike actually spending the money on an actual instrument.
4) Noise – Well, this can be a positive or a negative depending on your situation, but you can't get four people together to play Rock Band and expect to be quiet any more than you could get four people together to play grunge music in the garage and expect to be quiet. You will be hitting pads with drumsticks and singing like a rock star. To try and mute those efforts is both futile and distracting, so if you live in an apartment or with someone who does not particularly want to share space with someone caterwauling Creep then there may be an impasse.
It's easy to brush aside the negatives that come along with Rock Band and just gush all over the awesome in a box, but that's probably not a good move. The fact is that there are some serious questions to be raised about the quality of the actual product, and while it's easy to forget when screaming and sweating through Run to the Hills, the moment you can't activate overdrive or don't have your strums and drum hits register properly the reality of the problem hits you like a beer bottle to the head.
Still, the fun of playing Rock Band in its purest form - when everything works! - is really unparalleled. It is a better single player experience than perhaps any Guitar Hero game available, and then an even better game with friends. Harmonix seems to grasp if not the reality of being a rock star then at least the dream of it in a compelling way that propels you into the moment and lets you bring some friends. From a pure game perspective it is some of the most fun I've ever had pretending to be something I'm not.