Put the Rock Band 2 disc into the drive, and you might be entirely within your rights to wonder if the game you just spent sixty dollars on is really worth the price of admission. This is not a title that lashes out at you with its overwhelming newness, and if you aren't immediately convinced of the righteousness of your purchase by a setlist populated with all new tunes, then you may have some initial trouble with your buying decision. It’s the same question people might have wondered not so long ago when the original smash hit Guitar Hero was followed up by Guitar Hero II, which was a nice new batch of songs with a minor facelift and not much else.
Yes, the menus are better. The format for building and maintaining a band, even if it is a one man band, is more natural and engaging. There are dozens of new songs. There are online challenges and a lot more community interaction and feedback, but sixty dollars worth?
The truth is that scrutinizing Rock Band 2 raises a number of meaningful questions, and while I will at the end of this conclude that, yes, Rock Band 2 is well worth its price tag, I also feel like the game is getting off a little easy on having to address what it is really offering. Because, the truth is, when people ask me what’s so new about the game, I have a little bit of trouble coming up with a meaningful answer.
Part of the reason for that is simply that the differences, despite being important, are actually a little hard to describe in a way that makes them sound important. The new game along with my transferred Rock Band content, which can be imported over for a nominal fee, along with a relatively stingy 30 or 40 songs purchased online, brings my total catalog to somewhere in the ballpark of 200 songs. That’s less than half of what’s available, and having a smart way of accessing that music, like a really robust and fully feature menu system, is absolutely critical.
But, it’s hard to prop up good menus as a justification for sixty bones, so let’s start instead with the core. The song list has always defined rhythm games, and it doesn't matter how much fun the game mechanic is if you only have Miley Cyrus tracks from which to choose. With each iteration companies like Harmonix can make even more compelling arguments to skeptical artists that their music needs to be included in a game featuring plastic toys, so not surprisingly each new game features music that is increasingly impressive. But, starting with Guitar Hero 3 it began to become clear that a lot of songs that may be interesting to listen to aren’t necessarily fun to play. The genius of Rock Band was that they actively pursued games that were fun to play on most of the instruments as an ensemble — there’s really only so many good bass songs out there — which created a more nuanced playlist that sometimes traded off mega-hits for fun.
However, since Rock Band’s original release, with the focus on putting out weekly downloadable content, a slight shift of emphasis has become evident that bleeds into the selection for Rock Band 2. Take The Who, for example; a band everyone seemed to lust after, but which delivered numerous songs that were perhaps exciting to play on drums but relatively dull for guitar.
That methodology carries over to Rock Band 2. For an old Guitar Hero fan such as myself, I am grateful for songs like 'Ramblin’ Man', 'Let There Be Rock', 'Aqualung', 'Carry On Wayward Son' and 'Alive' which feature great riffs and fantastic solos born straight from the heady days of 70’s guitar rock. But, one of my major complaints about Guitar Hero III was the excessive reliance on what I call “chugga-chugga” songs with long boring rhythm sections that leave me wondering why you don’t see more guitarists being treated for repetitive stress injuries. Rock Band 2 features a number of these songs that suffer from Fall Out Boy disease, songs like 'Rock’n Me', 'Chop Suey' and even 'Eye of the Tiger' that can become tedious in just a few bars. Admittedly, I give Rock Band 2 a little more latitude on this issue than Guitar Hero 3, because, like The Who songs, where Harmonix taketh away from me they usually giveth to somebody else.
Take those boring songs, switch to drums or vocals instead, and these tiresome exercises in tendonitis become centerpieces. The reality is that, like in a real band, it’s not always about you. That makes it a little easier to forgive, because it becomes an understandable decision, and the fact is that unlike many games, when you're not having fun you usually have the power to change it.
Additionally, the hit detection for the game seems slightly less forgiving, and using my Guitar Hero 3 controller, as opposed to the fancy new Rock Band 2 guitar that auto-calibrates, I had a lot of trouble manually calibrating the game to my HDTV. In fact, after 2 weeks of fiddling with the calibration section, I still feel like the game isn’t quite right, and this is most often evident in those annoying repetitive sections of songs that I’m already kind of annoyed with.
This is not a negative review of Rock Band 2, despite the nitpicking and grousing of the previous paragraphs. It is clear that most of the added features to the game come directly from fans of the series. It’s even hard to complain too much about the game’s music since I have all of my Rock Band favorites right there blended seamlessly into the game.
The big question for me comes to this: had I been given the choice of simply buying from Rock Band 2’s track list ala carte for integration into the original game or buying Rock Band 2 in its current iteration, which would I have chosen and which would have been less expensive. In the long run, I think Rock Band 2 saves me considerable money, and offers up features I am already taking for granted as fundamental cores of the game, such as being able to create setlists in free play, a no-fail mode for my son, a drum trainer, switching instruments in career mode on the fly, recording scores outside of tour mode, better online integration, battle of the bands mode and so on.
Like I said, the more I play the game, the more I find to like about it. While I do feel like there are legitimate concerns to bring up with the game, in the long run I also feel like it does a good job addressing most of those concerns. Now, if only I could get the calibration to feel right without shelling out another $80 on a controller.
Oh, who am I kidding?