The bitter war between Electronic Arts and Activision continues to live on, and the gaming world is better for it. As opposed to only Tony Hawk, we now have SKATE thrown into the mix. And as opposed to Guitar Hero, we now have Rock Band. In fact, it's a good thing that Harmonix and Activision parted ways, because we may have had to wait much longer for a game like Rock Band to come along. Because just like SKATE, Rock Band expands greatly on the rhythm genre, though don't be mistaken, it isn't revolutionary. The clear differences between Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the additions of two new elements: drums and singing.
But, Rock Band's concept of drums and the microphone aren't remotely new. Clearly, the microphone/karaoking aspect we've already seen numerous times in games like SingStar. But the drums date way back to Konami's Bemani series, arguably the pioneer of this craze. In fact, Konami's DrumMania has existed for eight years now, the first game being released back in 1999. But fusing all three elements into one game, while obvious evolution of the genre, is a brilliant move, creating practically limitless value.
Immediately, Rock Band is a guaranteed success simply because it features guitar-based rhythm gameplay brought to you by the creators of the Guitar Hero franchise (Harmonix). In fact, even if Rock Band didn't have the singing and drums, it'd still have toppled Guitar Hero III as the better game. The reason why Rock Band's guitar gameplay is better can be attributed to the guitar bundled in the package. The Fender guitar, while not as sturdy as the Guitar Hero III axe, simply feels better. It's quieter to play on, features softer buttons, and most importantly has a second set of buttons further down the neck designed for soloing. And even though the slimmer set of buttons is for solos, you can still play the game using only them – which I found myself doing.
But, I have to stress the same point that I made in my Guitar Hero III review; if you actually play a real guitar (such as I do), you will have a lot of trouble with a game like Rock Band. I can play a large chunk of the songs in Rock Band on a real guitar, and because I'm so used to doing that, I try to do the same on the guitar controller. To a guitarist, it's simply an unnatural feeling and it'll take you a while to get adjusted. The solo buttons are a nice addition, but I would like to see the buttons split up into rows so that I don't have to constantly reach with my pinky (which I can barely use), and instead slip to the row below for that same note (like you would on a real guitar).
Though I have to say, I didn't spend much time on the axe. Not because it suffered from the prevalent defect issue, it's actually A-Ok, thankfully. But because I have a ton of fun every time I get behind that drumset controller – it's simply a great blast, and an awesome workout. Admittedly, I have a hard time pulling off the bass pedal notes, and I do find myself somewhat frustrated by it. In any case, surprisingly, I can actually perform relatively well on Hard mode, as Normal and Easy are way too slow and boring for me. But, then again, because I am a very percussive guitar player, I am able to adapt to drum playing fairly easily. The drum maps for each song are pretty good, but perhaps a bit simplistic in some parts, even in Hard and Expert. I did hope to see a freestyle mode of some sort that would allow me to just practice for my own pleasure, but alas no such thing here.
The real brilliance of Rock Band is in its multiplayer. You can have two guitarists, or one guitar player and a bass player, a vocalist, and the drummer. The singing works fairly well – it's really forgiving on easy, less so on medium, just about right on hard, and Simon Cowell on Expert. I have noticed that you don't necessarily have to get the lyrics correct, just as long as your pitch is on point. The tracks I can ace are Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, and Weezer, or anything with proper singing and tenor vocals, really. My weak spots were Garbage and Hole, for obvious reasons, the latter of which I absolutely detest and could do without in the game.
And even though I love Nirvana, I simply can't perform a decent grunge vocal…either that or I'm not trying hard enough. But, let's face it, it is a little awkward to scream at the top of your lungs just to make it through a videogame. But I'll be damned if it isn't fun. Additionally, no rock game would be complete without my favorite band, so thankfully, Rock Band features one the Foo Fighters easier songs to sing "Learn to Fly", as opposed to the all out nuttiness of "Monkey Wrench." Oh, oh, and best of all? The microphone can also act as a tambourine and a cowbell! Gotta' have more cowbell! When no singing is involved, dots will scroll across for certain songs, and the smack/clap of your hand against the mic sets them off. Yes, you do use it in Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," and it is great fun. We all have a fever, and Harmonix knows the prescription all too well.
There are 58 songs in total, with downloadable content already available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. 51 of those songs are the original recordings, meanwhile 7 are covers – some good, some average, some notably lacking; thankfully, that's only about three songs. With downloadable albums as part of the downloadable content list, Rock Band truly is bordering on the limitless scale of replay value, even though you do have to pay for it. And if you take the multiplayer experience out of your room and online, you may find yourself addicted for a long, long time.
I don't have many complaints to make about Rock Band. I love a large chunk of the soundtrack, though I'd have preferred more heavy hitters on there – some of the songs are just a wee bit boring. I'd also like to see more customization in how you can setup your drum controllers. I'd prefer being able to adjust the height of each individual drum pad, elevating the side pads higher in relation to the center pads, to give it a slightly more realistic feel. Either that, or adding two elevated cymbal hats would've done the trick. And finally, perhaps next time around, we could get a drumset that absorbs impacts a bit more – the clunking of this one is a little irksome.
Visually, if you've played Guitar Hero, you know what to expect out of Rock Band, but the art direction in Rock Band is perhaps better. The notes still scroll vertically, though weirdly enough, while I do find myself disoriented after a song, it isn't nearly as bad as Guitar Hero. Background presentation will feature a band playing along to the song, and a singer mouthing the words with, what appears to be, some pretty good accuracy. It seemed sort of unusual to see the mouth of the singer animating accurately, and I commend Harmonix on a job well done.
Additionally, there are no framerate drops or screen tears to be seen, something which could not be said about Guitar Hero III. And again, unlike Guitar Hero III, the game even sports preset TV response time adjustments broken down by the type of TV-set you have (plasma, LCD, tube, etc.). Furthermore, if you wish to customize the response time, you can do so, as well – a brilliant inclusion on Harmonix's part. There is some aliasing here and there, but nothing jarring or dominant, thankfully.
The audio comes through with great clarity, and I highly urge people to play this game on a proper surround sound setup. Blasting away with Dolby Digital enabled was like heaven to my ears, and playing the game will become a little easier, as you'll be able to hear each song clearer. What's also cool is that the Rock Band guitar features a tone selector, it doesn't change the way you play the game or how you earn points, but it does alter the sound your guitar makes – which adds a nice little kick of fun for good measure. Most importantly, though, the soundtrack is what carries the game. I could certainly do away with bands like Bon Jovi, Jet, Fall Out Boy, Coheed and Cambria, and crap like Hole. Furthermore, Faith No More's "Epic" just doesn't seem to fit – and I do like the song quite a bit, but a better song could've been chosen. Still, the bottom line is that Rock Band consists of a fantastic soundtrack, and with much more on the way, the sky's the limit.
I can't say that I'm surprised to find out Rock Band is a great game. With Harmonix developing it, and EA, in conjunction with MTV, funding it, the recipe for success was practically inevitable. Rock Band's inclusion of vocals and drums sets it far, far apart from Guitar Hero III – in fact, places it in a league of its own. Guitar Hero III is still a solid game, don't get me wrong, but Rock Band is without question the better product, overall. Even though the set may cost $180, it will prove itself valuable as you'll quickly realize just how much fun can be had with the game. And with a great soundtrack available off the bat, with much more to download, Rock Band is a clear winner, and one of the most enjoyable games you will play all year. Hopefully, the next iteration marks on the improvements I'd like to see. Now I wonder what direction Activision will be taking Guitar Hero to…