Nov 19, 2007
"No f&#*ing way am I wearing that." That was the initial reaction by many gamers when they saw the little plastic guitar that powered the original Guitar Hero. My, how times have changed. In Rock Band - the new multiplayer spin from the original GH creators, Harmonix - not only do you eagerly want to grab a fake plastic guitar, but you won't have to look far to find three other people just as willing to step up to grab a fake plastic bass, fake plastic drums and a fake plastic microphone. And together, you will be a fake plastic band. For real.
See, that's the problem. The new peripherals are not fake at all. The four pads and kick pedal mimic a basic electronic drum kit, and you still have to swing your limbs to hit each target. The higher difficulty levels require such skill that if you are not already a drummer, you're automatically on your way to becoming one. The microphone is, well, a microphone - hold it your hand, put it on a stand, swing it over your head - but you still have to sing into it and match the pitch and length of the notes on the screen in order to do well. It's not always fun, even - it's a drag to be judged so harshly. But by constrast, we can't call that fake anything - that's singing. And for all intents and purposes, you're really drumming, too.
That leaves guitar, which when played solo in Rock Band, isn't must different from Guitar Hero - well, other than the fact that it lacks Guitar Hero III's soul-crushing technical difficulty. You once again match the notes on screen to the buttons on your guitar - this time, a black Fender Stratocaster with built-in effects and five extra buttons high up on the neck, intended for solo pyrotechnics. If you dutifully march through the single-player campaigns, you'll enjoy the variety of venues, the realistic animations, and the loading screens that illustrate your rise to fame. But playing solo misses the whole point.
It's called Rock Band and not Rock Soloist for a reason - you gotta do this with other people to truly appreciate it. There's something almost intangible about four people in the same room, jumping and screaming and saving each other from humiliation - and it's something that this game and this game alone enables. Part of the co-op game is working together and keeping an eye on your bandmates who might be struggling; your timely intervention can give them a boost and keep them in the game, or bring them back after they fail. Damned if you don't feel like you're actually making music - which is the developer's not-so-secret goal, but who'd have thought they'd pull it off? It makes GHIII feel like homework, a technical chore you have to do. Rock Band, meanwhile, feels downright inspiring.
You can't really get that feeling online, even if you can log in and play QuickPlay matches. For the full co-op career mode, you have to play offline. That's disappointing, as we wanted to share this groovy feeling with far-off friends and build toward a common goal with them. And if we're picking nits, the new guitar controller feels foreign, with its soft-pressing, inset buttons - it's not the clicky, tactile stuff we're used to. Visually it's a stunner, but since the Guitar Hero controllers work in Rock Band, we're sticking with those a while longer.
The list of tracks skews toward classic rock - The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, um, Mountain - and in addition to the 58 songs that come on the disc (most of which are original recordings from famous artists), there's a slew of downloadable tracks from other bands ready to launch within the first few weeks. Seems Rock Band is ambitious in more ways than one, because the developer swears this is only the beginning of the tracks you'll see available.
Expect this to be the hot holiday gift and party activity - playing rock and roll fantasy camp in your own living room is a thrill that can’t be denied. The experience is well worth its $170 asking price (for a guitar/drum/mic/game bundle, which is the only way you’ll be able to buy Rock Band for months anyway) and makes for one of the most rewarding co-op events you could ask for. This is the perfectly polished, logical extension of what Guitar Hero started and where the music genre needed to go. It just rocks.