Friday, March 21, 2008

Rock Band

Being a long-time fan of music games, to say I was hungrily awaiting the arrival of the Harmonix follow-up to Guitar Hero II would be a serious understatement. And while I'd been anxious about the release of some highly-anticipated games in the past, this wasn't quite the same thing. I wasn't just hungry for more, I was emaciated... my interest grew to the point that I was checking the Rock Band Wikipedia entry on a daily basis, hoping for a revelation about a new track or an as-yet-unrevealed feature. Even after Activision's Guitar Hero III arrived a month prior to the competition, presumably to sweep me off my feet and cause me to forget all about the impending release, my appetite remained. And, though I didn't go so far as to reserve a copy, (the steep price tag left me leery) I did finally sprint out to Circuit City on launch day, corner a warehouse associate as he unloaded the boxes and hurriedly snag the first copy to hit their shelves. I've never looked back.

While Guitar Hero III served as an evolution of the guitar-based music game, introducing attacks to multiplayer battles, adding a boss fight at the end of each level and significantly upping the ante in terms of difficulty, Harmonix stuck to what they knew. Rock Band isn't the action game that Guitar Hero wants to be, and it doesn't make any bones about that. It's a music game, not an arcade game, and so it's only natural that the melody itself should be the primary focus of the experience. Sure, you'll spend some time customizing your on-stage persona or soaking in the adoration of the fans after a good set, but those aren't the focus of the experience so much as the actual act of playing through these songs. What you do between tunes is your own business, but once you plug in your amp and step out on the stage, it's all about the music. For fans more interested in a glitzy, genre-bending adventure, that may not be a welcome change of pace... yet I found it a great return to form after being a little let down by what had been done with GHIII.

Having played with a small number of bands myself, I had very little problem suspending my disbelief and really getting into the moment of jamming out... but what surprised me wasn't how easily I got into it, but rather how quickly and willingly my friends and family did the same. The adrenaline rush of being on stage in front of a crowd is nearly impossible to replicate, but Rock Band gets the mood pretty damn close, especially as you share the experience with more and more buddies. It's good fun on your own, (I've broken my share of living room furniture, flailing about while on the solo tour) but it's a freaking riot with one, two or even three of your best buddies. Once you've worked together to pound out a song or two, most everybody's misgivings and self-concerns seem to fade away, replaced by an innate (and often awkward) showmanship and a deep desire to rock the fuck out. I've yet to find anyone immune to this sickness, it's a sensation that seems to cross all social boundaries. After a brief tutorial and a quick feeling-out process, even my parents were swaying around the living room in their own private galaxy. It's a wholly unique experience, and a big part of what I find so endearing about this game.

On that same page, the act of sharing these tunes with your friends is a much more collaborative, friendly experience than I've found anywhere else in gaming. Where most titles encourage or flat-out endorse a fiercely competitive environment in multiplayer gaming, the vibe put forward by a session with Rock Band is exclusively positive. That's something I've never seen... even a seemingly harmless co-op game of Halo 3 can turn ugly at the drop of a hat, given the all-too-likely possibility of friendly fire or an accidental grenade drop. With Rock Band, it's a social experiment much more than it is a perilous battle. If one member of the band is struggling, one of his mates is usually there, more than happy to revive him for the big finale. If he blows it for the rest of his buddies, he's met with a pat on the back and perhaps a quick shuffling of the instruments, not a kick while he's down. And while some of that can naturally be attested to the quality of the people you play with, (some of the more competitive rockers online don't fool around) on the whole I've found that the air surrounding a game of Rock Band is much lighter, friendlier and more inviting than most of its peers. It breeds camaraderie, not competition, and even if you do fail a song, you've only "lost" at most five minutes' effort, not upwards of an hour as seems to be more and more common in recent multiplayer titles. You're all on the same team working toward a common goal, and you're only as strong as the sum of your parts.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the game's incredible ongoing support for downloadable content, which has been going strong for months at this point and shows no sign of slowing down. I've never been a big believer in paid DLC in the past, especially in its current incarnation, (I think a lot of developers are intentionally leaving finished levels out of their releases to reap the financial rewards of a premium download down the road) but Harmonix has made a believer out of me. In the scant four months since its release, the game's potential track listing has more than doubled, from fifty-eight tracks to over 130... and new releases are unveiled so frequently, even that number will be outdated by the time I actually publish this review! Where I was checking the game's Wikipedia entry regularly before its release for details about the gameplay, I've been returning to that same page every Friday for an update on the next week's DLC. With the pricing moderate (between one and three dollars a track, with the majority carrying a $1.99 price tag) and the track selection outstanding, this setup really is a win-win. While I balked at the concept of paying thirty bucks for an add-on to Oblivion, I've gladly spent at least another fifty on Rock Band since its release. This is what Harmonix had promised when they brought Guitar Hero II to the 360... and then some. In 2008 alone, the developer hopes to add another two hundred tracks to the game. Not only is it a great way to lengthen RB's lifespan and add to its variety, but it's a relatively risk-free revenue generator for Harmonix... take note, gamers, this may be an early peek at where the industry is headed. I guess I'd better start saving my pennies.

The game does pay a price for its accessibility, which specifically manifests itself in the complexity of its note charts. What that means is Rock Band isn't nearly as difficult as Guitar Hero III , although its last set is just about as tough as anything reasonably needs to be. If you're acing your way through Through the Fire and Flames, you won't bat an eyelash at the new game's big guns, but if you counted yourself lucky to finish Freebird on expert, you'll be alternately challenged and humbled by Green Grass and High Tides. It's much more in keeping with the model developed and perfected by Guitar Hero II , of the challenging-yet-achievable song, than with the lightning fast chord changes and insanely intricate solos of GH3: Legends of Rock.

Difficulty isn't the only place where the two games differ, either. Apart from the obvious, (the addition of drums and vocals) several minor variations in the actual gameplay experience add up to create a much more user-friendly, informative environment. Gone is the combo-meter from the corner of the screen, replaced by a much more useful star-meter on the opposite side of your television. Speaking personally, I'd much rather keep an eye on how close I am to five-starring a song than how long I've gone without missing a note. Rock Band also adds on-screen indications of where a solo begins and ends, an accumulative band life-meter, (unlike the co-op in Guitar Hero, you don't immediately lose if your partner fails out... you can actually bring them back from the dead twice in a song) a "unison bonus" that doubles your star power, and a "big rock ending," (read: button mashing) which gives the band a rare opportunity to play whatever they want at the end of a tune, provided they can all hit the last few notes at the same time.

But it's not all wine and roses. The game's greatest downfall is its start-up time, especially right out of the box. If you don't already have four user profiles set up on your 360, you'll need to do so before you can proceed with a four-piece ensemble... and if you're hoping to dive right into the Band World Tour, you'll also need to create unique characters, one at a time, for each member of the band. What's particularly maddening about this process is that your characters are strictly confined to a single instrument. You can't move your drummer over to play guitar or your bassist to a vocal career, and that flat out sucks. The addition of DLC to the equation had only served to further lengthen the initial loading process, but that issue has recently been addressed by a major patch.

Naturally, the biggest additions to the puzzle are the new Fender Strat replica guitar and drum pads that accompany the deluxe edition of the game. These new peripherals generally do their job without getting in the way, although their durability has become an issue since the game's release. I'm already on to my second guitar, and reports abound regarding snapped drum pedals, unresponsive strum bars and malfunctioning fret buttons. Fortunately, EA has really stepped up to the plate here. They've owned up to the problem and provided gamers with free replacements beyond their manufacturer's warranties, even sending out free games to customers who've had repeated problems or long waits. I found the replacement process to be quick and easy, and was rocking with a fresh guitar less than a week after my original strum bar went to the great gig in the sky. While there's really no excuse for a game of this magnitude to have such widespread problems, at least the issue is being rectified. My biggest gripe, the Rock Band Stratocaster's incompatibility with Guitar Hero II and III, however, remains unaddressed. There's a lot of finger pointing going on behind the scenes regarding this issue right now, but it's been four months and the problem still remains. Do I really need to own three different guitars to enjoy multiplayer on these games?

Even when they're playing nice, the instruments are a bit different than what you might expect. The guitar has been subtly modified, and the alterations may be just enough to throw seasoned veterans for a loop. The strum bar in particular is a point of contention among enthusiasts - the new model has a lot more give than the old, and is notably lacking the distinct metronome-like tick and snap that signified a strum on my old X-plorer. Harmonix has also added a second set of frets to the neck of the new guitar, which gives gamers an opportunity to put on their best Eddie Van Halen impression and finger tap the notes without's a nice gesture but hasn't really entered into the equation for me. I use the new frets to amplify my point total on a "big rock ending," but it's too much of a hassle to use them during a solo, which is what they were actually intended for. Physically, the Stratocaster is a bit larger than its forefather and looks / feels twice as impressive - it's still not quite the size or weight of a real guitar, but it's close enough to make my old GH axe feel like a toy.

It took me a while, but I've actually come to prefer the Strat to the old unit, although I seem to be in the minority on that front. I find that while the new strum bar is quite different, it actually gives me greater freedom to cut loose during a song without losing my rhythm. And when I'm playing bass, the strum bar modifications create an experience that's about as close to the real thing as a simulation will likely ever get. The curved tip of the new strum bar feels uncannily like a thick bass string, and recoils after plucks in a way that's startlingly lifelike.

The drums, likewise, are going to take some getting used to, especially for musicians familiar with the real thing. The physical setup of these pads, which was my greatest concern going in, is very quick and easy, but the learning process is more troubling than it really should be. The main offender seems to be the game's pad assignments, which change by the song. In Ballroom Blitz, for example, the red drum (furthest left on the set) is the snare, while the neighboring yellow pad is your high hat. In Run to the Hills, though, they swap places without giving the player any notice. Granted, there are bound to be some limitations when you're tied to a simple four-pad layout, but I have to imagine a little more consistency was possible. Since day one I've also had serious problems with hit detection, with the system randomly insisting I've missed notes no matter how deliberately, precisely and powerfully I strike the pads or kick the bass pedal. Either something's wrong with the hardware or I'm a much shittier drummer than I ever imagined, and I'm not willing to accept the latter. As a result, I found the drums to be the least enjoyable instrument of the lot - it's terribly frustrating to be at such constant odds with the game about which notes you're actually hitting in time and which you aren't.

These games have never been known for their visuals... really, they're little more than window dressing. Still, some serious consideration has been given to this aspect of Rock Band, with new lighting effects, character animations and camera filters serving to spice up the experience as much as possible. This looks and acts much more like a live music video than ever before, and although the character animations sometimes feel jerky and choreographed, the powerful visual effects that accompany a song make Guitar Hero's setup look like an animatronic Chuck E Cheese stage show. All in all, the visuals are fine, if perhaps just a few steps down from the norm for a current-gen game. Most players won't be willing or able to remove their eyes from the note charts long to enjoy it anyway, so that's really something of a moot point. Besides, the real point of emphasis seems to be on the menus that eat up your time between songs. They feature beautiful art direction and careful attention to detail, which is something that gives them a certifiable leg up on the competition. This is a complete package, with no screen deemed too miniscule for the watchful eye of a talented artist, and that's something that really enhances the experience. Where Guitar Hero often feels like it's geared toward pre-teens with its gimmicky comic book / magazine vibe, Rock Band comes off as much more mature and adult-oriented without losing its edge... it's like comparing Metallica to the Aquabats.

Obviously, the final judgment of these games lies in the quality of their soundtracks, and Rock Band is without question the king of the hill on that front. It's a cliché to say this game has something for everyone, but it really does - tracks are scattered across dozens of genres, with music from the '60s all the way up to today. Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of the tracks are original studio recordings, not a crowd of second rate musicians who sound nothing like the bands who made these songs famous. That's something Guitar Hero has been criticized for over the years, deservedly so, and it's nice to see they're making such a strong commitment here to remedy the situation. Although the disc isn't without its earaches, (the singer they brought in to mimic Geddy Lee on Tom Sawyer is terrible) they're much, much more scarce than ever before. While there are probably a dozen songs on Guitar Hero III that I can guarantee I'll never play again, I can really only name two or three that I'd put into the same category in Rock Band. Whether the selection process is that much more meticulous at Harmonix or their taste in music is just in tune with my own... either way, the end product is a happy gamer. I feel confident in saying this is the single greatest soundtrack ever compiled for a game.

I also feel confident in naming this one of the all-time best entries the music game genre has ever enjoyed. Even if it isn't the toughest game in my collection, even if the packed-in instruments have proven to be unreliable, even if the graphics didn't blow me away, it's not about all that. It's about how it transcends gaming to become a collaborative experience for everyone involved. It's about how it's simple enough for anyone to understand, but challenging enough to envelope the most war-hardened gamer. It's about the music, and the strikingly close replication of its creation. After about two months of regular sessions on the guitar with my wife providing vocals, spiced up by a near-weekly ongoing party with my coworkers, it struck me. Rock Band could become to this generation what a piano, sheet music and lyrics were to my grandparents. It provides that same kind of atmosphere, suitable for two participants or twenty. It's a community centerpiece, something that can be shared by all, whether they're actually handling the instruments or just observing. Sure, the critics will always be around to point out that you aren't "really" playing the instruments in question, but does that really matter? Rock Band isn't focused on creating your own music, or on even remotely matching the complexity of an actual guitar or drum set, it concerns itself instead with the very basics and, ultimately, more closely matching the excitement of a live show. And, at the very least, this game is opening the mechanics of music composition and basic rhythm up to audiences that never would've even begun to seriously investigate it in the past.

This represents a polar shift in the musical landscape, an open invitation to both the musically inclined and the tone deaf to step inside and see what all the fuss is about. It's a new way for listeners to enjoy music, for them to get even closer to songs they thought they already knew through and through. It's everything I'd hoped it could be and more. And, though it does still have its hang-ups, it's a game I'll still be playing literally years from now. I can't even remember the last game I could say something like that about. It's almost completely replaced Guitar Hero in my house, improving upon its every facet of its premise in every conceivable fashion. It's not perfect, but it is incredibly close. If you've got friends with even a passing interest in rock, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.4

No comments: