I spent the week of Thanksgiving on vacation, so I missed the debut of Rock Band. Thanks to .33 cents a minute shipboard internet, I was able to read Tony’s gleeful post about the scarcity of units available. Although I had reserved the game at Gamestop, bane of all video game stores, panic set in. Contacting my roommate, I asked him to see if he could procure my reserved copy from Gamestop, either through the kindness of the Gamestop employees (yeah right), or more likely, impersonating me.
Surprisingly, not only did my local Gamestop have enough copies, they also allowed my roommate to buy on my behalf (shout out to Sasha, the store manager of the White Flint Gamestop, for being 100x cooler than every other Gamestop manager. I hope corporate doesn’t find out and fire you). So it was the moment I arrived home on Saturday that me, my roommate, and two of my friends started playing Rock Band. Weeks later, we’re still rocking out (with breaks for eating and sleeping. Catheter handles the pee.)
The first impression of the game is that it’s a much more fleshed out advancement of the game’s genre. Guitar Hero’s 1, 2, and the oft maligned “Encore: Rock the 80’s,” had some gameplay advancements, but the primary evolution of each game was new songs. Guitar Hero 3 at last brought multiplayer, master tracks, and easier hammer-ons, but much beyond that, it was just more songs (and arguably, master tracks are just more songs–the innovation was that the genre had matured).
Although the most obvious evolution in Rock Band is the addition of the band (in the forms of drums and microphone), the attention to detail in the game is absolutely stunning. You can customize your avatar, both in creation, and through the purchase of clothing and accessories. Load screens include a variety of band shots, from broken down vans to new CD cover art, that dynamically insert your band’s avatars. Avatars can be customized by purchasing bling, clothing, and other goodies from gig cash. You also get “city shirts” as you play successfully in new city venues. One thing that bothers many people is that a character is created as a singer, drummer, bassist or guitar player. You can’t swap between them, which can get annoying and may mean you will need multiple avatars. For me, this means you have “Golden Jew the Great,” “Golden Jew the Awesome,” and “Golden Jew of the Huge Wang.” It depends how modest I’m feeling that day.
The game is big on the “little things”: at the start of a new game, each member is called out with a pose and splash. When playing, avatars are accurately animated–the drummer hits the snare, cymbals or toms, you can watch a guitarists finger’s fly during a solo. If you play well as a band, in certain songs the audience sings with you (my absolute favorite thing). Sometimes your lead singer will go crowd surfing. The vibe I got from playing almost made me disappointed at how little Guitar Hero innovated, but at the same time very pleased at how much effort was put in to make Rock Band not just songs, but a more immersive experience. Mission accomplished.
Rock Band departs from the traditional set list of Guitar Hero and instead has multiple cities with typically three venues each. To add to the fun, when you create your band, you pick your hometown, which affects the order you open up venues. Gameplay is scored on stars (the same 5 star system we know and love, although you are scored dynamically as the song goes on instead of graded at the end), fans, and cash. You advance from city to city by playing in unlocked competitions that grant the band tools to play bigger cities and gigs, such as a van, roadies, a plane, sound techs, PR firms, bodyguards, etc. Unlike Guitar Hero, each venue isn’t just a list of songs. Some venues do have singles you can play (and then subsequently unlock), but there are also “make your own sets” from your unlocked and purchased tracks, and “mystery sets” drawn from the same source. Other times there are sets such as the Seattle “local legend” setlist (featuring Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Soundgarden). To add a bit more flavor, you can get special offers in advance of gigs, such as quadruple or nothing cash (if you play 5 stars) or the opportunity to play a gig for charity (no cash, but lots more fans).
A major improvement for me (who has gamer roommates) is that the full game can be played solo or multiplayer, unlike Guitar Hero which had a different setlist (redacted) for multiplayer. You’re not locked in, either, so if two of your four members aren’t around, you can still advance the game with the two present. The flip side of this is that you can’t go solo with your multiplayer band: you’ve gotta play with at least two. This has never been a problem for me–I’ve never played this game solo except for practicing, but I can see why for many people it’d be a substantial drawback. This also brings up the quirky nature with which it saves your data. A band leader is selected, and must be present for your multiplayer band. That character’s gamer tag seems to hold all of the avatars. It’s annoying, but not a showstopper. It will greatly benefit from a patch, should one become available.
Another difference in gameplay from Guitar Hero is that song difficulty choice is more dynamic. You can play any difficulty on any song at any time. However–you are graded by the lowest setting picked by the band, so it encourages everyone to “play up.” Stars are used to advance the game, but some venues can be only opened by your band’s fans–and fans cap off based on the difficulty you play your songs at. This necessitates harder play in order to unlock goodies. You can game the system to a certain extent by only playing “make your own setlist” gigs and picking songs you know well in order to boost fans and open up these venues. But this is a relatively minor complaint–and frankly a godsend for me because I suck horribly at some songs. Another item to note is that certain songs at some venues can only be played at higher difficulties. Once unlocked, the songs can be played at any difficulty, but the game definitely pushes you.
This creates a bit of a problem (but a nice article segue) concerning the game’s equipment. The drums are friggin hard! A big part of this is the uniqueness of the equipment. By now, many gamers have played Guitar Hero, and others have played Singstar or Karaoke Revolution, and therefore are familiar with guitar, bass and to a lesser extent singing. A drum kit is something entirely new. In order to keep the drums fun (and they are), all toms and the bass are utilized regardless of difficulty played, with the speed and frequency of notes increasing on each difficulty level. This is good, because it keeps your hands and feet moving at all difficulties.
The other result is that it feels as if each difficulty is a level higher on the drums. On top of this, the transition from medium to hard is very sharp on many songs. This reflects reality–some songs are harder than others, duh. But for songs with unique baselines or drum solos (Maps by the Yeah yeah yeahs and Vasoline by STP for example) can be very tricky on the drums at higher difficulties. If your drummer sucks (like me), you will be playing the game on practice mode in order to learn the songs. It’s much harder to “wing” than guitar. Again, this could be an artifact of familiarity with the guitar vs the drums.
The good news is– the drums are so much fun. I mean really, even the songs that savagely violate me do so because they’re awesome to play and not just the same beat over and over. So while I may have to put some effort in to learn to play, it’s well rewarded.
I personally have not used the microphone to sing (we don’t talk about what happens when I try karaoke games anymore), but I’ve heard no complaints from my parade of friends and band members. The only issue I’d once again mention is that in karaoke, while it is technically possible to sing a song you don’t know the lyrics to, it’s really not ideal. Because Rock Band has such as wide breadth of songs, you need someone dedicated to the cause (like in drums). Your casual friends who come over will inevitably end up singing Say it Ain’t So, In Bloom, and Creep over and over (it’s not quite this bad, but you get the idea). If you intend on playing the full game successfully with a singer, find someone willing to learn outside the pop music set.
The last thing to mention is that I have not had the equipment problems that have plagued so many gamers. I do not care for the new guitar (though I’ve not played it much, and I suspect it’s the unfamiliarity more than anything else), but my roommate who plays a real guitar swears by it. I also have not had any problems with the drum kit’s fragility (some reviewers have questioned the bass pedal). That’s not to say these aren’t real problems, but they haven’t affected me or led me to make numerous snarky comments (such as Penny Arcade has). Should the equipment function? Absolutely. But I’ve been lucky in that we haven’t broken ours… yet. So it’s hard for me to get mad over an abstract issue others have had.
Overall, Rock Band is a great game, and probably the best party game I’ve played to date. I am deeply concerned by the “failed” launch–caused by, among other things, serious equipment shortages. A few anecdotal trips to Best Buy show tons of unsold games but few, if any, band packs, which could be indicative of big problems. Apologetic posts on the Rock Band forum indicate MTV is frantically attempting to get their supply chain sorted out. The game would vastly benefit from the availability of stand-alone purchasable drum kits, microphones, and guitars (and this is planned). Apparently the game also supports head to head drums and microphones, which is practical over the internet at this time, but the only way to get two drum kits at one site is to buy two full game sets, which only the insanely wealthy would even consider.
The other issue which is undoubtedly true is that the game was a bit rushed in launching on the software side. Unfortunately, I think that’s the state of the industry right now. This isn’t a “pass” to Harmonix, but more the fact I’m an abused PC gamer who is still playing a player patched Civilization Beyond the Sword. I also give them credit because they tried (and in my opinion, succeeded) to do something new. It’s not just a setlist that you play over and over, but more of an experience for a music game.
My biggest fear, which may well be realized, is that this awesome game–if not an outright virtual band platform– will lack the unit sales for MTV to support their grand vision, which is iTunes-like download capability, with hundreds of tracks available to gamers. Already the downloadable content released and announced is excellent. I absolutely love the Queens of the Stone Age pack. If MTV does manage to overcome a sloppy launch, build a solid game base, and crack the economic code for the rights to songs, there are tremendous implications for the industry. Gamers will have access to a simply gargantuan amount of content (good for the consumer, and Guitar Hero DL packs have shown consumers want this), and it will be lucrative for MTV (good for the developer/publisher). But it may be that the platform was improperly designed–I worry that the price point for the full set was too high, and for some reason it’s not getting the consumer attention it demands. This baffles me: even as a guitar game alone, Rock Band blows Guitar Hero away in terms of detail, immersion, setlist, and most importantly, future setlist (via DLC)–there’s no reason anyone with a guitar controller shouldn’t get this game (unless they actually believe Activision’s manual warning in GH3 that it’s illegal to use their guitar with other games).