Monday, March 17, 2008

Rock Band

By: Shawn

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (1997 to be exact) a company called Konami created what is now known as the bemani or music game genre.  The concepts were superfluous at best - create controllers designed to emulate musical equipment and let users attempt to achieve high scores.  There were no bosses, no levels, no power ups.  Just a very simple gameplay process led to Konami becoming an undisputed king of the hill of the genre with franchises such as Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Guitar Freaks and more ruling the roost.

Fast forward to 2003.  Konami wanted to bring its Karaoke Revolution series to the states and enlisted the assistance of developer Harmonix to handle the project.  Harmonix had previously released the bemani-inspired music titles, Frequency and Amplitude, in which you used a ship to shoot jewels which released music or something to that effect.  Amplitude, the sequel released for Playstation 2 was a multiplayer affair, allowing players to lay down new sound effects for a custom remix of an existing track.  The joint venture of Karaoke Revolution was met with a resounding success.  Several sequels followed until Harmonix decided to release their next big project.

In 2005, Harmonix teamed up with peripheral maker Red Octane and released Guitar Hero.  Capitalizing on Red Octane’s history of third party controller manufacturing and Harmonix development history, the two companies’ title became widely popular.  Two sequels followed, Guitar Hero 2 and Guitar Hero Encore: Rock’s the 80s and the two split with Activision buying the chicken and MTV buying the egg.

Rock Band is Harmonix’s latest effort in the genre.  Seemingly Herculean in its efforts, it combines all the previous elements they had worked on into one cohesive package.  The game combines vocals, guitar, bass, - and the newest addition on this side of the pond - drums.  Now drumming games have been around for some time now, with Konami’s own Drummania, Taiko Drum Master (by Namco), even Nintendo’s own Donkey Kong joined the fray; but for most gamers this may probably be their first drumming experience.  The game follows the concepts it was spawned from.  Vocals are represented as they were in the Karaoke Revolution series.  The lyrics scroll across the screen and you’re tasked with singing them in the proper pitch and octave.  Because not every song has a singer wailing on every bar, vocalists are given a percussion section during some tracks.  This amounts to you taping the mic with your hand, pressing the A button on the controller, or making some random noise every time the icon passes the bar.  These sections aren’t required but they do keep the singer with something to do and add bonus points to your overall score.


Drumming returns the familiar look and feel that popularized the Guitar Hero series.  What separates these titles from their Japanese equivalents is in the way the game is presented to the gamer.  While in the Japanese titles, you’re given a flat display with the notes scrolling down and really not much else besides text to indicate how well you’re doing, and on occasion a badly animated video, Harmonix has gone with the notes scrolling down but the “tracks” are angled so you can see up the track to know what’s coming next.  The kit itself is sturdy, even though at this review time, we are currently on our second set of drum pads and a second guitar, but we’ll cover that later.  The pads are colored Red, Yellow, Blue and Green with the Bass Pedal sporting an orange line, to correspond with the colored notes on screen.  Unlike the guitar however, the drums feature some free-form fill sections.  Normally, the drums emulate various sounds with the red always being the snare tom, the yellow is your cymbal, blue being a standing tom and green being your crash cymbal.  This changes from song to song, with the yellow and blue alternating as other types of cymbals or toms.  During the free form sections, the yellow and blue pads become toms.  The free-form sections allow you to move from just another lame cover band to being truly avant-garde in your delivery of some of the catchiest songs from the past 4 decades.

The guitar and bass portions are the same for any gamers moving from the Guitar Hero series.  There are varying reports of the games difficulty, but I can assure you Rock Band is every bit as difficult as the Guitar Hero series, if not more.  Gone however, is the rhythm guitar but Harmonix has done an excellent job in the games initial track offerings so bass players will only feel left out in the cold upon their discovery that there is no solo career mode for bassist.

Rock Band is split into two core components.  The single player mode again emulates the Guitar Hero setup of a list of songs sorted by order of difficulty.  This is also how the drums and vocal solo career modes go as well.  You start out by creating a character, entailing selecting a city of origin, a look, a style (metal, goth, rock, punk) and most importantly a haircut.  From here you plow through each song, attempting to get 5 stars and get paid the most money to spend in the game’s virtual store which stocks everything from a chest plate made of bones to the Jackson King V.  The customization doesn’t just stop with your character either as every instrument in the game can have custom art applied to it.  It really adds to the replayability factor of the title.
The other side of that is the game’s multiplayer function.  Bringing back the popular versus modes of Score Duel and Tug of War, the game also adds full band online play as well as one of the deeper offline multiplayer experiences ever made; the Band World Tour.

If the solo career and the solo online options are the potatoes, then Band World Tour is the metaphorical meat.  Requiring a minimum of 2 players, you embark on every musician’s fantasy.  Starting out in small clubs playing one or two song sets, you eventually climb the virtual ladder of music superstardom with gigs taking you around the globe, and being invited to different events like charity concerts or an induction into the Hall of Fame.  Completing songs earns you fans and stars, items both crucial to unlocking other venues and gigs.  All told, there are over 30 different venues, each with its own individual look and feel.  I would implore that you spectate to be able to take the time to appreciate all the subtle effects Harmonix has implemented in the lighting and effects of each individual song at each individual venue.  It’s truly a marvel of gaming design as well as art, not to mention this all runs at a smooth frame rate.

Since Frequency, Harmonix has shown a knack for soundtrack selection and that legacy continues here.  From Metallica to the Hives to the Rolling Stones, Rock Band’s on disc offering of 45 songs, almost all masters (plus 13 bonus tracks by some independent bands) is a compilation worthy of That’s What I Call Now Music Complete Edition Part 17.  The music doesn’t stop there however.  Due to Harmonix being bought by MTV last year as part of their MTV Games division, the archives of several major labels became available to Harmonix.  Last year, the company with their release of Guitar Hero 2 promised more downloadable content than any other game.  This promise fell flat, and with Red Octane being bought by Activision and Harmonix being purchased by MTV the two companies failed to find a medium to collaborate for the title.  Among some of the first information revealed about Rock Band was the announcement of weekly downloadable content (DLC).  Fans balked at the concept, citing the Guitar Hero incident.  But Harmonix has proven just how good their word is.  When the game initially launched, a large collection of DLC also launched with a schedule revealing every week’s new content for the rest of the year.  Since the new year has began, Harmonix has continued this schedule releasing new content every week. 

Rock Band simply does everything a current generation game is expected to.  It’s challenging, visually appeasing, offers a plethora of gaming options, and has a ton of replayability all rolled into a well constructed product.  The game can be purchased separately for $59.99 or as a bundle which includes a guitar, the drum kit, a microphone, and the game for $179.99.  The drums are also available separately for $79.99, as well as the microphone.

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