Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tech: Rock Band review

"Rock Band" is a music game for the Xbox 360, the PS2, and the PS3 (I picked up the 360 version). Created by former "Guitar Hero" developer Harmonix, it's a bold, ambitious game matched with an equally bold price tag - $170 for the special edition bundle. This bundle includes the game, a wired guitar controller, a USB mic, and a full drum set, including bass pedal and sticks. You'll immediately be impressed by the size and weight of the package - the darn thing almost needs to be carried by two people.

The idea behind "Rock Band" is simple - since these music games are often great fun for groups, why not get multiple people together playing multiple instruments? And so, right out of that big box, you can have a lead guitarist, a drummer, and a singer doing their stuff simultaneously.

Let's cover each part of the game:


As a solo guitar game, "Rock Band" is suprisingly worse than "Guitar Hero 3." The note charts for most songs tend to less interesting and easier to play than in GH3 - for example, I can 5-star most of the tracks in "Rock Band" on Medium, whereas I have yet to even finish GH3 on Medium. Even more vexing is the new Fender wired guitar controller - it has a mushy strum bar and close-set buttons that can introduce errors for those accustomed to "clicky" Guitar Hero guitars.


The singing portion of "Rock Band" owes large debts to the Karaoke Revolution and SingStar games. You're graded on pitch and timing, and thankfully the difficulty on Medium is toned down enough so that even if you don't know a song, you can fake your way through it. It's generally fun to sing, but there are large stretches in some songs (guitar solos, for instance) where you're doing nothing at all. The included USB mic feels durable and works well enough.


There has never been a home drum experience like this, and it's unquestionably the best part of "Rock Band." The timing and control of three independent limbs is a huge stumbling block in the beginning, but once you get the basics down, you'll be hammering away like Neil Peart or John Bonham. There's obviously a lot more to playing real-life drums than what "Rock Band" can teach you, but I'll bet a lot of aspiring drummers will find the game more interesting than the old practice pad and metronome. The drum kit itself feels pretty durable, but the bass pedal has had some well-publicized problems (mine's been fine so far).


There's a ton of options here for customizing your musician, and your mind will boggle at how many different clothing styles and physical characteristics are mutable here. Wanna make a Hendrix lookalike? No problem. Feel like getting a shaggy-haired Joey Ramone onstage? Easy. The game's visual presentation is clean, though it sometimes feels antiseptic compared to the more stylized "Guitar Hero 3."

The setlist for the game is impressive, featuring everything from the Ramones to Sabbath to Radiohead. The nature of "rock" music makes it hard to please everyone, since there's just so many genres, but you're bound to like at least some of the songs here. And if you don't, "Rock Band" features an ever-growing library of downloadable content. Though the prices for these songs are sometimes high (the average song is $2), considering that with every download you can play guitar, sing, and drum to the song, it feels like a better value. That, and I couldn't resist getting "Buddy Holly."

Rating: 87/100 (subtract 10 points if you have nobody to play with)


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