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Released: 2007-11-20 Genre: Music Platform: Reviewed By: Cory Birdsong

Rock Band

Guitar Hero brought you the guitar, Guitar Hero II added the bass and Harmonix's Rock Band brings the whole band together, adding drums and vocals, and it does so marvelously.

"Rock Band's" art style is a realistic refinement of "Guitar Hero II's" cartoony silliness.

Certainly, at its core, Rock Band is a multiplayer experience, but the single player is no slouch. Three Guitar Hero-style campaigns are available in lieu of a World Tour-style mode. You know the drill - five songs a tier until you get to the end. The expert guitar game isn't nearly as difficult as Guitar Hero III or even Guitar Hero II. It probably lies somewhere in between the first two titles in difficulty. It's comfortable, but the final tier is no slouch - I suspect Green Grass and High Tides will tear a new asshole in any first attempt.

Throughout the game’s blisteringly metal spiky helm of fire, the signature “Band World Tour” mode is where everything comes together. Two to four players can create a band that starts in the band leader's hometown, specified during character creation, and then begin to play gigs in the local clubs. You can play pre-made set lists, let the crowd decide in random set lists, or even make your own. You eventually earn a van, allowing you to go further away to other venues, attract a manager, get a tour bus, and so on. If you fail a show, you lose fans, which can cause previous venues to become re-locked. Doing well on a song earns both fans and stars, which opens additional shows faster. Getting a perfect five-star rating on a song is difficult alone, and becomes even more challenging as a band, since you all have to work together harmoniously.

The drums, played with real wooden drumsticks, make you feel like you are actually playing drums. The set, which features four pads and a foot pedal, produces a more true-to-life feeling of drum play than any other instrument in the package. It's hard enough to keep rhythm on the top four pads using your arms; bringing hand-foot-eye coordination into it will throw most non-drummers for a loop. Unlike the Guitar Hero titles, actually playing drums goes a long way toward Rock Band drum skills, since the motor skills and coordination you need to excel is already developed.

Drummers also get to improvise a bit more than any other instrument, as they can make their own fills. Whenever a drummer has overdrive—the Rock Band equivalent of star power—a blank slate appears where the drummer can hammer out whatever beat they wish and then hit the final cymbal note, which will activate overdrive to increase the score or survive a difficult section. All three instruments actually get a chance to improvise during what the game calls a "Big Rock Ending," where players pretty much just go nuts on the frets / drums and then have to hit the final notes in the song to get the bonus points.

The guitar portion, as mentioned, works similarly to Harmonix's previous opus. Color coordinated squares fall down the screen, matching the frets on your guitar, which you have to hit as they reach the bottom of the screen while playing the strum bar. Repeat as necessary. The new style guitar also comes with an effect switch. It has five settings, with guitar effects like wah-wah and echo, which can be applied to make the guitar track sound different during solos. It's pretty neat, but totally cosmetic.

The solo buttons are a much cooler addition. Five smaller fret buttons similar to the ones at the top of the guitar can be used during solo sections of guitar tracks to tap out solos without strumming. Essentially, what they are for is wailing on the “tiny strings” with both hands and making them make cool “meedley meedley meeeee” noises. The feeling of badassery when using these is fantastic, especially while you tap them out with one hand and throw up the horns with the other. Getting that good is a challenge, though – you have to switch one or both hands to the middle of the guitar quickly mid-song, and then back to normal positions after the solo.

In addition to instrument-specific multipliers, a band-wide multiplier can be activated if all the players are performing well.

In addition to instrument-specific multipliers, a band-wide multiplier can be activated if all the players are performing well.

The guitar, modeled after a Fender Stratocaster, is constructed differently from previous Guitar Hero models. For starters, it is much larger than any previous plastic videogame guitar—about halfway between the traditional Guitar Hero size and the size of a real guitar. The fret buttons are flush with one another and extend out to the sides of the neck. They are also very smooth, which makes sliding your fingers up and down a bit less abusive. The strum bar is also a lot softer-feeling and lacks a clicking noise, which can make it difficult to keep rhythm with the song.

Vocals work just like another previous Harmonix game, Karaoke Revolution. Lyrics scroll across the screen with pitch lines hovering above them, which must be matched by your singing. This is a far better experience than Sony's Singstar series, which offers the player far less feedback as to how well he or she is doing during the song. It's easy to correct a slightly-off pitch tone, though a Singstar-style display is available if you can't keep up with the scrolling.

In addition to the player's pitch, the game claims to check phonemes—what the player is actually saying—to some degree, but, like Karaoke, you can pretty much just hum along at the right pitch and score well. This is slightly easier than actually singing, but if you're not willing to actually sing the song and are just going for the high score, you are probably playing the wrong game.

This sense of "just here to have fun" pervades Rock Band’s design; It is a night and day difference from the recent Neversoft-produced Guitar Hero III. Songs are chosen because they are fun to play as a band, not because they are insanely difficult. The characters have more realistic features and look like they are having fun, rather than their evil and angry predecessors.

The on-stage animation functions on another level entirely. In Guitar Hero titles, the guitarist moved around a bit and did crazy stuff when star power was activated, but here everyone on stage seems to do interesting things all the time. The vocalist walks around and points at the crowd and reacts to the guitarist who leans over to sing a famous line into the mic and in the background the drummer spins his stick before he hits a big drum fill. All this is enhanced by the excellent cinematography, which is great fun to watch, especially since you can customize the entire band’s appearance.

The character creator is robust, but lacks much in the way of body customization. There are only about five faces per gender, and you can't change their proportions at all. Apparently, there are no fat rockers, either. Changing the weight slider merely makes your male characters broader in the shoulder region and female characters larger in the—ahem—hips and chest. However, there is a huge variety of interesting outfits that can be mixed and matched and color changed to your heart’s content.

Additionally, the game features a deep and involved tattoo creator, which functions just like Forza 2's car detailing and paint system. You have 25 layers that you can apply either basic geometric shapes or pre-made patterns to. They can all be stretched, warped, scaled, custom colored, and rearranged. Additionally, these patterns you make can be applied to almost anything related to your character – guitars, microphones, shirts, pants, your chest, your face. It's pretty incredible.

The set list Harmonix has gathered for this game is amazing and spans nearly the entire history of rock. From the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" to Fall Out Boy, almost any genre or era you could want is represented. Additionally, new songs are added for download by Harmonix each week for a pretty reasonable price – $2 per song or $5.50 for three. Thus far, additional Metallica, David Bowie and Queens of the Stone Age packs are up, and individual songs include awesome stuff like Creedence Clearwater’s "Fortunate Son" or Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero."

And, unfortunately, Rock Band is not above being difficult with its interface. Until you reach certain milestones, many of the songs are locked, meaning you will be forced to play the easiest songs over and over again. Expect to become real familiar with Weezer's "Say It Ain't So." The game also locks characters into their specific roles, so the leader of the band must always be present, while the members themselves can never change their instruments. If you were picked to be the drummer and you suck, well, you better hope your band has a guitarist who wouldn’t mind swapping places. Any number of different players can be added or subtracted, but the band always has to contain the original guitarist and one other member.

Both of these limitations seem completely arbitrary and only serve to complicate things in party situations. Sure, I might want to have a separate character for singing and for drumming, but I can handle that on my own, and most of the time, I just want my one awesome dude to play whatever instrument I'm playing. And why can't a band be an entity unattached to any character? The game's loading screen informs me that the Queens of the Stone Age have had more than 25 people play in it, so why can't my band shuffle members in and out as I please? This is a fantasy rock game, not a fantasy rock simulator—realism does not always equal fun.

That said, the amazing feeling of unity that manifests when your bandmates are all performing perfectly really redeems the game from its faults. Guitar Hero was always a rather social pass-the-guitar experience for me, and Rock Band embraces that, augments it by allowing more people to play, and lets them do more than just play two guitars at the same time. It may not be perfect, but it’s probably the greatest party game ever created.


  • Drums and vocals executed excellently.

  • Excellent refinements to the guitar game.

  • Detailed character customization.

  • Awesome setlist.

  • Best multiplayer experience available anywhere.

  • Annoying restrictions related to character creation and instrument usage.

  • Similar annoying restrictions relating to band leaders.

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