Released last month on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Rock Band was a revelation for rhythm game fans everywhere. By taking the concept laid down by Guitar Hero then multiplying it by a factor of drums and vocals, developer Harmonix essentially set the bar for multiplayer rhythm gaming. Now, Rock Band comes to the PlayStation 2, albeit without quite the wow factor of the previous iterations. The PS2 game includes the same collection of hardware as the last release, as well as the same core gameplay design. However, several key modes are missing--modes that made a big difference in the previous releases and are greatly missed in this one. By all accounts, Rock Band is still a lot of fun on the PS2--it's just nowhere near the ideal version of the experience.
Before we launch into the big recounting for the uninitiated of what Rock Band is, let's just quickly address exactly what the key changes in the PS2 version are for those just looking for differences. The main alteration was to the selection of game modes, of which there are decidedly fewer in this iteration. Online play of any sort has been taken out, along with the ability to download additional content. Not that the PS2 really has any reasonable way of storing downloadable content, but the game disc doesn't include any of the premium downloadable songs that have since been made available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 either. Customization features are also absent, meaning you don't have the ability to create your own rocker. The game simply uses a smattering of default characters through each song, which is kind of a bummer because creating your own band members and customizing them as you pleased was a big draw of the experience.
Another big draw was the band world tour, the cooperative career mode. A version of that mode still exists here, but it's just a basic set list, Ã© la Guitar Hero's career progression or Rock Band's single-player career. All the added elements, from traveling between venues and cities and earning stars and fans to eventually working your way into the hall of fame, are gone. At least there is some semblance of a way to play a career with your friends, but this version of it is a great deal less exciting.
As much as that all sucks, none of that robs the game of its greatest strength: its gameplay. In a sense, Rock Band is a little like three distinct games built into one. First, there's the guitar game, which lets you play approximately the same sort of game as Guitar Hero on guitar and bass, but with a few key differences. For one, the guitar itself is built quite differently from the Guitar Hero guitars. It's bigger, with a longer neck, and its body feels more solid. The fret buttons are larger, and are flush against the neck of the guitar, and there is a second set of narrower fret buttons all the way down the neck that you can tap on for solos. The guitar even comes with a built-in effects switcher, which puts effects like echo, flange, and wah-wah over the in-game guitar track.
The actual guitar gameplay isn't much different from Guitar Hero, with you strumming along and periodically tilting the guitar to engage "overdrive" (the game's equivalent of star power), but a couple of neat twists do add some flavor. For one thing, solos are given their own scoring section in each song, and the game tracks the percentage of notes hit during a solo. The higher the percentage, the higher the score bonus you get at the end of the solo.
The guitar game is of good quality, though a couple of things about it might drive a few longtime Guitar Hero fans batty. For one, the difficulty of the game is a good deal less challenging than what the hardcore Guitar Hero fan base is probably accustomed to at this point. The goal with Rock Band seems to be more about bringing in newcomers, so as a result, the difficulty level sits somewhere between Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II overall. Not a bad thing if Guitar Hero III gave you conniption fits, but potentially less exciting for some of the hardcore guitar gamers out there. Also of note is that the note charts for guitar are handled a bit differently, with notes that can be pulled off via hammer-ons and pull-offs appearing as half-sized notes on the chart. It's not quite as easy to see these notes as in, say, Guitar Hero III, so you might end up screwing up a few solos until you get used to this new methodology.
Lastly is the guitar itself. It's a good guitar, but it does some things differently than the standard GH model guitars. The strummer doesn't click when you strum up or down, and the fret buttons seem a bit less forgiving in terms of timing in solos and other, tougher sections. It's not that it's bad or wrong--it's just different, and it takes some getting used to. Also, you're not going to get a ton of mileage out of things like the second set of buttons and the effects switch. Most people will probably forget the switch is even there until they accidentally turn on wah-wah, and sliding down to the second button set is a bit vexing to do just as you're about to head straight into a solo, since it takes a while to get accustomed both to the smaller buttons and to finding exactly where they are on the neck without staring at the guitar for a few seconds. Fake-guitar virtuosos will probably dig it, but most people will likely stick to the standard method.
Next there's the singing game, which closely emulates the mechanics of Karaoke Revolution and SingStar, but, again, with a couple of specific differences. You sing along as the lyrics display on the screen, trying to match your vocal pitch to the meter that moves up and down with the original vocal track. The key thing about singing is that the number of sections where a singer actually gets to do his or her thing is somewhat limited. But even those down moments aren't left for pure silence. Sometimes the vocal area of the screen will turn yellow, indicating for you to "make some noise," which then engages overdrive. There are also sections where you can simply tap the microphone to the rhythm of the song to get a tambourine or cowbell section going.
Beyond these wrinkles, the core of the vocal game design is to just sing, sing, sing...and occasionally rap. If there is any complaint to be made about the vocals, it's that it doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation. On the higher difficulty settings, the game is extremely intent on you hitting the mapped pitches as closely as possible, even in situations where it seems like the mapped pitches aren't quite exact to what the original vocalist is doing. The same goes for the timing of each word. In some songs vocalists will trail off, but you can't really do that and still get the max score, which makes the vocals feel a bit robotic. Still, most vocal pieces are quite fun regardless, and in a nice touch to help middling vocalists everywhere, you can adjust the original vocal track volume via the controller as you play, so you can use it for as much or as little of a guide as you prefer.
If you've ever played a Karaoke Revolution game, the singing mechanics should be immediately familiar.
Finally there are the drums, easily the most intense and enjoyable instrument of the bunch. The kit consists of a collection of four color-coded pads and a kick pedal, along with a pair of drum sticks. There's really no reference point for the drums portion of the game except for, well, real drums. You hit the pads in time as you would with a realistic drum kit, and on expert, the game practically maps out each song's drum part note for note. Make no mistake: When you are playing on expert, you are playing the drums. If you can do well on expert, you can probably pull out a decent beat on a real drum set at will. The good news for novices is that easy difficulty does a pretty good job of easing you into the act of drumming. The number of notes is much more limited, kick pedal usage is rare, and drum fills are eased back quite a bit.