Rock Band is every wannabe musician's dream. A game that takes the four key instruments one needs to make a band a rock band (guitar, bass, drums, vocals), and builds a highly playable and intensely addictive game around them. To a degree, developer Harmonix got a head start on the process of creating Rock Band when it developed the first two Guitar Hero games, but whereas those games were all about the decidedly solo act of severe simulated shredding, Rock Band goes in an entirely different direction. The solo play has taken a backseat to cooperative multiplayer. This game is all about the act of performance as a band, getting a group of four people together and working together to get the highest score bonuses possible as a group, all while fake guitaring and realistically singing and drumming your way through more than 40 different licensed rock hits. The steep $170 price tag for the game and bundled hardware might prove to be a barrier for entry for some, and in addition, the hardware itself comes with a few flaws. But if you're willing to make the investment, Rock Band is a guaranteed good time for any music lover, and one of the best party games you'll ever play.
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 only difference between guitars in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game is the fact that people who buy the 360 version get a wired guitar, whereas PS3 owners get a wireless one. On the flip side, PS3 owners don't get a USB hub to connect all the instruments to, whereas 360 owners do. That shouldn't be an issue if you have an older PS3, but if you have a newer one with the two USB ports, you'll need to buy one of those hubs separately. It's also worth noting that you only get one guitar with the bundle on either platform, but if you own a Guitar Hero guitar for the 360, you can use it with the 360 version of Rock Band.
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.
If you've ever played a Karaoke Revolution game, the singing mechanics should be immediately familiar.
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.
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.
Speaking of fills, one really cool thing about the drum portion of the game is that it allows for some improvisation. The way the drums handle overdrive is to give you some blocked-out sections where you can just bust out any kind of drum fill you want. The pads act as a snare, two tom-toms, and a crash cymbal. Go nuts, but just be sure you hit the last crash cymbal note at the end of the fill, at which point you will engage overdrive.
If there is any issue to be taken with the game's hardware, it's its reliability. For instance, one of our pre-release kick pedals from the drum kit, which is made up of a somewhat thin piece of plastic hooked into a spring underneath it, actually snapped in half during a particularly heated rendition of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." The other pedals we used for testing held up despite some extreme thrashing, but all the same, our suggestion is that if you've got a Mr. Heavyfoot in your band, tell them to go shoeless and ease up on the pedal slammage a smidge. Another issue is the USB microphone. One of our retail boxes came with a broken mic that cut in and out and wouldn't register our vocals properly. Any supported USB headset mic will apparently work in a pinch on the PS3, and the standard Xbox 360 headset works on there as well, but regardless, that's still a concerning issue. At least EA seems to be aware of potential hardware issues, as a big flyer inside the box explains the 60 day hardware warranty that comes with the game and directs you to an EA Web site. You might want to keep that URL handy if you run into any issues.
Those are all the technicals of the instrumental gameplay, but none of that quite emphasizes how excellent the game is at emulating the act of band play. By themselves, each instrument is basically fun, but when you get four people together playing at once, something spectacular emerges. Part of it is the way in which scoring has been designed for cooperative play. Overdrive can be turned on by anyone, but the more people you have in overdrive at once, the higher the score bonuses. By the same token, if one person in your band fails out of a song, another can simply engage overdrive (provided enough is stored up at that point) and come to the rescue, bringing the player back into the fold. But it goes beyond even the scoring mechanics. There's just something intangibly brilliant about the way having everyone play together feels. For instance, because the drums emulate the real-life instrument so closely, having a good drummer is paramount for success. If your drummer gets off beat, it can badly screw everyone up. Along the same lines, when your drummer is in a solid groove and the rest of the band is able to lock into that groove, the feeling that you're actually performing a song as opposed to simulating one is palpable, and it is quite the exhilarating feeling.
The hardware the game comes with is all fun to play with, though there are some reliability concerns.
The game's song list goes a long way toward making that multiplayer even more enjoyable. Though the game includes only 45 licensed songs (along with 13 bonus tracks from lesser-known bands), many of these 45 are big-name tracks that are immediately recognizable and span multiple rock genres. Alternative rock fans will find such '90s delights as Weezer's "Say It Ain't So," Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock," and Nirvana's "In Bloom." Modern rockers will find The Killers' "When You Were Young," Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly," and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps." Classic rock fans will delight in being able to rock their way through Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and KISS's "Detroit Rock City." Other, less specifically denominational yet altogether awesome songs include The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," Rush's "Tom Sawyer," and Metallica's "Enter Sandman."