Have you ever wanted a karaoke machine at home? How about the karaoke equivalent of guitar, bass, and drums? That is akin to what the Rock Band is trying to provide. Packaged with a suite of peripherals including a microphone, a guitar-like controller that simulates fretting and strumming, and what amounts to a pared-down electronic drum kit, Rock Band is a case of the lines between rhythm action gaming and the joy of making actual music being blurred.
The essence of the game itself is very simple. Color-coded notes scroll down the screen not unlike Tetris blocks, and you must hit corresponding buttons in time to music, to ?play? a certain track of the song. If you play well, the song will be heard as normal, but if you make a mistake, your track will skip a note, or you may hear a wrong note in place of the correct one. In effect, it is as if you are a part of the band, and it is great fun.
Right out of the box the game has nearly 60 songs to play, all of them from real world recording artists, predominantly from the rock, punk, pop, and metal genres. Bands featured here include Nirvana, Weezer, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Kiss, Metallica, David Bowie, Deep Purple, and many more mega-famous and independent bands. Developer Harmonix is also promising new downloadable songs every week, a promise which they have delivered on thus far.
I personally purchased extra song packs from Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age, and Black Sabbath. In most cases these songs are the original recordings, but in a few instances they have substituted covers, which are mostly very well-done (the version of ?Ballroom Blitz? here cannot compare to Tia Carrere?s from Wayne?s World, however).
The degree to which you feel more like you are playing a game or actually playing music depends largely on which role you choose to play, and which difficulty level you play the game.
The guitar and bass roles tend to feel a little more game-like, especially on the easier difficulty settings, where holding down one fret button and giving a single strum will match up to a series of hammered-on and pulled-off notes, and also due to the controller being the most contrived of the bunch.
The drums, on the other hand, are done in a much more realistic manner. The kit has 4 drum pads and a kick pedal. Two pads are set aside as snare and ride cymbals, while the remaining two function as either toms or crash cymbals, and the pedal serves as your bass drum or hi-hat. Playing the drums in Rock Band is thus remarkably like playing them in reality, requiring every bit the rhythm and timing you would expect.
As far as singing goes, the simulation is reality. You simply sing into the mic just as you would while doing karaoke. The game hears your vocals and rates you on how close you are in pitch to the original song?s lyrics. You don?t need to strain to hit those high notes, as it will recognize the same note at an octave or two higher or lower than the original.
Rock Band can be played solo, in a local group (same room), or in a group online. However, the greatest fun is to be had when everyone is together in the same room. In that sense, the game is a bit dependent upon circumstance as to how much of its true potential you will be able to unlock. There are quick play modes and solo career modes to progress through in which you earn fans and money with which to purchase new outfits and instruments for your avatar musician who is actually on stage in the game. These are all very accessible, so it is possible to jump in and out of the game very quickly.
There is also the “Band World Tour” mode, in which you take your entire band through a long career, from small town beginnings to jet-setting Budokan-rock musical excess. For this mode your entire band needs to be present, or, at the very least, the person you have designated as the band leader – to ?kick out? band players who are not present to rock out and draft others who might be. In that sense this mode is a bit more involved, and requires a little commitment on the parts of everyone who wishes to participate.
I started a band of two featuring myself on guitar and my wife on drums, and while we make slow progress through the world tour mode, I can elect to take my guitarist and do a solo tour, or create new musicians and tackle other instruments and their associated game modes.
The character creation tool is also fairly flexible. I have managed to come up with credible look-alikes of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Jimi Hendrix, and Phil Lynott, while my wife made her own pop idol.
Rock Band is available as a disc only for $60, or with the full kit of instruments for $170. Harmonix is promising to get out individual instruments for purchase soon, but for now the only way to play the drums is to purchase the full set. Guitar controllers from other music games or third parties are compatible, or not as the case may be, though I do recommend the game?s own guitar over any others, because of the extra fret buttons high up the neck for soloing, and the effects switch which is used to turn on things like wah-wah and flange. Both of these are only present on the Rock Band guitar. For vocals, any USB mic should work.
This is a unique case in gaming, wherein the fun is largely what you make of it yourself. The song list is to my mind the one place people might take issue with the game, not because it is lacking in any way, but only because everyone will hate at least one song here, and at the same time wish for more songs by Band X; that is just the nature of being a music fan. However, if Harmonix continues to add content each week as they have been thus far, and makes good on the promise of full albums, then anyone?s concern over the song library should be eased. In the meantime, I eagerly await an announcement regarding color distribution of M&Ms, sure to be coming soon.