Band Hero has long been lurking at the bottom of the Activision Blizzard release list in perplexing proximity to the more self-explanatory DJ Hero and Guitar Hero brands, but until last week I had absolutely no idea what it was. It doesn't take much power of deduction to conclude that it's another peripheral-based music game, but why? Surely that could only serve to dilute the Guitar Hero brand? I'm not sure how many more plastic instruments my flat can hold. I can count seven guitars without even exaggerating for comic effect.
Activision believes that there's a section of the market that grungy, 'tude-packing Guitar Hero doesn't cover, though, and that's girls and families. The best way to describe Band Hero is as a pop version of Guitar Hero 5. The peripherals and interface are the same, but the tracklist looks like a female student's drunken SingStar download history - Maroon 5, Spice Girls, Avril Lavigne - and the characters and venues have all been given a colourful, family-friendly pop makeover.
If the worlds 'family-friendly pop makeover' in connection with Guitar Hero struck fear deep into your heart there, you're not alone. I was quite convinced that Band Hero was going to be a heartbreakingly cynical, focus-group-determined bastardisation of my favourite game series of all time, dressing Johnny Napalm and Lars Umlaut up in boy-band t-shirts and jeans and having them sing Robbie Williams like monkeys dressed in tutus and forced into a grotesque facsimile of ballet. The horror. Thankfully it's not like that - it's actually a valid expansion of the brand, with enough new ideas to justify its place on the shelves and distance it from Guitar Hero. Particularly, it does some innovative things with DS/Wii connectivity, a feature which developers to date have completely neglected.
On the PS2, PS3, 360 and Wii, Band Hero is built on the Guitar Hero 5 engine, but made super-accessible. You can jump straight into a random song in no-fail mode with any combination of instruments from the title screen without even having to go through any menus. In addition to all the quickplay and career modes you'd expect, there's a singalong mode which dispenses with scoring altogether, temporarily turning it into a casual karaoke game.
It's a feature that would be pretty redundant in any other music game - why pay money for plastic instruments if you're not going to play them, after all - but the 65 songs on the Band Hero disc are all vocals-focused chart-topping hits. There's nothing to excite rhythm-action gamers who prefer playing instruments to singing, but then the game isn't aimed at them. The DLC will be cross-compatible with Guitar Hero 5, though, so you can download a guilty pleasure or two from the Band Hero selection without buying the disc.
On the DS, Band Hero is compatible with existing Guitar Hero DS grips and also comes with a smart silicone sleeve that transforms the face buttons into four drum pads. Apart from the long-forgotten Daigassou! Band Brothers - which was supposed to materialise as Jam with the Band in the West, but never did - it's the first full band game for the handheld. It supports guitar, bass, drums and vocals through the DS microphone. The peripherals don't fit the DSi, which makes it incompatible with the game, but with 82 million DS Lites in the world Activision doesn't seem too worried about that. More troubling is the lack of any single-cart multiplayer at all; for the full band experience, you need four copies of Band Hero, which would cost almost as much as a set of Rock Band instruments
Most interestingly, Vicarious Visions is taking advantage of the DS and Wii's inexplicably neglected connectivity for those versions of the game. Without the need for a game card, the DS can function as a setlist editor - so people who aren't playing can choose and rearrange songs whilst waiting their turn, like a karaoke touch-screen. It'll also show stats from the current song, like the difficulty and each player's performance data. As a way of keeping people involved when they're not performing, it makes a lot of sense.
There's also a four-player Wii/DS multiplayer mode for cartless download called Roadie Battle. Two guitarists can play head-to-head on the Wii whilst two players with DSes play a series of frantic mini-games trying to sabotage each other's equipment; unscrewing things from amps, setting things on fire, cutting strings, switching wires around. That all has an effect on what's happening on the Wii screen, turning on lefty flip or making the notes flash crazily like in GH's sometimes-detestable Battle mode. The guitar players then have to shout instructions at the roadies telling them what to fix, and the DS players have to split their time between sabotage and repairing. Vicarious Visions sees it as a way of, for instance, involving parents who'll happily play games with their kids but can't get to grips with plastic guitars.
The game plays exactly like Guitar Hero, which means that there's absolutely nothing to complain about. Band Hero won't be plagued with the basic problems that less scrupulous rip-off music games suffer from, like terrible note charts or a stupid interface. By using the Guitar Hero engine, Band Hero ensures a measure of familiarity, but the track selection and general attitude couldn't be further removed. It's a clever attempt at expanding the music-game audience beyond the college boys and mid-thirties men with whom Rock Band and Guitar Hero's music selection strikes a chord.
Band Hero is certainly a canny product. Anyone whose rhythm-action needs are already well-served by Rock Band and Guitar Hero would be tempted to dismiss it as a shallow cash-in attempt, but that's not a fair assessment. It identifies a huge section of the primarily Wii and DS-owning market that isn't already buried in excellent rhythm-action games, but unlike other worthless band game shovelware on those platforms, it's a quality, well-thought-through release that has the gameplay depth to match its hard-rocking stablemates, if not the soundtrack.
Band Hero is due out for DS, PS2, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 in November.