This isn't the first family-friendly reskin of a popular rhythm-action game we've seen this month. Band Hero gave Guitar Hero 5 a glittery pink-and-purple makeover and a soundtrack of cheerily meaningless pop in a rather-too-calculated approach to broadening the plastic-instrument market to women and families. The new look was cynical, yes, but what really let it down was a tracklist that was in no way suited to Guitar Hero's gameplay or instruments. Nobody wants to play along to the keyboard in a Spice Girls track on a plastic guitar.
LEGO Rock Band doesn't make the same mistakes. It's just as derivative as Band Hero, but many times as likeable, and the music and gameplay are still perfectly compatible. The style, as with all the LEGO games thus far, is adorable - so adorable that it makes you wish you could import all your Rock Band 2 tracks and adopt it as the default option. Who wants grainy camera effects and earnest-looking frontmen with pink-and-black emovers when you can have LEGO Bryan May?
Importantly, though, it isn't just a reskin. Besides the presentation, things have been tweaked a little to make classic Rock Band gameplay friendlier to under-socialised narcissists with non-existent attention spans (i.e. children). It's impossible to fail a song - you just get fewer LEGO studs as a reward for completing it. Even if you do fail out and lose studs, you can play a 'recovery phrase' and get them all back again. Rock Band has had a no-fail option for a while, of course, but now you don't need to bother nipping into a menu to activate it.
There's a new Super Easy difficulty setting, too, in which you just have to strum, hit a drum pad or scream "GHOSTBUSTERS GHOSTBUSTERS AAAAH GHOSTBUSTERS" into a microphone for three minutes without worrying about actual notes or pitch. There's also an automatic setting for the drum's bass pedal to help out tiny musicians who are too short to hit anything but the pads. Lastly, you can play shortened versions of songs in Free Play instead of the full four-minute Experience, but unfortunately the editing is horrible. Songs just suddenly cut out before a chorus or solo instead of being properly cropped.
The tour is different as well. It's been renamed Story mode and is now punctuated by whimsical LEGO cut-scenes and special gigs called Rock Challenges, which have you fighting octopuses or banishing ghosts or tearing a house down with the power of rock. The cut-scenes would be worth a playthrough all on their own were it not for the enormous repetition. You must play the same songs over and over and over again in different venues until you'll be ready to tear Good Charlotte's spiky heads off with your bare hands, if you weren't already.
Rock Band has always had this problem, forcing you to play in your safe zone for ages rather than letting you try new songs at will, but LEGO Rock Band's relatively meagre 45-strong tracklist exacerbates the problem. The small selection of songs means that the repetition is just as bad towards the end of the tour as it is at the beginning.
The Rock Den is the hub from which you can buy new vehicles, access new gigs, watch old cut-scenes, customise your band or hire new tour staff in Story mode. It increases the number of loading screens between you and a song, which is never a good thing, but you can decorate it with things that you earn throughout the tour - teensy LEGO guitars, plants, signs for the walls, couches, speaker sets, all sorts. In true LEGO tradition, there's an overwhelming amount of stuff to unlock, buy or collect as you complete gigs - everything from lovingly-created LEGO-fied guitars to special wall signs for the rock den to plants and sofas to decorate the TV-viewing area. The initially tiny selection of different LEGO heads, bodies and hair with which to customise your band and entourage also broadens with each completed venue.
Despite all this new stuff, LEGO Rock Band is still Rock Band 2 in every significant way. To the extent that this is just a reskin, though, it's a lovely one. It's bright, slapstick and unselfconsciously funny. The scrolling notes now have little LEGO studs on them. The energetic stage shows are full of humour and personality. The presentation is a universal success, managing to retain both Rock Band's passionate rock 'n' roll sexiness and the LEGO games' innocent charm - you want to hug the tiny performers rather than throw pants at them, but this is supposed to be family-friendly after all.
Guest appearances from LEGO Blur, Queen, Bowie and Iggy Pop are absolutely brilliant, though their songs cannot be played as part of a setlist because they insist on their own custom venues. You can't use them for any songs other than their own, either, or recruit LEGO Bryan May and LEGO Damon Albarn to your LEGO rock supergroup. Presumably everyone's trying their utmost to avoid another Kurt-Cobain-singing-Bring-the Noize-on-Youtube scandal, the boring so-and-sos.
The tracklist itself has as much stuff for parents as it does for kids. It's an unusual selection - Elton John next to KoRn, KT Tunstall a few strums away from Bryan Adams, P!nk, Ghostbusters and Vampire Weekend in the same setlist - but undeniably varied. You can import the tracks into Rock Band 2 for 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80 / about two London pints), but it doesn't work the other way around. You can, however, play download tracks from the store or play ones you've already bought as long as they pass a family-friendly filter. God only knows what the criteria for 'family-friendly' are, though - a quick poke around the DLC store didn't really enlighten me, as Iron Maiden and Tenacious D are still there and I couldn't figure out what, if anything, was gone.
The tracklist is up to scratch, then, and can reasonably be called 'rock' in all but a few cases, but it's rather short by modern standards at 45 songs. In the end, this is LEGO Rock Band's only real problem; it feels like half a game. I love the presentation, but aside from the kid-friendly gameplay tweaks, LEGO Rock Band doesn't offer much as a standalone release and is more of a quirky track pack than anything else. There's no online play whatsoever, too, and no extra challenges outside of Story mode's tour.
It's difficult to be cutting about a game this energetic and adorable, but LEGO Rock Band is ultimately as pointless as it is lovable. It strips out a few of Rock Band 2's features and half the setlist and still charges you the same money. It's a more accessible, less fully-featured and cutely presented version of a great game, but once you factor in the track transfer fee, it's a £40 track-pack with some LEGO cut-scenes. For younger kids, though, it's brilliant, and the tracklist and visuals will probably make you smile almost as much as them, even if the price-tag makes you wince.
7 / 10