Version tested: PC
This Isn't Spinal Tap, But It's As Close As You Can Get Without Infringing Someone's Copyright
Rock Manager is not a game that takes itself seriously. Over the course of its eight scant missions you'll get to turn the tone deaf daughter of a Russian mobster into a star, manage a pair of feuding brothers who bear more than a passing resemblance to Oasis, take a past their prime heavy metal band on one last world tour, and send a scientifically manufactured pop band's sales into orbit (literally) with a tune that sounds like a cross between a Eurovision Song Contest entry and the Hamster Dance song. The first few missions ease you into the swing of things, starting you off with access to only a few key buildings in your home town of Rock City and introducing you to the basics of the game. Most missions will begin with you taking control of an existing band or singer, although you can hire and fire artists ranging from cheap talentless punks to arrogant overpaid pop divas, each with their own needs, tastes and talents .. or lack thereof. Your next task will be to sign a licensing deal to get hold of a song (most of Rock City's musicians can't write their own apparently) and then head over to a studio to record it. This is where the real fun begins, as you find yourself faced with a mixing desk which allows you to adjust the relative volumes of your band members (or mute them entirely and replace them with session musicians if they're really bad), pan them left and right and add echo, flanger or phaser effects. Each part of a song (apart from the vocals) has three variations to choose from as well, allowing you to sometimes drastically change the sound of a song by altering the drumbeat, bass riff, guitar style or keyboard backing. As each musician will play a song in a slightly different style anyway (forcing a heavy metal band to play a pop song is always good for a laugh), the possibilities are almost endless.
Once you've recorded your demo it's time to go round Rock City's publishers and get a contract. Each company has different tastes, and you soon realise that there's usually only one or two publishers in town that will like the kind of music your band is making, however good it is. Still, you do get some choice in the matter and you can also decide on how you get your cash - high royalty rates might pay off in longer missions if you have a sure-fire hit on your hands, but accepting a lower percentage will earn you a bigger advance, which can be valuable when it comes to promoting your band. Handling (or simply bribing) the media is an important part of the game, and you'll need to learn who you can buy off with expensive gifts and who will take it as an insult to their journalistic integrity. Press kits can be handed out to get air time on the local radio station and earn reviews from the local newspaper and magazine as well, but this isn't always a good idea if your band sucks or one of the local hacks has taken a dislike to you. Sometimes the press will even approach you, asking for an exclusive interview or TV debate, which can be great publicity but can also backfire if the writer decides to portray your band as lazy slobs trying to screw over their fans for a bigger pay cheque. A safer bet is buying advertising space from the press or sponsoring window displays and listening posts at the local record store. In later missions you can also take advantage of Sergey's shadowy services to fix the sales charts, spread scandalous gossip about band members and hire bodyguards to keep the media and overenthusiastic fans at a distance. Not all musicians (or record labels for that matter) will approve of this kind of activity though, which can cause problems.
Another way of raising interest in your band (and earning some much needed cash without resorting to a personal loan from Sergey that could end up costing you an arm and a leg) is to organise a gig at one of the city's watering holes. Again though, different venues have different tastes in music, which means that you're often limited to playing the same two clubs over and over again in any particular mission. If your band gets really big you might even consider a world tour, although this is rarely a sensible option. For starters you'll need to have a lot of cash in the bank to pay for the travel expenses and an extravagant stage design, which can include anything from laser shows and walls of TV screens to giant lighting rigs and smoke generators. You'll also need to be able to get several thousands punters to part with their money at each gig along the way to earn back the hefty booking fees for big overseas stadiums. Not to mention the fact that you could find yourself flying home early if one of your musicians gets burnt out or pissed off mid-tour and decides to pack it in. Your band will need to be in top form, fully rested, loaded up with booze, and grinning from ear to ear under a pile of presents the size of your speaker stacks to survive a gruelling global tour and make it back to Rock City in one piece.
Keeping your band happy is one of the most time consuming and often least satisfying parts of the job. The easiest way to do this is to keep them pumped up with alcohol and shower them with gifts like designer shades, leather trousers and games consoles. The effects vary from musician to musician, but the overall approach is much the same in almost every case. Some artists are more temperamental than others, and at times this can be the sole focus of a mission, keeping the gobshite Gollander brothers from beating each other up, for example, or protecting a shy musician from the prying press long enough for him to finish his album. In other missions it's merely a distraction, such as stopping an annoying girlfriend from coming between members of a heavy metal band in a rather obvious homage to Spinal Tap. But usually keeping your band happy is simply a case of keeping the booze flowing, making sure their gigs are successful, and occasionally throwing them a trinket or sending them off on holiday. If things get out of hand you can always send them into rehab for a few days to recover. It's at times like this that you wish the developers had included an option to put your musicians on an intravenous alcohol drip and save you the trouble of frantically clicking on their portrait at the top of the screen every few days to keep them bevvied up.
And this is Rock Manager's biggest problem - the characters, songs and scenarios are varied and the humour mostly spot on, but the underlying gameplay is rather repetitive. Once you've mastered the basics of the game it's easy to work your way through all eight missions in two or three hours flat. The lack of any open-ended sandbox mode for you to just mess around in limits the replay value, and once you've finished the game all you can do is go back and try to get a higher score, or monkey around forcing a group of punks to play dance music. With a mid-range £20 price tag it's not unreasonable, but like the manufactured pop bands it lampoons, Rock Manager is fun but ultimately a little shallow and short-lived.
7 / 10