Version tested: Xbox 360
Harmonix may have dragged us to the peak of novelty mountain with Rock Band and its drum kit, guitar and microphone combination, but as we all lay around at the top coming to terms with the thin air (and even thinner wallets), things became awkward. The Tour mode was offline-only, and effectively restricted you to playing the main mode only when your whole band was around, which is either dimwitted or conceited depending on your point of view. As for the instruments, the guitar strum bar was dreadful, the drums' foot-pedal was made of matchsticks, and in-game the lead guitar was too easy and the bass guitar too boring. Plus, of course, online play was limited to one-offs. And it rained.
In hindsight, it's amazing we liked it as much as we did, but the gameplay drove every player into self-absorbed rock fantasy, and with its cunning multi-part "Overdrive" sequences - where each player enacts a bonus modifier accumulated separately - and an interesting blend of rock sub-genres and eras, many bands found themselves in a shared zone of pitched concentration, where the notes and flourishes escaped through the fingers before conscious thoughts had time to catch up. Harmonix long ago mastered the way these games work - having the player react to prompts that descend from the top of the screen, with the exception of the vocal line, which owed more to SingStar and Karaoke Revolution - and had no difficulty articulating its vision on the screen.
For Rock Band 2, however, that wasn't going to be enough. Activision is fighting back with Guitar Hero: World Tour, due out next month with an array of - at least to our eyes and limited finger access - more impressive peripherals, a towering tracklist and a number of interesting new ideas, including a music studio. Rock Band 2 can't very well revolutionise its peripherals, so the core software has to be pitch perfect, eliminating every flaw, nailing the tracklist and offering up a few special surprises to justify a full game purchase to existing fans already partly sated by premium DLC downloads.
Of course, the fact the disc contains 84 songs - with 20 more promised as free DLC later this year - is a good start, and the selection is very agreeable, including a new single from Guns N' Roses, and classics from The Guess Who, Nirvana, Beck, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, The Who, Steve Miller Band, Smashing Pumpkins and Bob Dylan. We didn't recognise all of the 84 by name, but many of them turned out to be songs we knew, or had heard, and it's hard to think of one that came up during gameplay that we disliked.
In the original Tour mode in Rock Band 1, the band's vocalist was the one who suffered the most for a lack of musical knowledge, but, as well as physically swapping the microphone to somebody who does know the track, it's also possible to switch instruments in-game for Rock Band 2, allowing you to continue with your custom character and gamertag on a new toy, and while bands are owned by their creator's profile, you can access and play in them whether that's active or not. It can all still be a bit fiddly, but this is more to do with the way Xbox 360 is designed than anything.
Even so, it's clear Rock Band 2 has been designed to be more accessible. Another big benefit is that the main Tour mode, which unlocks all the songs, can be played through by a single player, so even if your band-mates aren't around - as seems likely some of the time - you can explore and experience the game's most charismatic content without them. With or without friends, you can move between a huge range of venues, with multiple songs open at any time and a load of mystery setlists to tackle. These also integrate DLC songs, and for a one-off fee of 400 Microsoft Points (GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80) it's possible to import 55 songs from the original Rock Band, which will also appear in mystery lists, giving the Tour mode a potentially enormous soundtrack. And if for some reason you are on your own, now you can play on Xbox Live, either with friends or randomers.
Otherwise, Tour mode itself hasn't evolved particularly - you still work your way around the US with your custom characters, smiling at load screens with band-name bumper stickers and ticking off Achievements, and occasionally pausing to tackle a challenge posed by the developer, such as performing a random song as part of a 'video shoot', adding a drum-heavy song to your set to impress a potential sponsor, or gambling your earnings or the amount of fans you'll retain on your performance. Eventually you buy a jet and take off around the world, and this time you can hire people to support your band, who act as passive modifiers to your earnings and fanbase, among other things. There are minor irritations here (the occasional challenge claims it applies to a song and then spans five, multiplying success or failure rather unexpectedly), but it's generally sound.
The umbrella Tour mode also encompasses Challenges and Battle of the Bands elements. Challenges are increasingly difficult setlists with different themes and requirements - a bias towards bass, a two-member minimum, or a fondness for a particular artist - and these again take in DLC and imported songs, with more and more unlocked as you complete each. Battle of the Bands, meanwhile, pits you against groups from around the world, generating a comparable multiplayer score (even despite differences in band line-up depth) for your performance during a particular set. This can be played as often as you want, in order to try and ride up the leaderboard, and new BotB challenges are set daily. BotB challenges also make it impossible to fail by missing a bunch of notes, so everyone can reach the end of the song - and this "No Fail" modification is actually a toggle available as an extra for general play, along with a few unlockable others.
If that sounds a bit wimpy, you'll be pleased to hear that Rock Band fans who felt the original game's difficulty levels were out of whack are also appeased, with an "Expert" guitar level finally worthy of the name, while the bass is now an entertaining instrument to play (less flamboyant than lead, but more capable of driving you into the zone thanks to its escalating "Bass Groove" multiplier), and the drums are still thrilling, with a special Drum Trainer section (for which you can even drum along to your own MP3s) to help newcomers over the hump. Vocalists still have fun too. The scoring is a bit suspect here and there, but it's worth it for every time you get to sing "Livin' on a Prayer" or "White Wedding".
Finally, then, we come to the new instruments, but at this stage they're not really in our thoughts - and not least because we couldn't import them in time. Having played with the new guitar at E3, we know the strum bar's better, but we still prefer the wireless Guitar Hero III controller, and the same event also gave us a sense of the quieter, wireless drum-set, with a new foot-pedal that's less likely to shatter at the first sign of a foot. We'll take a closer look at those when the game's out here.
What's most impressive about Rock Band 2, though, is that it doesn't have to trade on the novelty of new instruments this time. More or less every concern and complaint we had about the original game has been addressed, the new tracklist is very much to our taste (with 20 more free songs to come, remember), and with the rebalancing of difficulty, modes like Battle of the Bands and the No Fail modifier and Drum Trainer, Harmonix has completed the awkward job of broadening the game's appeal at both ends of the skill spectrum successfully. It's an excellent, measured sequel that should appeal to all.
9 / 10