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.