Version tested: PlayStation 3
Are you ready to rock? Again? With more peripherals? Of course you are. But is it as good as it obviously should be?
Rock Band is the most ambitious music game ever. You can sing, you can play guitar and you can drum, but most importantly you can get some friends round and do all three at once - with a fourth role for a bass player if you decide to buy a second guitar peripheral.
The initial reaction is that each discipline could stand up as its own game. Guitar-playing is a natural evolution of Guitar Hero: you still hold the fret button specified and strum as it passes through a bar at the bottom of the screen, and you can build up star power (sorry, "Overdrive") by playing certain sequences of highlighted notes flawlessly and then holding the neck aloft. But now you can also drop your left hand to a quintet of smaller frets closer to the body of the guitar to dance your fingers through complicated solos, and occasionally songs end with an unscripted finale that encourages you to cram in as much thrashing as possible before ending on a particular chord.
Vocals, meanwhile, replicate the SingStar approach. As lyrics scroll past, an undulating line illustrates the pitch and rhythm and a small arrow indicates whether you're above or below it as you croon into the bundled microphone. Unlike SingStar, though, you're sometimes asked to tap the microphone head at specified intervals as though it were a tambourine, and you're able to activate a points-multiplier by shouting during periods of inactivity.
Inevitably the drums are the biggest novelty. Most people who splurge the USD 170 on Rock Band (the UK price is still to be determined) will have experienced Guitar Hero, and if not SingStar then probably Karaoke Revolution, but games like DrumMania are still Japanese-only oddities for console owners and fleeting pleasures for people who still brave the arcades. Rock Band supplies a four-pad drum-set with a kick-pedal, and offers a Guitar Hero-esque control system: as icons move down a familiar fret-bar, you smash the corresponding drum in time, reaching for the kick-pedal when faced with a yellow line under all four frets.
Played alone, there's a solo mode for each instrument, where you unlock songs in groups of five, and in a nice touch Harmonix has arranged the tracks in a different order for each discipline, reflecting the differing scales of difficulty. Played co-operatively with one, two or three other people, however, the screen fills comfortably with displays and the performance is more satisfying for its multiple facets. You feed off each other's energy during verses and choruses, strutting and grinning as spells of inactivity provide an opportunity to observe your band-mates caning plastic.
The track listing is unsurprisingly epic and crowd-pleasing. You might expect that from music industry super-giant MTV, which now owns developer Harmonix, but if your comparison is Guitar Hero then the reason is simpler than a change of pay-scales: these are songs designed to appeal whatever the instrument, rather than guitar specialties. There are 45 licensed tracks in the box, along with 13 bonus songs of less repute, and you're unlikely to encounter a friend who doesn't smile at more than a few. Radiohead, Bowie, Nirvana, the Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Metallica, The Pixies, Weezer, Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi - most are huge names, and even the contemporary choices are pretty well judged, including the likes of OK Go and The Killers.
As usual, there's a scale of difficulty that should open the game up to anyone. Plastic-guitarists with experience can go straight to Hard or Expert and rip through power-chords and complicated solos, and the SingStar-esque reliance on pitch and rhythm rather than specific octaves opens that side of the game up considerably too. New-coming drummers may need more time to adjust, but there are sensible concessions there too: the kick-pedal is important to learn quickly, but the game initially plays to the beginner's natural impulse to combine a foot movement with a drumming motion, leaving room for improvement.
If your intention is to form a group with your friends and play together regularly, then Rock Band is simply brilliant. Band World Tour, where Harmonix has spent most of its time, allows you to assemble in your living room and tour a virtual world, creating custom rock personas, playing in dozens of venues and building up fan-base, cash and rewards. It uses specific challenges, double-or-nothing sets and unpredictable playlists to keep things interesting.
It also does a good job of getting you to play together. There are team Overdrives, Unity Phrases that involve everyone perfecting a sequence at once (except the vocalist, who can mop brows or spark up a Marlboro or something), and Overdrive can also be used to rescue team-mates. Sorry, band mates. You ride together, you die together. Especially since you can't continue to make progress after a certain point unless everyone (including the rubbish drummer) has graduated to a higher difficulty level. Practice is the order of the day, and practice together is best, since you often benefit from mapping out where best to use Overdrive.
As usual, the crowd goes wild in the background as you play (and even sings along nowadays when you're doing particularly well), and while Harmonix obviously couldn't re-use Guitar Hero's charming visual style, the alternative proposed here is classy and likeable. Characters have the same customisability, and background stage shows are more detailed - presented in slightly grainy fashion, with lots of neat visual flourishes like a body-mounted guitar view to frame finger movements. Venues and characters compare favourably to the developer's earlier work, and the loading screen slogans are no longer played for laughs, instead offering trivia. There are only so many Spinal Tap quotes you can use, after all.
It's worth pointing out, for all that, that you can't actually take Band World Tour online, meaning that you will need to shelve your band whenever your friends can't come over unless you're happy to play individual co-op songs over the Internet. Apparently there will be a patch for online Band World Tour, but that's not much use right now. So that's a bit irritating. What's more, you can't simply pick up the game and play any track as a group until you've unlocked them - either in Band World Tour or one of the solo modes - which limits the game's appeal as a casual party activity until you've done so. On the plus side, any cash you amass with solo work can be carried over to the Band World Tour mode.
But it's the individual peripherals and their implementations that throw the most spanners into Rock Band's hefty works. Most notably, each instrument requires its own USB slot, so PS3 players who bought the revised console with only two USB ports will need to invest in a USB hub to plug everything in, whereas Xbox 360 owners will not because one is supplied. The microphone gameplay suffers from the SingStar-esque "features" of allowing you to get away with singing anything (not such a bad thing, admittedly, since you'll want to substitute "very" for "f***ing" during Radiohead's Creep) and asking you to elongate words robotically when you'd naturally let them taper off.
The guitar, in this case, is based on the Fender Stratocaster (Guitar Hero controllers are modelled on Gibsons). The key differences are size (the neck is about 10 centimetres longer), an effects pickup switch (allowing you to switch between wah-wah, flange, chorus, echo or no effects, although this is little more than a gimmick) and the five additional fret buttons, but there are other things to note too. On PS3 the guitar is wireless with a USB dongle attached to the console, but on Xbox 360 it's wired; the battery compartment is screwed closed rather than a TV remote-style clip as with Guitar Hero III's Les Paul, and takes three AA batteries rather than two; and while you can add a second guitar to bring in a bass player, at the time of writing Harmonix has yet to issue a PS3 patch to enable compatibility with Guitar Hero's controller, claiming that Activision is blocking it (360 is fine), and the Fender is only sold as part of the bundle, not separately.
The fret buttons themselves are smooth rather than raised ala Guitar Hero, but they also feel stickier, and it's hard to move between them and those closer to the body for solos without missing a few notes in and around the solo section due to their relative lack of definition. Given how dense the solos often are with notes, fumbling that transition can be painful. Raised dots on each fret are meant to help you feel for them instinctively, but they're a bit small to rely on, whereas Guitar Hero's raised frets are inherently better at announcing themselves to your fingers without a sideways glance.
Perhaps the biggest difference though is the strum bar, which doesn't click when it's moved up and down as with the Guitar Hero controller - a change which requires adjustment on the part of the player. Guitar Heroes used to strumming up and down alternately will probably do alright, but those still relying on repeated downward strums may find themselves failing where they succeed in Guitar Hero, as the softer strum bar reaction can lead to your absently not allowing it to reset to the middle fully before strumming again. Other elements, like the whammy bar, are just as effective, and the ability to re-screw the strap attachment for left-handers rather than pinning the strap to the back of the neck as you do on the Les Paul is nice, but it seems odd to demand adjustments when it's the same developer. Perhaps patents were problematic.
Either way, Guitar Hero devotees will want to bear these things in mind. Another cause for their concern is the difficulty level, which is certainly lower than GH3's. Some will applaud that - we're certainly not bemoaning the accessibility - but given Harmonix's expertise, again, it seems odd not to scale higher as well as lower.
The drums are great, at least. You can adjust the height, reverse them for left-handers (and move the kick-pedal across the frame underneath depending on which foot you use), and while the combination of rubber pads and foam below doesn't give them much bounce, complaints are likely to be few, apart from the odd newbie whose foot will hurt until they find a comfortable position. The drumsticks themselves are splendid, too - quite light, but wooden and decidedly realistic.
But in-game the drum-set's implementation can be a bit lacklustre. Whereas guitars and vocals are pushed high in the mix, drums are not, which makes it difficult to pick your way past unexpected syncopation and other awkward passages. Fortunately the game comes with a practice mode for each instrument, but greater separation and tutelage might have been welcomed.
So, there are certainly criticisms relating to the structure and some peripheral quirks (not to mention reliability concerns, although Harmonix claims these have been solved in subsequent production runs), and the usual subjective arguments about track listings, but on the whole we're talking about growing pains. You can make the argument that a lack of single-player strength and diversity is galling - and I'd second the argument that a single-player Band World Tour mode would make sense, particularly as two- or three-player bands are filled out with AI band-mates anyway - but on the whole you wouldn't buy this unless you knew what it was about, right?
As it stands, the score below reflects the game as a brilliant multiplayer experience that delivers on its ambitious premise, but not without a few reservations both in software and hardware. Karaoke and guitar specialists certainly won't want to throw out their SingStars and Guitar Heroes, but with the peripheral set-up now established and regular infusions of downloadable content, the future's bright for Rock Band - and the present's pretty rocking too.
8 / 10