Version tested: Xbox 360
First things first, we should all thank whatever combination of MTV, Harmonix and EA employees kept us from Rock Band for six months. European gamers crave misery, and we've been deprived of it recently: Halo 3, GTA IV and Meta Gear Solid 4 have all been given simultaneous worldwide release dates, and Nintendo has even released a few things here first, like Mario Kart Wii. That was unimaginable a few years ago, so being forced to wait six months for the most anticipated music game ever, pay twice what the Americans have to and only get it on one format is much more like it. We can properly despise that and moan about it forever. Thanks guys.
Rock Band is worth getting hot and bothered over, too. It's SingStar and Guitar Hero rolled into one with a "Drum Hero" sat in the corner hammering four pads and a foot-pedal. Since Europe's is an Xbox 360 exclusive for the time being, there are none of the irritating compatibility issues with old Guitar Hero peripherals that US PS3 owners had to complain about, either, so you can dust off your GH3 Les Paul and GH2 X-plorer and put them to work again. The idea, as you know, is to form a band with three of your friends and tour the virtual world playing classic songs like Nirvana's "In Bloom" and The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation".
Individually, the guitar, drums and vocal games could stand alone. Developer Harmonix didn't have to reinvent guitar gameplay, but it did have to change it a bit to differentiate it from Guitar Hero (despite having made that game in the first place - hurrah for big business). You still play the game by holding down one of five fret buttons on the plastic guitar neck and using the strum-bar to play notes as corresponding icons reach the bottom of a fretboard-shaped gameplay area on-screen, and you still build up star power (now called Overdrive) by completing highlighted sequences without error, activating the points-multiplying payoff by holding the neck aloft.
The whammy bar remains for bending notes, which accumulates points more rapidly when you're holding a note down. The main differences are that the Fender Stratocaster guitar has five smaller frets close to the guitar body, which can be played without strumming during hectic solo sequences, and the presence of a small effects-pedal switch on the guitar body for adjusting the sound.
Singing is similar to the PS3's SingStar: lyrics scroll left to right, and a small arrow moves up and down to reflect the pitch of your voice - the idea being to align it with what the real singer's doing. Matching the pitch during highlighted sequences builds up Overdrive, which you can activate by shouting when the background goes vomit-coloured. There are also passages where you bash the microphone head as if it were a tambourine. Drumming, finally, is closer to Guitar Hero: icons move down a fretboard and you drum the corresponding pads, hitting the foot-pedal when a broad horizontal orange line descends instead (or as well). Overdrive works in much the same way as it does with guitars.
The single-player modes are, amazingly, also a bit like Guitar Hero: you unlock tracks five at a time, with four difficulty levels to master. Songs are grouped differently for each instrument to reflect the relative difficulty of each part, so while drummers and vocalists get to sing "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer right away, guitarists won't see it until they unlock the third tier. Drumming is as intuitive as playing the guitar ever was (and remains), with practice modes to help conquer difficult tracks, and singers just have to match the pitch, meaning you can get away with some gymnastic humming if you don't know the words.
You won't want to play Rock Band on your own though. The single-player modes are fine next to Guitar Hero's or SingStar's, but they're shallow compared to the main event, Band World Tour. You and up to three friends create rock personas, picking out faces and customising physique with slider bars, and then you get to name your band. We spent at least half an hour debating this before we even started playing.
With that out of the way, you start playing small venues, one song at a time with the occasional two- or three-song set-list. The set-list concept works well, allowing you to pick from songs you've already unlocked, or downloadable content (Jonathan Coulton's "Still Alive" from Portal is free, incidentally, so grab that by default), while mystery set-lists give you a glimpse of tracks buried deeper in the game, including some of the nine songs added to the PAL version (which US gamers have to pay to download).
Playing with your friends takes a while (and a good bit of alcohol, you'll probably discover) to demonstrate its charms, but points-scoring intensifies when you go into Overdrive as a group, and it's possible to rescue band-members who get booed off by going into Overdrive quickly, so errors and inexperience aren't always fatal. Before long your drummer's juggling his wooden sticks and counting you in, the guitarist is stomping around the room during solos and the singer's able to pop to the fridge between verses, and a number of songs end on a climactic passage where you can scream, jam and hammer the drums without restraint before hitting a final note to end the song with a big rock climax bonus. There won't be too many songs you don't know, either. I'm generally considered a musical dunce in the office, but even I knew the words to around 20 songs, and recognised another dozen.
That said, you will come up against a few brick walls. The inclusion of two French and two German songs in the PAL extras, which pop up during mystery set-lists, is a nightmare for your lead singer, and set-lists require you to play through each song on the list at the difficulty you specified prior to the performance. If you end up with a third song you've never heard before, or something tricky like Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" or The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again", your previously cocksure guitarists and drummers may come unstuck in ways they haven't with other tracks at the same difficulty, forcing you to abandon the gig and retry from the beginning at a lower setting. And while the game fills out your band with made-up nobodies when you're down a member or two, some tracks are unsympathetic to duos; Aerosmith's "Train Kept A-Rollin'", for instance, traps the singer in a lengthy tambourine sequence while the guitarist struggles with a massive solo, and if the guitarist gets booed off there's no opportunity for the singer to save him with a stored Overdrive until it's too late.
Guitarists may also struggle with the Fender's strum-bar and solo frets. It's not just that we're used to RedOctane's clicking Guitar Hero strum-bar, although we are; the soft strumming of the Stratocaster makes it difficult to work out exactly when you're activating a note, leading two of Eurogamer's best Guitar Heroes to suspect calibration problems until they switched back to GH3's Gibson Les Paul, at which point the problem disappeared. And while the solo frets are a neat idea, moving your hand between them and the regular frets at speed generally results in at least a couple of missed notes or, worse, having to glance down at the guitar neck to reposition fingers. You don't see Slash doing that - although admittedly you wouldn't notice anyway because of his stupid hair.
These problems can be overcome, though. Less forgivable is the inability to switch your band leader to a different instrument. Others can just make a new character and play something else if they fancy a change of pace, but if you started the band and you're the singer, the singer you must remain. We understand that switching around isn't very rock n' roll, but we're playing a videogame, not posting demos to EMI and cursing NME for saying our gig was rubbish (and your gigs won't be rubbish - the grainy visuals, multiple camera angles and crowd singing along when you're nailing everything is a delight). Not being able to continue Band World Tour online is also disappointing - there are multiplayer modes for face-offs with single instruments, and a quick-play band mode, but progress can't be shared unless you're all in the same room.
More promising for Rock Band's long-term prospects is the music store, which acts as a shop-front for MTV's growing catalogue of downloadable songs. Maybe it's just us, but the quality ratio seems a bit low at the moment, despite the enormous volume (including two full albums - one from Judas Priest and one by The Cars), although the 54 licensed songs on the PAL disc and another 13 indie songs should last you a good while without too much repetition, and with downloadables offered at 160 Microsoft Points per track (GBP 1.36 / EUR 1.92 in real money) the asking price isn't too high.
Sadly though, that isn't something we were ever likely to say about the game overall. Even if you shop around, you're still unlikely to get any change from GBP 140, which is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a videogame and some plastic instruments, especially when the guitar is a poor substitute for the one you bought last year.
Assuming you can get by with the Xbox Live headset for vocals (although where's the fun in that?) and some Guitar Hero axes and just buy the drums and game, you're still going to pay upwards of 100 quid. People often ask us if we think price should be a factor in game reviews, and our answer's simple: it's worth mentioning if it's extraordinary. Rock Band is extraordinarily expensive.
As we put it when we reviewed the PS3 version on import last Christmas, it's the most ambitious music game ever, and in some ways that's more trouble than it's worth. Guitar Hero's success with a large, bespoke peripheral defied convention, but it didn't shatter it; getting people to buy a drum-set, new guitar, microphone and separate 40-quid game in the sort of numbers MTV and Harmonix want to be counting up to is still a task on the same scale as getting The Stone Roses back together. Or getting The Rolling Stones to go away. Asking us to spend all that money for a game that isn't that brilliant unless you've got two or more people in the same room is another thing entirely.
We do recommend Rock Band - it's outrageous, hilarious and memorable, and the best four-players-on-one-screen multiplayer game since GoldenEye - but you shouldn't buy it until you've thought long and hard about what else you could spend the money on. If you're talking about spending 100 quid on Xbox 360 games, there are plenty of three- or four-game combinations that represent stunning value by comparison, and as long as Rock Band's priced the way it is now, that's the yardstick by which it has to be measured. If after all that you're still ready to rock, we salute you.
8 / 10