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.