Rock Band 2 Review

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Rock Band 2 Publisher: MTV Games and Electronic Arts
Developer: Harmonix (MTV Games)

Platforms: Xbox 360, (PlayStation 3, Wii and PlayStation 2 versions will be released shortly)
Reviewed on Xbox360

Music game fans that happen to have an Xbox 360 are the lucky recipients of this holiday season's first salvo in the ongoing music game war. With the release of Guitar Hero World Tour still more than a month off, Microsoft has scored a coup with Rock Band 2, the follow-up to last year's ambitious guitar/bass/drum/singing simulator. (Versions for the PS2, PS3, and Wii are scheduled for later this year.) This is really more of a patch than it is a brand new game, but it does nearly everything right, and the set list (all master tracks) makes the price of entry more than worth it.

Kevin Rice

A New Axe To Grind

Without going into how this genre works, Rock Band 2 will look and play in an instantly familiar fashion. A whopping 84 songs are included (nine of which must be unlocked through the game's career mode) and, in a battle of one-upmanship, there's a coupon included in the game for another 20 downloadable songs for free. Those songs are not yet available, and the list of those songs is still a mystery. The official website says they are "coming soon". Regardless, it's designed to compete with the next Guitar Hero, that includes a "measly" 85 songs on the disc. On top of that, all of your downloadable content (DLC) from the first Rock Band will automatically load itself into your set list on the new version, and is available from the start. DLC is a major strength of the Rock Band franchise, and it doesn't appear that will end anytime soon.

Another important update is that if you already have the plastic instruments, they will work, regardless of what game they were designed for. My girlfriend and I prefer the Guitar Hero guitars, and we use both a wired and wireless version when playing together without issues. Nearly any USB microphone will work as well, and the original Rock Band drums are fine. (Activision has stated that the same is true for the upcoming Guitar Hero game, although it's not out and that assertion can't be tested yet.) This is extremely welcome news for those of us that have been playing these games for the past few years. I have six plastic guitars, a plastic drum kit, and two plastic microphones. I'd probably need to move if I purchased more.

Finally, the set list is as diverse as it is playable. There are plenty of classics on here from Fleetwood Mac to Bob Dylan, as well as more modern rock from Modest Mouse, AFI, and Jimmy Eat World, as well as everything in between, such as Devo, The Muffs ("Kids in America"), and the Go-Gos. The music is always going to boil down to personal preference, and there are a few stinkers in here. Interpol's "PDA" is a boring study of eighth notes. The Lybians' "Welcome to the Neighborhood" is an audio description of everything wrong with modern retro-punk. Squeeze's "Cool for Cats" and Beastie Boys' "What'cha Want" are fine, but just don't translate well into the game's format. For the most part, however, the set list has something for everyone, and the new ability to quickly set up set lists lets everyone get what they want without the hassle of multiple menu hops.

New Hairdos And Venues

The game's graphics have always leaned slightly more toward the realistic side than the competition, and not much has been done to change that. Most of the original venues return (along with a few new places to travel), albeit with better filters, textures, and lighting. There's an included migraine-inducing level of control over nearly every aspect of your character(s), although it's entirely optional. It's not just a few hairdos and some different tops and pants. You can go wild with band logos, tattoos, makeup, and so on, or you can just use the built-in stuff and be fine. These cosmetic changes have no effect on the game, although every little change you make is actually used in the game while you're playing. You spent an hour on your band's logo? Great, now it's on a giant banner and the bass drum. You gave yourself a little devil tattoo? At some point, the camera will show you with it onstage. Again, this is all cosmetic, but it's an incredible level of customization that's not usually found in a game like this.

There are also some new ways to go through the game. The solo player, for example, is no longer forced to play one song at a time. Soloists get the same gigs, challenges, and venues as bands with multiple members. Bands with multiple members can swap members in and out at will, and you can have four members in four different countries if you want (assuming you use Xbox Live). You can even continue the band's career without all of the players around (you know, time differences and all) and they can rejoin without missing a beat. In other words, the annoying "band leader" thing is gone, and your band is available whenever you want it.

There are some management options this time around, although they are basically a veneer that determines the sort of challenges you'll be offered. For example, you can pick the fanboys that love your band for whatever reason, and they'll become the street corner barker, plastering signage and stickers for your band everywhere. This means you'll receive more of the "If you play this gig and average four stars, you'll get two times as many fans!" types of random challenges. You can go the other route and get a corporate suit to do your booking, and you'll end up with more money-based challenges at the cost of fewer fans. It doesn't alter the set list that you'll ultimately play, but it's a nice touch. Some people want all the money so they can get all the crazy clothes, instruments, etc., while others stay more conventional but have massive fan bases. It's nothing monumental, but it's a fun diversion, and you can swap out management at any point you like.

Streaming Into The Nightmare

As previously mentioned, the game will be instantly familiar if you've played Guitar Hero or Rock Band before, but there are some nice new features. As the notes stream toward you, you'll notice that the notes that can be HOPOed (Hammered On or Pulled Off without needing to strum) are very noticeably smaller than regular notes that must be strummed. Additionally (and very early on), you'll notice that full chords can now be HOPOed, a very welcome change. (Some of those chord changes are hard enough without timing the strum as well.)

Between Rock Band and Guitar Hero, the prior is definitely geared toward more of a party atmosphere. Where Guitar Hero goes toward technical difficulty and precision, Rock Band veers strongly toward the easier side of things. That's not to say you will breeze through this, as there are still around a dozen or so songs that are very difficult to get through, much less master, but that leaves the vast majority of the songs imminently playable, even for more casual players. There's even a "no fail" mode where – you guessed it – you cannot fail a song. This is great for parties where there's a mix of experienced players and those that are newcomers. (Note that my girlfriend and I played through Rock Band 2 at the Expert Level. Your mileage may vary at different difficulties.)

The drums seem great to nearly everybody until they realize that playing the drums in the game is pretty close to actually playing drums. To that extent, Rock Band includes a vastly improved drum trainer mode that will attempt to teach you how to play real drums. It includes dozens of beat trainers where you can practice common beats on an endless loop, fill trainers so that you don't sound like a monkey on speed every time your fills come in (along with that weird delay between the fill and cymbal), and there's even a freestyle mode where you can play whatever you want. The freestyle mode also allows you to "drum along" with whatever songs you may have on your 360. It's a poor man's electronic drum kit, sure, but it's a lot of fun and it really will teach you the basics of actual drumming if you stick with it.

More To Come

Developer Harmonix has stated more than once (and in more than just one way) that this really isn't Rock Band 2, but rather a continuation of the Rock Band franchise. Everything you could do in the first one, you can do here. For $5, you can even get nearly all the songs on the original Rock Band disc (assuming you own it) into the playlist for Rock Band 2. The fee is a licensing thing, and the three songs you're not getting – "Enter Sandman", "Paranoid", and "Run to the Hills" – probably won't be missed too much. And remember that your DLC is playable in both games.

It's not all candy and roses for Rock Band 2. While nearly all the changes are for the better, some annoyances from the original linger. For example, once you're done playing, it's no less than eight menu steps backward to get to the main menu. There are also video shoots that pop up randomly. There's nothing inherently wrong with these, and in fact they offer an interesting graphical diversion from the usual clubs and stadiums, but they replace whatever choices you just made. For example, maybe you decided you wanted to play a four song mystery set. You click on start, and you get a message that someone wants to shoot a video. Agree to that, and the video is shot to a random song, but your four song mystery set gets completely dropped. It's nothing major, of course, but it's a bit jarring, especially the first time it occurs in the game.

Those are extremely minor quibbles. There are a few technical issues that pop up on occasion (the audio on the third verse in "Lump" nearly drops the drums completely and simultaneously cranks the bass for some reason), and some people are just not going to "get it" in the first place. A common internet troll comment on these sorts of games is that people that enjoy this game should just learn a real instrument. As a player of a real instrument (keyboards no less), I can say with 100% confidence that I will never play a venue with 50,000 screaming, chanting fans, and I don't think my girlfriend will ever be able to play bass like Geddy Lee. It's not that we're too lazy to learn real instruments. Rather, it's that we're too busy to be actual rock stars. Like its predecessor, Rock Band 2 fulfills that "what if" scenario extremely well, allowing us to dress like idiots, use silly names, play music loudly, and get virtually paid for it, all from the comfort of the living room.

The fight for control of your plastic instruments is on, and Harmonix has sent this holiday season's first volley out of a Howitzer. This is great news for fans of the genre. This is also potentially bad news for neighbors of fans of the genre. Regardless, Rock Band 2 is an excellent continuation of the series, and with their strong history of solid DLC, it's not going to quiet down any time soon.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 21, 2008 11:40 PM.

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