I’ve been waiting six months for Rock Band to make it to these shores. Six long, hard months where the only new music game to play was the crushing disappointment that was Guitar Hero 3. Now I’ve finally gotten my hands on it at considerable expense, what do I think? We spent an entire evening playing it and went to bed way later than we should have, and I even squeezed a little solo time into my lunch hour today (which should give you a clue as to the verdict already), so I feel ready to give an impression.
A summary for the time-poor: is Rock Band perfect? Nope. Is it absolutely bloody awesome? Hell yes.
The awesome bits
Note charts: the sequence of buttons / pads that you have to press/strum/hit feel absolutely perfect. It immediately harkens back to the musical expertise Harmonix showed in Guitar Hero 2 (and which was tragically lacking from Neversoft’s third instalment) - these sequences manage to miraculously transport you to a little fantasy place where you are playing a song, and not merely trying to hit an arbitrarily awkward set of buttons in a defined sequence. It’s all so natural & fluid that it just immediately works and gets you grinning inanely. If there’s one factor that tells me that Harmonix have something special in their team, it’s this. As good as the hardware that GH4 may have at its disposal, it will still suck if they haven’t got people who grok both music and gaming to the level that Harmonix do, and Neversoft certainly have everything still to prove in that regard based on past performance.
Drums: I have a new-found respect for drummers. Come on, we all used to consider Ringo the least talented of the fab four, and as completely amazing as Keith Moon was, he was never going to get as much camera time as Daltry or Townshend. However, for the uninitiated it’s made incredibly obvious early on when playing RB just how much of a lynchpin the drummer really is - if he screws up, everyone else has a much harder time of it. He’s like the foundations of a skyscraper - they’re not going to win any design awards, but take them away and you’re in a family-size bag of trouble. Also, playing drums is hard. It’s really not just bashing things with a stick (or rather, 2 sticks), there’s a serious amount of skill required to co-ordinate your 2 hands with your foot in a predictable way. After an evening playing mostly drums, I’m relatively comfortable on Medium but to begin with I was completely lost! It’s a whole new skill to learn and it’s a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
The vibe: You know when you’re ‘feeling it’, and Rock Band manages it admirably. As well as the great note charts, lots of little things really add up to make playing it a joy - knowing that you’re doing well by the fact that the crowd is joining in singing rather than a sterile meter; unison bonuses when you’re both ‘in the zone’ leading to palpable group satisfaction, ‘finishing bonuses’ where hitting an climax sequence at the end gets you extra points and pleasing feedback (always when we were playing GH2 the final sequence had a mental significance, Harmonix have codified that now). The subtle yet rewarding graphical effects that let you know when something important happens (solo performances, multipliers etc) without being in your face too much. The package as a whole just screams ‘we know how to do music games’; it’s as much a gut feeling as anything, but I felt it in GH1 & 2, and I feel it here too.
The track list: We’ve been aware of the listing for ages and knew it was good anyway, but when playing it’s a real joy; a number of tracks that I wasn’t specifically looking forward to are actually really fun to play - and I haven’t even unlocked half of them yet. The DLC list is expansive too, and whilst the selection is of mixed desirability to me and there are plenty of songs that I wish were on there, I have easily 15 tracks I’d like to buy right off the bat, and if the main setlist is any indicator there may well be hidden gems in there too.
The characters: Less important but nevertheless very much a nice touch, the animation on the characters is consistently excellent, and they really look like they’re playing the instruments / singing the lyrics. Simply light-years ahead of GH3’s stilted and forced-looking animations. Customisable character appearance and dress is fun too, if nothing more than a frivolity.
The sub-awesome bits
Single-instrument characters: One thing I didn’t envisage is that the characters you create are locked to the instrument you create them on, as well as your XBL account. It’s as if multi-instrumentalists like Dave Grohl didn’t exist. It’s particularly annoying in the Band World Tour, because one character is the ‘band leader’, without whom the band can’t perform. Therefore if you want to switch instruments, you have to give that character to someone else. It’s not a huge deal - and in fact I guess I should be grateful that on our version you can at least have multiple XBL accounts signed in at once, compared to the PS3 version where only one PSN account can be active at once - and of course doesn’t affect party play since you can just do quickplay and jump in, but it’s a niggle that shoudn’t really have been there. It’s got a lot of attention on the forums so we’re not the only ones to notice it.
Drum lag in freestyle sections: Like any music game you need to configure for the lag, and once done regular playing is great. However, there’s one problem, in that the ‘drum fills’ are places where you can freestyle and as such, the game doesn’t know when the sounds are supposed to happen, so it can’t compensate for the lag inherent in the input-to-console-to-TV/soundsystem route. It means when you freestyle in these drum fill areas (required to get overdrive on the drums), there’s a slight delay and as such the drum sounds are almost always slightly off beat compared to the scripted drum parts, which can be distracting. I’m pretty sure I’ve configured my system for minimum lag now, turning off all sound postprocessing on the TV etc, but it’s still there. There’s nothing really that can be done here I don’t think, except using simpler tech (SDTV) or getting rid of the freestyle bits. It does make me wonder how the ‘authoring’ mode that GH4 purports to support can work with this inherent lag in most next-gen systems.
Wired guitar: I’ve already knocked over one drink because I’d been used to a wireless guitar - it’s a shame on 360 they didn’t license MS’s wireless protocol. Many people don’t like the Fender as much as the GH3 guitars, but personally even though it’s different and a little weird at first, I actually quite like it now. The lack of a click on the strum bar is odd to begin with, but in actual fact I think I prefer it on balance. I find up & down strumming a little easier to do without the click in fact, something I could never really do on the GH controllers.
Price: It’s damn expensive. Obviously. On a purely cerebral level I know I’ve been ripped off and that many middlemen (EA, MTV, Fender, retailers) are making a ton of money off me, much more than they should. But at the same time, I’m having a lot of fun, and expect to continue to have a lot of fun for some months to come. In the end, you can’t take it with you, right? Might as well enjoy it then 😉
There are a few small niggles, but to be honest they’re not significant - this is head and shoulders the best damn music game I’ve played so far. A good step up over GH2, and frankly defecates all over GH3 from a considerable height. At first it’s odd, and you can be forgiven for some frustration at the different feel if you’re a GH nut, but after an hour or two you start to ‘get’ the new peripherals, interface etc and the irrepressible grins start to form. It’s fundamentally a fun co-operative music fantasy game, made by people that clearly understand both music and social gaming very well indeed. I’ve even enjoyed single-player guitar more in this game than I ever have in GH3, and that’s supposed to be it’s strength. The GH franchise might be good for those who need to prove their peerless finger agility and incredible sequence recall, but in my opinion Rock Band is for those who love the core musical experience more than scaling new heights of obtuse difficulty. In Rock Band, the indescribable head to toe *feel* is spot-on, and that’s ultimately what matters, to me at least.
On the whole, if you like music games, you’ll love Rock Band. I know I do. 😀
PS And yes, this means I’ll shut up about Rock Band for a while now, I know it’s been dominating this blog recently!