Pity the neighbors of anyone who picks up “Rock Band.” With two guitars, a drum kit and a microphone, this new title from “Guitar Hero” developer Harmonix isn’t a game so much as a virtual lifestyle, meant to be played by four people strumming, pounding and wailing their hearts out, with breaks for the inevitable “Behind the Music” jokes. Several deficiencies in the hardware and online play keep the solo experience a step behind “Guitar Hero,” but as a party game, “Rock Band” can’t be beat.
Expect MTV’s first foray into the videogame space to quickly become a centerpiece in bars, frat houses and hip workplaces, while individuals will likely start putting together their own bands once separate instruments are available at a lower price.
When MTV bought Harmonix last year for $175 million and announced its first product would be “Rock Band,” most people figured the game would be “Guitar Hero” plus, which in many ways it is. Strumming guitar or bass alone, however, it’s more like “Guitar Hero” minus. While “Rock Band’s” guitar controller looks remarkably like the Fender Stratocaster on which it’s based, it doesn’t respond as smoothly as the one that comes with Activision’s recently released “Guitar Hero III” and, disappointingly, isn’t wireless for Xbox 360.
Singing component, for which players use a microphone to match the pitch shown onscreen, is the same as in “Karaoke Revolution” or “SingStar.” But the drum kit, which looks just like a scaled-down four-piece set, is a true innovation. Only the fact that it’s made of cheap plastic will keep wannabe drummers from living out their John Bonham dreams on the couch.
The basic game — a simplified version of “Tetris” in which players have to match the colors of falling bars — is the exact same as in “Guitar Hero.” But it’s called “Rock Band,” not “Guitar Hero, Drum Hero and Singing Hero,” for a reason. Harmonix did a masterful job of laying out the interface so that four people can easily play at once and get bonuses for hitting their notes in harmony.
“Guitar Hero” didn’t take off because of its game play, however, so much as its controller and onscreen visuals that make players feel like a guitar god onstage at Madison Square Garden. “Rock Band” kicks the experience up by several notches.
Instead of selecting from a few pre-made rockers, MTV’s offering has a character creation system almost as complex as those in role-playing games like “Mass Effect.” In addition to normal elements like height and eye color, game has dozens of music-specific details like piercings, tattoos and neon hair colors. Creating the rock star they’ve always wanted to be goes a long way in helping players live out their music fantasies.
“Rock Band” songs are directed like real concerts, complete with flashing lights, screaming fans, and closeups during solos. Players can pick their own band name and logo, which appears onstage while they play. Those who pay close attention will even notice that the characters’ hand and mouth movements approximate what’s being played or sung.
The individual tour is a bit simpler than that in “Guitar Hero,” but the band tour is full of little details that make all the difference in helping players forget that they’re four people sitting in a living room. The band starts off in its hometown and has to earn enough to buy a van, then a bus and then a plane in order to travel to bigger venues in new cities and earn money for better outfits and equipment. Along the way, they engage in battles of the bands, collect fans and roadies and even bring on a manager. All that’s missing are the groupies and backstage hijinks that likely would have earned “Rock Band” an M rating.
Though rocking out with friends in the same room is the best way to play, it’s a notable deficiency that bandmates can play only individual songs online and can’t continue their tour. The two competitive online modes for individuals work fine, but players can’t pick the songs they’ll battle over, meaning classic rock lovers could find themselves in a hell of bands OK Go and Fallout Boy.
Overall music selection is as comprehensive as players will expect, with a mix of everything from the Rolling Stones to the Ramones to the Beastie Boys and the Strokes, most of which are master tracks. “Rock Band’s” true promise, however, lies not on the disc but on the Net, where MTV has promised a broad array of downloadable music (for a fee, natch). Tracks from Metallica, the Police and Queens of the Stone Age are already online with weekly updates scheduled, including entire albums like the Who’s “Who’s Next.”