The nice thing for videogame developers making a sequel is that they can take the opportunity to fix the mistakes in the original. That’s true to the extreme with “Rock Band 2,” which is less a successor than an update to last year’s hit music simulator, with new songs and all but one major flaw eliminated. The lack of innovation is disappointing, but there’s still more than enough here to attract existing players and lure new ones to what remains the best way for music fans and gamers to party together.
As in the first “Rock Band,” players perform well known songs by using guitar, bass, microphone and drum kit controllers in time with notes onscreen (a formula that will soon be copied in Activision’s “Guitar Hero: World Tour”). Visual and audio designs that brilliantly capture the look and sounds of a concert — whether intimate or massive — are virtually identical to the original.
Most fan complaints about “Rock Band” involved the complexities of creating and maintaining a virtual band — each character was tied to a single instrument, for instance, and players couldn’t complete the game’s “tour” online. “Rock Band 2” makes playing with a band incredibly simple in person or online, while slightly improving on the original’s rich character creator and wide array of optional ripped shirts, tattoos and piercings.
Unlike the original, “Rock Band 2” offers more for videogame rock stars to do than earn money and fans while touring the world. Bands can now take on dozens of challenges that group songs by difficulty. There are also constantly updated battles of the bands that let players compare scores against friends and the entire online community in specific tasks like shredding the longest guitar streak in Steely Dan’s “Bodhisattva” or playing a group of songs on the ridiculously tough “expert” difficulty. Combine those features with the game’s fast-growing online musicstore, which features more than 300 downloadable tracks, and hardcore players may never put “Rock Band 2” away.
For many, “Rock Band” is less a game than a way to party with friends. That’s why it’s so ridiculous that the sequel continues the original’s requirement that players compete in the tour to unlock many of the best songs. Though “Rock Band 2” boasts more than 80 tracks, many of the best ones, like AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and “Shackler’s Revenge” from the upcoming Guns ‘N’ Roses album “Chinese Democracy,” have to be earned. Anyone who spends $60 and comes home to find they have hours of work before they can play the songs advertised on the back of the box has a right to be annoyed.
The sequel’s guitar controller is only slightly more ergonomic than last year’s version, but the drums are significantly quieter, a blessing to family members and neighbors. That’s even more needed in “Rock Band 2,” which includes a new drum trainer that teaches basic beats. It’s an interesting educational experiment, though it’s lacking in much needed contextual information to help players understand how the beats they’re learning are used in real music. Neil Peart doesn’t have to worry yet.