At a time when games like “Rock Band,” “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Revolution” are all aping the exact same formula, Disney is chasing the tween demo with a lower-cost music title that eschews expensive peripherals for pretend-instrument-playing and showy dance moves. It’s a fine idea, but in practice, “Ultimate Band” is a convoluted, inconsistent and inauthentic experience that emulates a phony lip-synching boy band more than a real rock experience. It’s unlikely to succeed as even a warm-up act for the far superior music games already on the market.
The story mode follows four eager young rockers on their journey from rec room obscurity to an “American Idol”-like battle of the bands against a rival group of daddy-funded poseurs in matching budget-Prince outfits. Though thin, the content is the game’s highlight: the plot is as good as most Disney Channel programming, the venues are decked out in vibrant colors and kid-safe psychedelia, and a handful of Hot Topix-esque garb and hair options give players some leeway in customizing their onscreen avatars.
“Ultimate Band’s” core innovation is to use the motion-sensing Wii controllers to simulate instrument playing without expensive guitar and drum controllers (there’s also a touchscreen-enabled DS version). But its attempt to simplify gameplay offers an “easy” mode that’s little more than a few swings of the Wii controllers, while tougher modes are confusing and non-intuitive. The guitar and bass parts are plagued by distractions like hand claps, whammy motions and windmill strums that are barely tied to the music or even the actions onscreen. With extra poses and flourishes available for bonus points, “Ultimate Band” seems more concerned with making players feel like showmen than musicians.
That’s particularly true for the singer, who doesn’t even get a microphone. Retitled the “frontman,” he or she is struck triggering poses and leading the crowd in a wave. Kids who want to sing along for fun don’t even get the lyrics. The guitarist and bassist each have three completely different workarounds for the lack of a fretboard, but they often get convoluted, forcing players to use arbitrary button combinations to fret the notes, all while strumming the air.
Kids will inevitably end up fighting to play the drums, which are the only instrument to offer remotely believable gameplay. Downward and sideways motions to hit the pads have a reasonably close relationship to an actual performance, though even the drummer is still saddled with intrusive spins and claps.
Much like Disney’s radio stations and music label, “Ultimate Band’s 35-song set list is clean, upbeat and occasionally adult-friendly. Fresh teen anthems such as Plain White T’s “Our Time Now” are mixed with catchy classics like Devo’s “Whip It” and the Pixies’ “Debaser” (with the “slicing up eyeballs” line neatly excised). Unfortunately, all 35 tracks are cover versions, and not loyal ones: the stand-ins for Jack White and Jim Morrison, for instance, sound bland and emasculated. In a unique touch, there are different male and female vocal recordings depending on the gender of the band’s singer.
But the music is almost beside the point, because unlike “Rock Band,” the player’s actions only loosely relate to the song at hand. In other music games, the satisfaction comes from mastering the riffs, fills and solos that are tied to the music, uniting the pleasure of a correctly hit note with a musical reward in the click of a button. “Ultimate Band” throws in so many extraneous moves and distractions that it feels more like a minigame with a beat than an extension of a song. And the decision to overlay cheap cymbals and boingy sound effects, some of them routed through the Wiimote’s tinny speaker, undercuts the thrill of pretending to play in a band, let alone the ultimate one.