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Rock Band (Franchise Overview)

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-11-27 21:06:34

Rock Band (Franchise Overview) - Rank S

Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Publisher: MTV Games, Electronic Arts
Date: 9/14/08

Also available for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii

This review is a franchise overview, and you may want to skip to the sections that are pertinent to your needs. I also won't be covering the Wii version, as the lack of any substantial storage space for additional music significantly cripples the product. I have found no significant advantage that differentiates between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, other than (as of this writing) the PS3 version requiring upcoming patches to ensure compatibility with Guitar Hero instruments.

Why should I play a game with fake plastic instruments?

Why should I play Rock Band instead of Guitar Hero?

Rock Band

Rock Band 2

Fake Plastic Instruments

AC/DC LIVE: Rock Band Track Pack

Downloadable Songs

Why should I play a game with fake plastic instruments?

In a word? Fun!

If you have ever, even once in your entire life, played air guitar, you owe it to yourself to try playing one of these toy plastic guitars. Truth be told, it really doesn't duplicate the experience of actually playing a guitar, but the feel of pressing buttons and strumming a flipper to make your favorite guitar solos reverberate through your living room is sublime. And don't give me that "Just learn to play a real guitar" snobbery. I can play a few chords on a real guitar, but never, ever, no matter how much I practice, in my entire life, will I ever be as good as say, Duane Allman or Kirk Hammett. Frankly, I can't even keep up with the videogame transcription of Hammett's solos, but it's a thrill to try.

Now toss in the drums. If you have ever, even once in your entire life, played air drums...naw, scratch that...ever tapped out a beat on your fingertips, you owe it to yourself to try playing one of these toy plastic drum sets. This is pretty much like playing the real thing. It won't teach you any finesse or technique, but if you can play on Expert difficulty, you've very nearly learned how to drum for real.

Finally, grab a microphone. Everyone loves to sing. Maybe some of you are skittish in public, but that's the genius of it. If you hate karaoke, you hate fun. Get four people on this game (including bass guitar), and you've got yourself a party.

Even if you're just messing around by yourself, this gives you a unique avenue for exploring music. The music industry has been in a doldrums ever since they killed Napster, and radio play feels increasingly corporate and homogenized. I'm not saying Rock Band is anti-establishment in any way, but it does offer exposure to a substantial spectrum of rock music, as well as providing a uniquely visceral means of absorbing it.

Why should I play Rock Band instead of Guitar Hero?

In a word? Harmonix.

Harmonix is the company that developed some of the best music games of all time: Frequency, Amplitude, Karaoke Revolution, and the first two Guitar Hero games. After Harmonix broke off to develop Rock Band, Guitar Hero development chores were handed to Neversoft, the guys behind the Tony Hawk franchise. I'm not looking to disparage Neversoft at all (Tony Hawk 2, in particular, is a legendary game), but they don't quite get the music genre.

Firstly, Harmonix's note tracking is superior to Neversoft's. Harmonix better understands how to lay out their arrangements with musical flow in mind, which makes them more fun and natural to play. If you take the few instances where they've done the same exact song, the Rock Band version is invariably more enjoyable.

Secondly, Neversoft brought a "videogame" mentality with them. For example, Guitar Hero III introduced "boss battles" where you take turns shredding solo licks, and trying to mess up the other guy. It's reminiscent of competitive puzzle games where you throw junk blocks at your opponent. It sounds promising on paper, but it's more frustrating than fun. Neversoft tracks also have a tendency to be arranged to punish you with their difficulty, hardcore 8-bit gaming style. This is in direct contrast to the accessibility and universality of Harmonix's design philosophy - traits that I value highly in a music game.

Thirdly, Harmonix is partnered with MTV. This gives them an immediate advantage in industry savvy. Activision/Blizzard (Guitar Hero's publisher) tried to strike a deal to license the Beatles' songbook. They opened up their massive wallet and were promptly laughed at. I can only assume that MTV offered sexual favors by the cast of The Hills, because Harmonix now has the contract to develop a Beatles music game. There definitely are some Guitar Hero songs I like, but I've decided that I want one unified product to play my fake plastic instruments on. The steady stream of downloadable tracks for Rock Band compared to the stilted trickle for Guitar Hero makes this a simple decision.

Finally, Activision is milking the fuck out of the Guitar Hero franchise. They've publicly stated that they're tripling the number of Guitar Hero SKUs over the next couple of years. They're going to just huck product at us until the market is so saturated that we're drowning in the stuff. In stark contrast, Rock Band is treated like a platform, instead of a franchise to be iterated on ad nauseam. The music itself is the product. Rock Band 2 wasn't a sequel so much as it was an elaborate patch accompanied with a grip of new music. The tracks from the original Rock Band, including any downloaded content, transfer over to Rock Band 2.

Frustratingly, Guitar Hero products are a confusing mishmash of semi-compatibility. Is Guitar Hero III content supported in Guitar Hero: Aerosmith? What about Guitar Hero III downloads in Guitar Hero: World Tour? Aerosmith to World Tour? The answers are "no", "kind of", and "I have no idea". When you buy a Rock Band product, whether at retail or the online store, the odds of it being forward compatible to all future releases are immeasurably higher.

Rock Band

The release of Rock Band 2 has made the original Rock Band largely moot. You just need it temporarily to rip the music onto your hard drive for use in Rock Band 2. You don't need to purchase it; just rent a copy (ideally through the free Gamefly trial membership via the banner at the top of this page) or borrow it from a friend. It costs $5 to unlock the tracks for use in Rock Band 2 - a pittance that's well worth the price. For some reason (presumably licensing), three of the tracks don't carry forward, but that's still a massive song list (50+). The vast majority of them are master tracks from the original bands.

The three songs not making the cut are Metallica's "Enter Sandman", Black Sabbath's "Paranoid", and Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills". All three are classics, but the last two were covers instead of the original band, which takes away some of the sting of losing them.

You can find a complete list of Rock Band tracks by following this link. Hit the TYPE column to sort by release type, and scroll down to RB1 to see a complete list of songs from the original Rock Band.

For those of you who simply must own physical copies of everything, here's a link for the original release. Do NOT purchase the Special Edition package with the instruments, as superior versions are now available. More on that below.

Rock Band 2

Until the inevitable release of Rock Band 3, this is what you want to purchase. It adds a whopping 80+ songs, all of which are master tracks, in addition to refinements that improve the overall experience.

These improvements aren't drastic, but they are welcome. The tutorials (the drums in particular) provide a deeper comprehension of play mechanics. The "World Tour" campaign mode, wherein you create a band and rock your way to fame and riches, is now available for online play. Previously, all band members had to be playing on the same console. Also, a new "no fail" mode allows the band to continue, even if players are doing terribly. This is a significant addition, in line with the philosophy of providing a music experience as opposed to a traditional videogame. Now, the party never stops!

This doesn't mean that the hardcore rocker isn't catered to. Online competitions pit you against the absolute best fake plastic instrument players in the world - including full four player Battle of the Bands. Even cracking the top 100 is a herculean feat - the leaderboards are riddled with actual recording artists who happen to be Rock Band fans. The game must be a piece of chocolate orange chiffon cake for them.

Each copy of Rock Band 2 also comes with a code redeemable for twenty free downloadable tracks. I surmise the reason for this is to whet our appetites for the ever-burgeoning online store. This is how you properly hook someone: give them $40 worth of free smack, and then reel them in! Count in the Rock Band 1 rips, and you've got over 150 songs right off the bat.

The only negative comment I have to make about Rock Band 2 is that songs tend to repeat too often over the course of making your way through the World Tour. Awesomely, it does incorporate any DLC or Rock Band 1 content you might have, so this repetition is even harder to fathom.

You can find a complete list of Rock Band 2 tracks by following this link. Hit the TYPE column to sort by release type, and scroll down to RB2 to see a complete list of songs from Rock Band 2.

From a value proposition, it makes sense to purchase the Special Edition. However, you may want to pick out specific instruments or you might already have existing ones. If you do buy the package, note that it comes with one guitar, one drum set, and one microphone. Links for the game by itself and for the package deal are below.

Fake Plastic Instruments

Let's start with the guitar. I actually recommend the Guitar Hero III guitar. The Rock Band guitar sports a soft, mushy strum bar. The definite click of the Guitar Hero III strum bar makes keeping time clearer, particularly on long runs of rapid 16th (or faster) notes. Also, the fret buttons extrude outward from the neck, so that your fingering can easily be shifted by feel. The Rock Band guitar features inlaid fret buttons, which causes me to fumble and miss notes. The tilt sensor is also smoother to engage on the Guitar Hero III guitar. All told, it offers more precision across the board.

Some individuals do report that the detachable neck of the Guitar Hero III guitar can come loose, resulting in buttons that don't work. I personally have had zero problems with this issue over untold hours of playing, but it would appear that a manual fix has been necessary for others.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to buy the Special Edition package plus a Guitar Hero III guitar. You could break out the Rock Band guitar for the bass player whenever you have a full four running. For some reason, certain individuals do prefer the Rock Band guitar. If you are one of these incorrect people, I linked both guitars. (Note that the Rock Band guitar linked is the newer wireless version. The Guitar Hero Les Paul is also wireless.)

Next up are the drums. The newer release of the Rock Band drums is a moderate upgrade. They were already decent, but now they sport wireless connectivity, quieter velocity sensitive pads, and a sturdier metal foot pedal. Expansion ports for add-on cymbals were added to maintain the arms race with Guitar Hero. They also purportedly register hits more accurately, but I couldn't tell the difference from a cursory examination. (I currently own only the original Rock Band drum set.)

I have yet to test them myself, but the Guitar Hero World Tour drums are receiving universal praise and are technically compatible with Rock Band 2. Unfortunately, the layout of the pads and cymbals are not conducive for use in Rock Band.

The microphone remains the same: wired and perfectly functional.

If you still feel the need to spend more money on Rock Band accessories, just search carefully. Everything from real guitars converted to game controllers ($400) to a synchronized light and smoke stage kit are available ($100). Seriously.

AC/DC LIVE: Rock Band Track Pack

In my opinion, AC/DC (along with Boston) saved Rock and Roll. The late '70s was an excess of operatic glam with too many bands trying to be Queen and utterly failing. Then along came a juvenile set of Aussies playing simple, gritty, relentless, hard-rocking riffs accompanied by lyrics about raising hell and getting laid. No, nobody would classify them as "uplifting" or "illuminative", but they indelibly impressed their will on the musical subconscious with their raucously pure intensity.

This track pack is a collection of eighteen live AC/DC performances. (Brian Johnson's voice is slightly worn on these performances, from years of shrieking his gravelly wail.) For me, this wasn't even a choice; I'd been waiting for a playable version of "Back in Black" since the days of the original Guitar Hero on the PlayStation 2. But even if you're a casual AC/DC fan, or just a connoisseur of hard rock in general, you should consider picking this up. The crunchy power chords that drive these songs are immensely satisfying to crank. You can find a complete list of these tracks by following this link. Hit the TYPE column to sort by release type, and scroll down to TPK.

The obnoxious problem with this pack is that's it's only directly available from Walmart. AC/DC apparently has some sort of exclusivity deal with them. It's such a waste of materials too; you can play it on its own off the physical disc, but what you really want is the code inside the packaging that allows you to download the tracks into your Rock Band playlist. You don't even need the disc after that.

Downloadable Songs

This is where Rock Band is shaking up the music industry. One last time, you can find a complete list of these tracks by following this link. Hit the TYPE column to sort by release type, and just check out the massive hoard of DLC. And they're constantly adding new tracks. They typically cost $2 a song. I find this fee reasonable considering the iTunes industry standard of $1. The additional cost to offset the effort of adding four sets of note tracking is justifiable. Occasionally, you'll see prices slashed on specific songs. Many tracks are also part of an album or set that can be bought at a cheaper rate in bulk.

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