Monday, December 3, 2007

Review: Pursue your virtual music career with "Rock Band"

The only thing missing from "Rock Band" are Soul, R&B and Country tracks.

Developed by Harmonix Music Systems, published by MTV Games and distributed by EA, "Rock Band" is by far one of the most engaging video games I have ever played. For the uninformed, Harmonix was the original developer of the popular "Guitar Hero" video game series. However, after Activision bought Red Octane, who was responsible for the guitars - and MTV snapped up Harmonix, the company was no longer able to make any "Guitar Hero" games from now on. No worries - Harmonix decided to create a video game that gave gamers the ability to play together as a rock band.

I had first heard about "Rock Band" a few months ago and it definitely piqued my interest. I was a fan of sorts of "Guitar Hero II" and so looked forward to reviewing "Guitar Hero III." And when the PR firm informed me I would be reviewing "Rock Band," I was thrilled.

The day "Rock Band" was released, it showed up at my doorstep in a huge box and an extra guitar. Sweetness. Me and my fellow Tribunitas rocked out to some serious jams. We'll have all the video online in a few days. Stay tuned.

Gone were my hopes of having a week or so to review "Rock Band," but I didn't really care. I was about to play both "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero III" back and forth to see which game was really king of the rock video game genre.

There are a few notes about "Rock Band" you should know before buying it.

First, if you own an Xbox 360, PS3 or PS2 and loved the "Guitar Hero" games and enjoy the "Dance Dance Revolution" games, you should give this title strong consideration. Is it really that much fun? Keep reading ...

Second, you need to have a pretty big area to play this game. The standard kit comes with the drum kit, USB microphone and a Fender Stratocaster Guitar Controller and the box, which I'd recommend keeping it in case you want to haul to a bud's home for a jam session into the wii hours of the morning. I have put both "GHII" and "GHIII" guitars in the box to keep them out of the way - they fit. Don't even consider a plastic roadie crate to keep your stuff in. It will just give the plastic some very serious scratches.

Third, you need not be scared of "Sticker Shock." Yes, "Rock Band" is $169.99 for the 360/PS3 versions and $159.99 for the PS2 version, due out on December 18th. However, consider how much you are paying for the popular "Guitar Hero III" ($107 with tax included) and with "Rock Band," you are getting drums and a microphone. The drums are real drums and have excellent response times. Trust me, it's worth every penny.

Fourth, this is a must-buy for the holidays. If you have parties, this game is perfect for gamers and nongamers alike. Unlike "Guitar Hero," up to four people can rock out with "Rock Band" and an extra guitar (the wireless "GHIII" guitar will work with "Rock Band, but the "Rock Band" guitar won't work with "GHII" or "GHIII").

There are three main modes gamers have to choose from. The first is the Solo mode. Here, gamers will be able to be a vocalist, a drummer or guitarist. There are two submodes to "Rock Band" in the solo option, including Quick Play or Solo Tour. If you want to get your feet wet, give Quick Play a try. It throws gamers into the fray as a drummer, vocalist or guitarist and lets them prove their mettle. The Solo Tour allows gamers to rock at different venues, including L.A., Seattle, Rio De Janeiro and other locales. Depending on the mode you select, there are close to 50 songs per career. On the 360, you can download more songs off of Xbox LIVE.

The second mode is multiplayer, and this mode is where "Rock Band" really shines. In this mode, gamers can jam with friends in person or on LIVE. Just like the Solo mode, there are a few options for gamers. The first is the Band World Tour mode. You can have up to four band members, and they can either help or hurt your band's career, depending on if they are good or not. You will create a band profile, an art maker (to create band logos and such) and visit the Rock Shop to buy new items for your band.

In the multiplayer mode, there's also a Quick Play mode, just like the Solo mode, but you can play with up to four players. My 4-year-old son and my wife decided to help me out with my review. My son hit the drums while my wife was on the microphone. I grabbed a guitar and we took on "Say it ain't so" by Weezer and "Mississippi Queen" by Mountain. We never finished the songs - my team got booed several times off stage. Oh well - I guess we'll never be the Partridge Fam in my gas-guzzling Suburban.

For the gamers who want to beat this game with a band, teamwork is essential. Otherwise, you may have to fire a few folks to find a winning combination. Does this happen often? Ask the lovely and talented Beyonce and Destiny's Child.

There also two other sweet multiplayer modes, including Tug of War and Score Duel. In Tug of War, gamers compete against one another to win over the crowd. You will sing/drum/shred on parts of a song, and your opponent will take over and do their thing. The player who charms the crowd wins. In Score Duel, you and your opponent are playing the same instrument on the same difficulty level and earn points. The gamer with the most points wins.

Of course, one of my favorite modes, just like "Guitar Hero III," is the Training mode. You can practice on all of the instruments and get your technique down perfectly. Having trouble licking a section of a song? No worries - just load the song up, dissect what part you want to practice on and play. If you want to practice your vocals, slow a song down and just blow. If you have a child that wants to play on the drums and you don't want them messing up your gamer score, let them drum in practice mode. Slow the music down and you won't hear any vocals.

There is a small issue that didn't effect my setup but others on forums across the Internet have been complaining about - TV calibration. If you have an HDTV, the notes on the screen seem out of sync with what you hearing, you may need the calibration tool. What I find to be funny is how the manual actually mentions it. You can either do auto or manual calibration to get everything back in sync. This is the first title I have heard or seen that mentioned TV calibration.

The soundtrack in the game rocks (no pun intended). From old rock to the new school, there are tons of songs to get gamers rocking. For folks who want more songs, head to LIVE to snag a few, including a cool Creedence cover, "Fortunate Son."

Some of the songs from "Rock Band" include:

"Ballroom Blitz" – Sweet
"Blitzkrieg Bop" – Ramones
"Creep" – Radiohead
"Dani California" – Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Dead on Arrival" – Fall Out Boy
"Detroit Rock City" – Kiss
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" – Blue Öyster Cult
"Enter Sandman" – Metallica
"Foreplay/Long Time" – Boston
"Gimme Shelter" – The Rolling Stones
"In Bloom" – Nirvana
"Maps" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
”Mississippi Queen" – Mountain
"Next to You" – The Police
"Orange Crush" – R.E.M.
"Say It Ain't So" – Weezer
"Should I Stay or Should I Go" – The Clash
"Tom Sawyer" – Rush
"Train Kept A-Rollin'" – Aerosmith
"Wanted Dead or Alive" – Bon Jovi
"Won't Get Fooled Again" – The Who

Another killer feature are real songs in "Rock Band." There are a few covers, but when you are doing the real song, it really gives you a barometer of how good your voice/guitar skills and drum skills are when compared to the real artists. Score one for "Rock Band."

Now, the instruments. As I stated earlier, the retail kit includes a Fender Stratocaster Guitar shaped controller, a USB microphone and the drums. Click here to see a hi-res shot of the bundle.

The Fender Stratocaster
is a really good replica of the famed guitar. It's bigger than the "Guitar Hero II" X-Plorer controller and the wireless Les Paul controller. It's wired, a bummer, but it has two sets of keys - for regular play and another set for solos. I had a problem initially connecting them to my 360. The game comes with a power USB hub and they were plugged into it. The microphone and the drum set were showing up, but not the guitars. I unplugged them, replugged them and still nothing. Finally, I unplugged the rip-away cable (designed to break free so you won't pull your 360 onto the floor if you trip over the controller cable) and all systems were go.

The Fender's response is awesome - there's no hesitation and the keys are longer and feel smoother than the Les Paul and X-Plorer keys. The Fender's keys are slimmer, which can be a problem for gamers with chunky fingers.

The Fender also has the honor of being the hardest instrument to assemble (I thought I would end up breaking the neck on that puppy - you need to apply some pressure on the neck).

Though I have heard reports of Fender guitars failing, EA is offering a 60-day warranty for the game. Contact them and get back to rocking.

The drum set was by far the hardest instrument to master. It's a real drumset and it's very sturdy. You use real wooden drumsticks (included) and it comes with a foot pedal. There are some songs that don't use a lot of drums, but other songs are drummer intensive. On the different difficulty settings, the drumming can be as hard as backing up Ringo Starr. After doing some research, I have found out from real drummers that playing the drums in "Rock Band" is very similar to playing drums in real life. Interesting ...

The drum rhythms are just like the guitar rhythms (both are like "Guitar Hero III") and require gamers to hit certain color drums or the foot pedal. If you rock, you'll get an energy field where you can rack up a ton of bonus points by improvising. Yes, it's encouraged. The easier levels use 3-4 drums - the harder levels use all the drums, the foot pedal and come hecka fast.

The drums are adjustable based on height, and the foot pedal is light and feels cheap.

Still, when you listen to a song, most people don't really think about drummers. After playing as a drummer on video game drums, I definitely have a new appreciation for drummers.

The USB microphone, in my humble opinion, is the coolest part of "Rock Band." Sure, you can play a guitar in "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero." The drums rock as well, but the vocal aspect is something close to home for me. And let me tell you, you can fudge it even on expert, but you will be tested.

A really cool feature using the USB microphone is the game accepts ANY USB microphone. So, you could buy the standalone game, add 2 to 3 microphones and baam - you are the next rock band of crooners.

The microphone works with a system of notes similar to "Donkey Konga" on the Nintendo Gamecube. Here, you have to *sing* and hit all the right notes. You will also have to clap on the microphone during certain songs. It's a hoot and a challenge at times, but my gripe here is - if you get the pitch and tone right, cool, but if you get the words wrong? No penalty - NONE. A preacher I know of, Micah Carter, was in a chorus during his college days, and told me if he didn't know the words to a song, he would mouth the word "watermelon." Guess what, folks? You can do the same thing in "Rock Band!" Don't believe me? Try it at a kiosk. You'll see.

The microphone in the kit is a good weight and feels natural in your hands. On the easier modes, you can be offkey and end up wowing the crowds. You get energy bars, where you can improvise and send the audience into a frenzy! On the harder modes, you will lose energy as fast as you gain it. On expert? The crowd is downright harsh. If their meter drops too low, they will boot you off stage with the quickness!

I haven't tried any other USB microphones with the game, but I do know the USB microphone in the game does show up in XP and Vista.

The graphics are pulsating. You really feel like you are in the crowd or on stage and it's very easy to forget you were in a room. The animations are sweet but repetitive at times. However, I was too busy playing to really just sit down and say 'Hay, that framerate really sucks!' Nope, I was too busy being the next Luther Vandross ...

"Never too much - never too much - never TOO MUCH! Oh my love ..."

The controllers never missed a beat. I missed notes that I didn't hit. If I hit, it registered on every instrument. The presentation is awesome, though it took 45 minutes from opening the "Rock Band" box to getting everything laid out. Yes, 45 minutes but it was well worth the hassle.

When you put all of this together, you have one awesome game. It's not perfect, but darn near close. And if you are willing to pay $107 for one guitar, why not pay $169 plus tax and get a truly revolutionary experience? Not only do you get the guitar, but you get a drum kit and a microphone.

Even with some serious space issues going on with retailers (they can't have too many units due to their size), this game rocks and will be a huge hit during the holidays.

"Rock Band" takes shredding, drumming and crooner to the next level in video games.

Why should I care:
Take the coolest elements of "Dance, Dance, Revolution" and combine it with "Guitar Hero" and the original creator of the "GH" series. Do you REALLY think it will flop?!

The good: Real songs - a great-looking replica of a Fender Stratocaster - killer drum set (complete with foot pedal) - online and offline multiplayer modes - three different instruments that really make a dent in the music-based video game genres - the ability to use any USB microphone

The bad: Sticker shock for some customers, you need a lot of room to play this game - to make this game shine, you need a crowd - Fender guitar controller not compatible with "GHII" and "GHIII" - and on expert, I can mesmerize the crowd by just chanting "Watermelon" in the right pitch and tone

The ugly: My son on the drums - LOL!!!!

Overall: 9.75 (out of 10): There is NO denying this game will be a must-buy during the holidays. It adds a lot of features for music video games that "Guitar Hero" really needs. Sure, it's $169 - sure, it requires a gob of space and needs at least four to play, but it's worth it. The game has real songs, a ton of potential and could spawn other music genre tracks, including Soul, R&B, old-skool hip-hop, some soft rock and country. I would love to see the response to those tracks. Harmonix was faced with a major challenge - outdo "Guitar Hero." They accomplished the daunting task.

Well, off to finish my solo tour as a vocalist - see you at Coachella!

No comments: