Rock Band delivers, despite some rough edges

  • Game Review - All in all, the positive aspects of Rock Band outweigh the quirks that come with being an innovator in gaming.

    Everyone's talking about the war of Mario vs. Master Chief for holiday gaming stardom, but there's another player in the race and it comes in the form of drums, guitars, and karaoke.

    Rock Band is the latest music/rhythm title from the alliance of Harmonix and MTV.  For the first time in a video game, it combines multiple instruments and vocals together to provide a fairly realistic "rock band" experience.

    Drumming to a new beat

    Undeniably, the most talked about component of Rock Band leading up to its release was the drum set controller.  While guitar playing and singing titles have kind of become commonplace, there has been very little focus on drumming, especially in North America.

    So for most gamers, this will be the first time they have an opportunity to unleash their inner Keith Moon (that's the drummer from The Who, by the way).  The drum set is also arguably the cooler looking instrument.  The large controller contains four drum pads placed side-by-side, representing a snare, a crash and two cymbals.

    During a song, players must watch the notes as they come up on the screen and correctly hit the corresponding drum pad at precisely the right time.  For an even more challenging and realistic experience, though, there is also a foot pedal.

    Foot pedal cues show up just like a regular drum beat, and are often played simultaneously.  For the harder levels of difficulty, it's fairly common to have drum phrases that constantly have beats where two drum pads and the drum pedal must be hit at the same time.

    Because this is the newest, most innovative component of the game, it's easily the most captivating.  If it wasn't for the foot pedal, it would essentially be the same old rhythm game format in a new package, but because of that added component it creates a whole new addition.  This makes it just as addicting as any previous Guitar Hero or Karaoke Revolution game.

    The obvious downside to this is the size of the drum set.  It measures about 30 in x 15 in x 11 in, so you'll need to clear out some space if you plan on using it in a cluttered bedroom or closet-sized apartment.  There is a way to alter its structure to transform it to a "tabletop" version, but that feels kind of awkward because the foot pedal is still required.

    Sing your heart out

    The technology behind Harmonix's first really big brainchild, Karaoke Revolution, comes full circle in Rock Band.  It's the same story as the developer's previous titles - watch your "pitch indicator" as you're singing so that it matches up with the pitch line that appears on the  screen.  Knowing the lyrics isn't important but the game can be ruthless when it comes to grading the accuracy of your notes.

    One of the downsides of the singing part of Rock Band is that several of the songs are not very vocally intensive.  So it's not uncommon for a song to have several bars of instrumental accompaniment with no singing.  The game kind of makes up for this by adding parts where the singer must clap, or can improvise to score more points.  However, for solo singers, it's kind of empty.

    Guitar playing

    The only part of Rock Band that doesn't bring anything new to the table is the guitar.  It will be old hat to anyone with experience with Guitar Hero titles.  It's the same old method of hitting the right notes at the right time, and making sure to hit the strum bar to register each note.  Up to two guitar players can play at once, one of whom takes the regular guitar part while the other takes the bass guitar line.

    Bringing it all together

    Of course, the coolest part of the game is that each of these parts can be jointed together to have up to four players rocking it out simultaneously.  The first time you get together with a group of friends to play this game, it's a completely out of this world experience.

    The game also has significant online connectivity, allowing players to create worldwide bands or just duke it out in a head-to-head competition.  There are also leaderboards for gamers to compare cumulative scores.

    For the times when you feel like just playing solo, Rock Band offers an extensive single-player mode, which can be done for each of the different instruments.  You can even take the character you created for a multiplayer band and have him go on the road by himself, and vice versa.

    Solos are kind of hit or miss for the different instruments, though.  Because the game was built around the concept of having an entire band, in some songs the drum part is really not worth doing as a solo, and the same goes for the guitar or singing parts.  On the flip side of that, there are some songs that actively feature specific instruments.  For example, several tracks have guitar or drum solos, which are highlighted by brighter coloring of their section of the screen and a point bonus at the end.

    While the music in the game is great, especially because many of the titles are actual master recordings and not just songs performed by covered artists.  However, the visuals are nothing to be marveled; at times it feels like a previous generation graphics engine, but that really doesn't matter in a game like this.  The images are nice and crisp, which is all that counts.

    There are around 60 songs packed in with the game, but thanks to the Playstation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace, new songs will be added for around $2 each.  Harmonix already plans to release new tracks every week until the end of the year.

    Xbox 360 vs PS3

    The difference between consoles for most multiplatform games is marginal at best.  However, with Rock Band, there are some concerns that hamper the PS3 in comparison to its Microsoft rival.

    First off, with the PS3 version, the only guitar controller that works is the one made specifically for Rock Band.  In other words, owners of the PS3 Guitar Hero III cannot mix and match guitars, and PS2 guitar controllers are out of the question entirely.  Harmonix is reportedly working on a patch that would solve the compatibility problems between PS3 peripherals but as of now that hasn't happened.

    Also, for online gaming enthusiasts, there's the obvious issue that Xbox Live has an enormously larger community than the Playstation Network.  Also, the Xbox 360 bundle comes packed with a USB hub while the PS3 one does not.  This game uses up to four USB devices at once, so additional USB space is important for owners of both consoles, not just the 360.

    In summary

    Rock Band can be looked at as a "convergence product", and just like PDA phones or , the quality and integrity of each individual piece is sacrificed to some degree.  That's really just common sense.  The question is whether or not the integration is worth it.  In the case of Rock Band, there's no question.  It will probably be looked back upon as the founder of the next-generation rhythm game genre.