REVIEW: Rock Band

By Shaun Hatton - January 25th, 2008

Rock Band is a force to be reckoned with. Available now for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

2008_01_25_rockbandscore.pngWithin the past few years, the acceptance of gaming in mainstream pop culture has grown exponentially. Games can fall under three categories: the solo game, the online multiplayer, and the party game.

It wasn’t long ago that gaming geeks were outcast by classmates and co-workers. And for guys who were into gaming, it was a tough sell to get most girls to hang out, let alone talk them into gaming.

But then things changed. Was it that it became trendy for girls to date geeks, or was it that geeks just became cooler? I’d like to think it was a combination of both. Oh, and it also doesn’t hurt that gaming became a whole lot less nerdy with the onslaught of casual and accessible games.

Let’s examine karaoke for a moment. When it debuted in the Western world in the 90s, it became an overnight sensation. And unlike many things that initially burst into popularity, karaoke is still around today. In fact, it’s a part of Rock Band. The appeal of karaoke, and of games like Rock Band, is that anyone can be who they want to be. Anyone can be a famous singer. Anybody can be a rock star.

Yes, even you.

This appeals to the basic human need for attention, acceptance, and popularity. Sure, there are many kids and adults who go into music shops with dreams of being a great guitarist, bassist, or drummer. When I was in high school, half of the guys I knew played some sort of instrument. Mostly, it was guitars, because they’re the most affordable of the rock instruments (especially for teenagers).

But learning to play an instrument isn’t easy. Sure, there are some people with the innate, seemingly uncanny ability to pick up and play just about anything. But these people are few and far between. Mastering an instrument like the guitar takes years of practice, dedication, and broken strings. And along the way, you screw up your favourite songs time and again. In the end, if someone sticks through it all, the payoff is a good one. But it doesn’t guarantee super stardom.

Rock Band, on the other hand, certainly gives players the feeling of being a rock superstar. Players can choose their instrument’s difficulty level (how many notes of a song they actually have to hit, and the speed of these notes) and the instruments themselves are simplified versions of the real deal. Following multi-coloured notes onscreen is a lot easier at first than learning to play actual chords.

The game delivers where real instruments fail most people. You don’t actually have to know how to play a song to be a superstar. You don’t have to play well to have fun. Rock Band and Guitar Hero have both received criticism from people who are “real” musicians. That is, they play real instruments and therefore have a low opinion of the game. What’s odd is that unlike the real deal, these games force players to perform the exact same thing, at the same time, every time they play the same song. With real instruments, screw ups can be covered up by pretending it was an intentional deviation from the song. In fact, Patrick Pentland of Sloan wrote in the liner notes to the band’s live album that if you screw up once, be sure to repeat that screw up a second time so it looks like you meant it. I’m paraphrasing, but the point is that with real instruments, you get a lot of artistic freedom when playing.

When was the last time you saw a band play live but it sounded note for note, measure for measure, exactly like their album? Rock Band forces players to do exactly that on its Expert setting. So in a way, playing Rock Band takes more skill than actually playing a real instrument. In fact, the drumming in the game is so precise and beat for beat that mastery of a song in the game literally means a player can play that same song on a real drum set.

Rock Band expands on the formula set by the Guitar Hero games. Notes of different colours scroll down a vertical staff and players need to strum or tap along to the notes on their instruments. If they hit the proper note, it plays. If they miss, it doesn’t and they’re penalized. For the vocals, the lyrics scroll along the top of the screen with a staff that shows how high or low the notes are along with a marker that gives feedback on how well or poorly the singer is performing. It’s a very simple setup and it works excellently.

The Special Edition of the game comes with a microphone, guitar, and the drum set. The Xbox 360 version of the game allows you to use a Guitar Hero guitar as the bass, too. So if you’ve already got that game, you’re set for the whole band experience.

Rock Band isn’t your typical game. It doesn’t take place only on screen; it fills the room and immerses you in the experience. The in-game audience sings along to the tunes if you can play them well. If not, they boo you off the stage.

As ridiculous as you might feel when you first play the game’s fake instruments, that feeling is quickly replaced with the sheer thrill of rocking out to some of rock’s greatest tunes. The standard set list features mostly original recordings of songs and a few cover versions. The song list is surprisingly strong and features tracks that are fun to play on all instruments. In addition to these tunes is a huge, ever-growing list of downloadable songs. Rock Band even promises to offer full-length albums by the original artists in the near future, with The Who’s “Who’s Next” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” being the first ones available.

It will be interesting to see how Rock Band changes the way we consume our music. There’s certainly potential to shake things up for the failing mainstream music industry. New albums can become available as in-game downloads the moment they hit store shelves. Perhaps the download can be tied to the purchase of an album. Who knows. The potential is definitely there, and with the MTV juggernaut behind the marketing wheel, there may be no stopping it.

Score Breakdown:

Graphics: 8
Sound: 10
Control: 10
Fun: 10
Replay Value: 10


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    One response so far:
  2. I was thinking about buying Guitar Hero.

    But after playing this, I am going to sell my soul and 3 quarts of sperm at the sperm bank to be able to afford this, should it come out for the Wii.

    And if not?


    That’s a lot of McMuffins I can buy.

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