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Prepare to tour the world in Harmonix's Rock Band, the first game to provide a full four-piece of rhythm gaming fun...
When Rock Band is released across Europe on May 23rd, it'll be almost six months to the day since it came out in the US. Why the wait? Well, you can find out more about that in our Q&A with Rock Band's Design Director, Rob Kay. The more pressing question here is will it be worth the wait? And, as far as we could gather from quite a few hours of hands-on play with the game earlier this week, the answer is an ironclad yes.
While the rhythm game's most potent rival has surely got to be Activision's Guitar Hero series, Harmonix's latest offering will provide the complete rock 'n roll experience. That means there will be rhythm action fun not only for the guitar and bass, but for vocals and drums as well. Make no mistake, this is the perfect solution for lazy gamers who dream of a life in the rock 'n roll limelight, but simply can't be bothered to learn an instrument or have a voice that's only welcome at a very empty karaoke night down the local pub.
So, let's deal with the drums first of all, as they are the most original peripheral in the game. With this in mind, it certainly warmed our cockles to find out that they are also the most enjoyable to play of the three Rock Band instruments. The kit is setup with four pressure sensitive pads (accounting for various symbol, tom, and snare drum sounds), and you're then prompted to strike the pads in time with the trademark Harmonix format of oncoming, colour co-ordinated note prompts. The kicker - if you'll pardon the pun - is the bass drum peddle, the prompt for which is an orange line across the Rock Band note board.
While we're sure that trained drummers will instantly master the Rock Band kit, getting used to the setup as a drumming newbie is a bit like riding a bike for the first time. Nevertheless, following a bit of perseverance, our foot eventually started to co-ordinate itself with the bass drum prompts, on the Easy difficulty level at least. The best part of Rock Band's drumming gameplay, though, will surely be the freestyle sections, in which you have free reign to ad-lib drum fills to your heart's content. Because the pads and peddle correspond to their own stored sounds, your resulting drum fills are exactly what you've played out on the peripheral. You can then bank the points from these freestyle sections by hitting a note prompt at the end of the bar.
Freestyler, Rock The Microphone
We can't say the same for the freestyle sections on vocals, guitar, and bass though. Having stored guitar sounds that correspond to the peripheral's five buttons simply wouldn't work in practice - it would just seem tacky and out of place. Instead, freestyling on the guitar is limited to simply pressing as many buttons as possible in the allotted time, while a pre-recorded guitar fill plays in the background. Likewise, during freestyle sections on the vocals you're best off just shouting something like 'Thank you Chesterfield, good night!'
That said, it would have been impossible for Harmonix to offer anything more in the freestyling. The fact that realistic ad-libbing on the drums is included is brilliant enough by itself. As far as the general rhythm gameplay of the guitar and drums are concerned, Harmonix looks set to deliver exactly what we've come to expect from them following their work on the first two Guitar Hero games. The note prompts are well placed, ensuring that the player feels in time with the music and the resulting rhythm syncs perfectly with the tune that's being played.
In this sense, playing through Rock Band on guitar or bass does feel very like Guitar Hero, but then this should've been expected from the start. Where the guitar gameplay does set itself apart is in the peripheral. Firstly, the Fender Stratocaster replica is a solid piece of kit, with a distinct lack of cheap and tacky manufacturing to it. There's a five point pickup selector (as with real Strats) that you can use to select various effects such as Flanger, Waa, and Chorus etc. We found it difficult to determine whether changing these effects made that much of a difference, what with two other Rock Band demonstration platforms blasting out music on either side of ours, but we certainly hope that they won't just turn out to be a hollow gimmick once we get our hands on a review build.
Another nice feature of the guitar peripheral is the second set of buttons further up the fretboard. These have the identical functions of the five at the neck, although they differ by being smaller and closer together. These can be used just for looking cool, but there is also a genuine gameplay function for them as well. During the previously mentioned freestyle sections, you can obviously hit a lot more notes with the buttons further up the neck. However, there is an element of risk reward here because, as they're smaller, it's harder to hit the note prompts at the end of the freestyle section, which effectively banks your score. Fail to do this and you'll end up with nothing.
As far as the vocals are concerned, you can expect something similar to Singstar for the most part. While all four instruments are in play, the vocal part streams across the top of the Rock Band HUD in a display that shows the words and pitch of the lyrics. As far as the pitch display is concerned, it takes the form of lines that move up and down, almost like a graphic equaliser. These lines then correspond to the words below (one line of pitch for each word), and each lyric is spaced out to denote how long you should sing it for. It's certainly a satisfactory display, while the scores you receive for your various performances correspond well to how accurately you're hitting the rhythm and pitch of each song lyric.
Once again in the trademark Harmonix style, the difficulty settings appear to be spot-on. Medium certainly has a steep enough learning curve for most (particularly on the drums), while Hard and Expert settings should be reserved for accomplished players. For a game that has quite a casual appeal, it's certainly a relief that the difficulty hasn't been sacrificed as a result. We have a mantra for casual games here at TVG, which is 'Casual doesn't have to mean easy'. Nevertheless, the Easy difficulty settings look well balanced and will be helpful for learning a new instrument, although they also successfully walk the line of not being too patronising.
Band On The Run
Rock Band's main game mode is Band World Tour. We didn't see much of it during our hands-on, but from what we were told in our Q&A with Harmonix, it sounds like a deeper version of the career modes in Guitar Hero games of the past. After setting up your band by choosing a name, you're then presented with a range of customisation options (characters and logos etc.). The gameplay starts with you and up to four other players choosing a city to start from where you'll perform gigs in small venues with rowdy, hard to please crowds. The first section of Band World Tour is confined to this starting city, throughout which you'll travel in a rusty old van. As things progress you open up gigs around the country that you're transported to in a tour bus and, finally, you'll unlock the world tour where you're jetted across the globe in a plane.
As far as additional multiplayer game modes are concerned, Rock Band will also cater for head-to-head and co-operative play, both online and locally. While the co-operative gameplay is at the heart of Rock Band's mission statement, a head-to-head setup for each instrument (drums vs. drums, or guitar vs. guitar etc.) will certainly be a welcome bonus. However, Harmonix has informed us that this will not feature the sort of insane power-ups that we've seen in Guitar Hero III, as the developer didn't want to distance itself from the music by getting too "game designy".
Although the European version of Rock Band comes equipped with 66 songs straight of the box, gamers with online access will also be able to sample the Music Store. Currently offering US customers over 70 extra tracks for download (either individually, or in three and six track packs), this service will also be extended to European gamers as well. What's more, you'll also be able to get a brief iTunes style preview of any track on there while you're browsing. The library is only set to expand as well, as Harmonix has made a commitment to keep providing its customers with more content through weekly updates until, err, Armageddon or something.
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