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TVG picks up a guitar and butchers some of the Beatles' greatest hits...
Before writing this preview, I thought it only fitting to play some of the Fab Four' classic songs while I work. Forgetting momentarily that Apple Corps and EMI own the rights to the entire Beatles' catalogue, I turned to Spotify to set the mood. However, in lieu of actual Beatles records, it seems that Spotify has saturated its library with thousands of bargain bin covers - among which lurk some genuine shockers. There's The Beatles for the Sleeping Baby, The Beatles in Bossa Nova and my personal favourite, Gregorian Beatles by The Chant Masters, which has a cover of Lady Madonna that is so good that I defy anyone to resist bobbing their head along to it, albeit followed by a deep sense of shame and self-loathing.
My forage into the world of Beatles covers, appalling as they are, suggested one of two things: either that there are a lot of musicians who love and admire the work of the Beatles or that the Beatles' catalogue is a massive, ever-flowing cash cow, even if you are a bunch of monks with a keyboard. Realistically, there's a measure of both at work here, and the same is true of Harmonix's latest addition to the Rock Band series. While this will wring even more money out of the Beatles' catalogue, Harmonix seems to sincerely want to do justice to the music and career of the Beatles. What better way to do this than to involve The Beatles themselves?
At E3 in June, the remaining members of the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, gave the game their seal of approval on stage. However, according to Harmonix their role hasn't just been superficial. Both McCartney and Ringo have actually invested time in the game to ensure that it lives up to the Beatles' name.
The Holy Grail
Amidst the star power of a name as blinding as the Beatles, phrases like "cultural movement" and "iconic figures" are banded about so it's easy to forget that they actually just wrote amazing songs. As clichéd as it sounds, their music ignored boundaries and was enjoyed by fans of all genres, making them perfect source for this kind of game. Their songs, whether you know them or not, are instantly enjoyable and can lure even the most sceptical of gamers into picking up a remote and playing along - a point that was immediately proven when I took to the bass guitar for Here Comes the Sun at our first hands-on of The Beatles: Rock Band. Of course, it's my job to try out the game, but my point is that while listening to the music and watching others play the game, I actually got fairly excited about having a go, despite the fact that I would have to play on a stage, in front of a room full of games journalists.
Infectious as the music is, Harmonix hasn't simply relied on the power of the Beatle's song writing ability to carry the game. In the same way that Get Back will be remembered for that performance on the roof of Apple Corps, each song we were shown had a distinct visual identity that complemented it. By rigorously studying the source material it's easy enough to recreate this for the iconic performances, of which the Beatles have plenty, but Harmonix has also done this for songs recorded later in their career when they stopped touring.
To capture the essence of later songs that were never performed live, Harmonix has created scenes which they have dubbed "dreamscapes". In songs like I Am The Walrus, they have followed the music video closely, while in others like Here Comes the Sun they have put their art team to work creating visual interpretations of these songs. Inevitably, Here Comes the Sun is played on a blissful field with the backdrop of the sun rising and Octopus's Garden is set in, well, an octopus's garden. Though they lack the adventure of some of The Beatles' visual offerings (taking Yellow Submarine as an example) they're charming enough and feel authentic.
The Beatles: Rock Band wouldn't feel authentic without the three-part vocalising that became so distinctive in their music. In the only real change from the familiar Rock Band experience, Harmonix has included three vocal parts meaning that up to six players can play at the same time now. While the guitars, bass and drums charts share the majority of the screen, the three vocal lines share a section at the top. Each vocal thread is colour-coded and has a small arrow tracking your actual singing against your part across the screen, making it hard to ever confuse your part, even when they cross each other.
On the odd occasion where songs have separate lyrics, the end of I Am The Walrus for example, the lyrics alternate on the top and bottom. If you have three mics, and manage to hit all three parts you get a unison bonus for your efforts, and if you think your friends are tone deaf, you can prove it using the analysis screen at the end, which will point out the notes you failed to hit. In a nice touch you can also jump from the melody to a harmonising part if it takes your fancy, and the game will record it, although you'll only get max points if someone else is hitting the parts you're missing. If you're really having trouble hitting the three-part harmonies then there's even a training mode to get you through it.
Having all of this on screen was actually a lot of fun and although there was a stocked bar to inspire a bit of Dutch courage, none of it was needed, as people were raring to jump on and sing along - such is the power of the Beatles. Unlike previous Rock Band games, easy mode is now set to have no fails by default, sparing newcomers the embarrassment of missing notes and killing a song midway through and then going through the agony of watching someone turn on no-fail mode in the options. Clearly, they're anticipating a much wider audience this time around.
When I finally took to the stage, this new feature was definitely a welcome addition, saving me from ruining the game for everyone else on at least three occasions. Picking up the limited edition replica of McCartney's Hofner bass - with a longer fret board than the guitars - I got ready to butcher Here Comes The Sun. Together with the Gretsch Duo Jet and the Rickenbacker 325, the guitars make a handsome collection that will raise the eyebrows of dedicated fans, but at around £180 for the whole set, it is a little pricey. However, Harmonix tells us that they have ensured that almost every music-based peripheral on the market will work on this game, avoiding forcing gamers to buy new gear just to play their game.
Admittedly, when playing the bass on easy mode, the charting seemed more or less random at times, but it was quick to pick up and a good entry platform to get you hooked. It also gave me a chance to test out the new vocal harmonising. Thankfully the audience was spared my singing as the mics weren't turned up very high, but the sensitivity seems to have been improved to cater for tracking three harmonies at once. Jumping between them is easy enough, but the trick is to ensure your "band" has the melody covered to ensure maximum points. Do this all at harder levels (although the singing has one difficulty) and the game becomes more and more like the real thing.
Trying out the song Get Back, on a harder level and on the guitar this time, the game began to make more and more sense. In the visuals, the roof of Apple Corps has been lovingly rebuilt and the Beatles' performance carefully re-enacted, and while you're engrossed trying to match the charting, it's difficult not to get carried away in it all.
A New Dawn
The Beatles: Rock Band is a tribute, but instead of more traditional mediums, it has come to the video game. It is undeniably cashing in on the Beatles' name, and decisions like releasing the Abbey Road album as DLC soon after the 09.09.09 release make it hard to overlook this. On top of this there will only be 45 songs, half the number that appeared in Rock Band 2.
For those that are interested, here's the list of announced songs so far:
- I Saw Her Standing There
- I want To Hold Your Hand
- I Feel Fine
- Day Tripper
- I Am The Walrus
- Octopus's Garden
- Here Comes The Sun
- Get Back
- Twist And Shout
- Do You Want To Know A Secret
- Can't Buy Me Love
- I Wanna Be Your Man
- Back In The U.S.S.R.
- Eight Days A Week
- Paperback Writer
- And Your Bird Can Sing
- Sgt. Pepper's LHCB
- With A Little Help From My Friends
- Within You Without You/ Tomorrow Never Knows
- Yellow Submarine
- Dig A Pony
- I've Got A Feeling
Harmonix has gone to great effort to make a game true to the spirit of The Beatles to appease their fans, and also bring the music to a new audience. New features like the vocal harmonizing and the dreamscapes are well executed but the game's success will rest on how it delivers the Beatles experience across their career to make you feel like you haven't just paid full price for a Rock Band add-on.
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