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Rock Band Review: Of A Million Faces, Both Seen and Rocked

Rock Band

In my all-too-long and all-too-expansive gaming career, there have only been a few times when a game registered on my radar and attracted my interest, despite being in a genre or gameplay mode that previously held no interest for me. I for years avoided the “extreme sports” games, because I couldn’t care less about skateboarding or BMX stunts or motocross…but then there was SSX. Rhythm games were until very recently in the same category. All the DDRs and Amplitudes and Frequencys in the world had done little to tempt me. I’m a 30-something white dude with no musical talent, for cryin’ out loud. Rhythm games are, by design, my kryptonite. Then, someone talked me into trying out Guitar Hero. Air guitar, but it keeps score? With crazy pyrotechnics and screaming fans and tour buses and actual songs I like? Sold. And despite having no rhythm and being (I suspect) tone deaf, I played the hell out of GH2 and GH3, and I do pretty well in both.

Thus it was that when Harmonix split from their peripheral partners Red Octane to announce Rock Band, I was doomed. The game promised all the goodness of Guitar Hero, but with a full four-piece rock ensemble and a steady stream of content, thanks to their partnership with MTV. Add in a selection committee for new tracks headed up by Little Steven, and release day could not get here fast enough. Months dragged by with leaked track lists, rumors about future downloads, and agonizingly brief video clips of games press folks getting to check the early builds out. Despite this, I waited too long on preordering a copy, and was informed two weeks before release that the store would not accept my preorder. Rumors swirled in the blogosphere about incredibly limited supply, holiday shortages, back orders for months…I began to fear the worst. A few friends had secured their orders, however, so I consoled myself with the knowledge I could still at least try the game out before the spring thaw.

[ad#longpost]The night after the game’s release, a buddy organized a party at his place to run the game through its paces. I arrived early, to get a few advance tracks under my belt before the crowd arrived, fearing that the sheer number of players at the party would mean I got in on one out of every four or five songs. Three last-minute cancellations later, it appeared I might get a full evening’s play in. I customized an avatar, a Swedish metal shredder known simply as “Bones” (a nod to the other band members, Captain Smirk and Mr. Rock). Strapping on a little fake Fender Strat, it was go time.

Six hours later, having played bars, nightclubs, and theaters in most of Europe’s capitol cities, the party wound down. I had spent pretty much the entire evening holding down lead guitar duties on songs ranging from Weezer to Garbage to Metallica. My forearms ached, my feet hurt, and despite the chilly weather, I’d worked up a pretty good sweat. I’d also rarely had so much fun in my life. A few beers into the evening, some of the bystanders got into the atmosphere enough to grab the microphone and belt out a few tunes with us. The game’s ability to make the world fall away and let you simply pretend to be a rock star was startling in its thoroughness. The players bantered almost exclusively in garage-band cliche, threatening to bounce the lead singer if he didn’t stop the prima donna bullshit, and everyone shouted down the bass player pretty much any time he said anything. I can’t recall another video game I’ve played in which the play continued after the controllers were disconnected.

Every conversation about weekend plans since that evening has involved scheming to try and “get the band back together.” We’re just a few thousand more fans away from opening up arena shows in Reykjavik and Tokyo, as well as a return trip to our home city of Stockholm to play the very last gig available there. This game has taken hold like a plague amongst my friends, and I even managed to secure my own copy thanks to some serious detective work on the part of a compatriot, who tracked down the last handful of copies in the entire city. While the single player isn’t nearly the immersive kickass experience that multiplayer can be, it’s a solid rhythm game that continues the fine tradition Harmonix has in the field. I like the song list significantly better than the latest Guitar Hero offering, and while Rock Band seems easier at a glance, the mechanics of playing guitar, drums, or singing are significantly more fickle than GH3, leading to a more challenging experience overall.

On top of an already solid track list, Rock Band has so far received weekly content updates, for those so inclined, at a price point that undercuts competitor GH3. The Police, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Queens of the Stone Age have already seen track packs released, as well as a smattering of individual tracks from CCR, Foreigner, and T-Rex, just to name a few. The real gem should come after the first of the year, when we’re told Harmonix/MTV will be releasing select full-length albums for the game. Rumor has it that these will begin with the release of 1971’s Who’s Next, from Mssrs. Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon, and Townshend, followed by seminal grunge classic Nevermind from Nirvana. I personally would have preferred Tommy or Quadrophenia, but I can’t argue too loudly. If the selection committee continues to pick the album releases from such rarefied air, I’ll be hocking my other games to pay for downloads by next summer.

If you’ve ever hammered out a drum beat on the steering wheel, played air guitar, or howled lyrics into the showerhead, this game is the ultimate expression of that rock star fantasy given form. While the single player mode certainly has much to recommend it (essentially getting the equivalent of a new Guitar Hero, “Drum Hero,” and “Mic Hero” in one package), the true master stroke of Rock Band doesn’t show itself until you get a group of buddies together and go berserk. Will you look like a dork with your little plastic guitar or pretend drums? Yeah, you probably will. But thousands of screaming fans singing the chorus (“Waaaaaanted!”) along with you goes a long way to making you get over it and have a blast.

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Author’s Note: Inspired largely by a well-written dissection of the big-outlet games review modus operandi by Penny Arcade’s Gabe (scroll down, it’s worth reading), I’m taking up his suggestion that folks post their gamercard/ID/whatever alongside reviews. Around here, I frequently lag behind release week in talking about games, and this is in large part due to my desire to see most or all of what a game has to offer before offering up an opinion on the subject. From here on out, my card will appear at the bottom of any game review I write, so folks can decide for themselves if it looks like I put enough time in to have an informed opinion.