Publisher: Electronic Arts/MTV
Release Date: Holiday 2007
We've seen the future of awesome, and its name is Rock Band.
Harmonix had set up shop in a small room to the far left of the converted cafeteria at Electronic Arts' Los Angeles compound, isolated from the noise and spectacle of the dozens of other titles on display. How did we know where to find our first look at the multi-instrumental explosion of collaborative rhythm? There was a line outside the door — stretched 12 or more people deep at times.
It was like going to an exclusive club, but we weren't just waiting to see the band — we were waiting to be the band. After a few other grinning journalists filed out, it was our time to shine. We took note of the coolers of beer and the large bottle of Jack Daniels featured prominently underneath the flat-screen display, but liquid courage would not be necessary for this adventure. It was time to unleash the rock juice.
And with that, we got our first whack at Rock Band, the latest rhythm experience from Harmonix, creators of the wildly successful Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution series. As you have (hopefully) heard by now, Rock Band merges the key elements of those franchises with a wholly impressive percussion sim, resulting in an experience that truly lives up to its billing. With support for four simultaneous players (local, online, or both), Rock Band takes the Guitar Hero blueprint to fantastical new heights, bringing a much-needed sense of camaraderie to the rhythm genre.
It is important to note that all three of the instruments (guitar, bass guitar, and drums) keep with the general aesthetic and play style established in the original Guitar Hero. As the color-coded notes scroll from the top of the screen, players must hold the correct button and strum (or simply hit the indicated drum) when the note hits the designated area near the bottom of the screen. The same green-red-yellow-blue-orange string of notes has been carried over from Guitar Hero, though as evidenced in the latest batch of screens, the notes appear to be more rectangular than rounded.
On the game screen, the guitar and bass parts line the left or right side of the lower (and larger) part of the screen, while the drums are centered below the vocals, which take up the top quarter of the display. As in Karaoke Revolution, the vocals come in from the right side of the screen, while a horizontal line placed above each syllable represents the expected vocal tone. Just four notes scroll in a typical fashion for the drum part, but an orange line underneath the notes represents the fifth input, and is executed by kicking the bass drum pedal.
While the instruments on display at the event were not yet final, they looked and felt like the real deal, having been uniquely designed to mimic their real-life counterparts. As revealed last month, the wireless guitar has been modeled after the Fender Stratocaster, sporting a faux-wood grain neck, a black body with white plating, and 10 (!) fret buttons. In actuality, there are only five distinct buttons, but they have been repeated at the bottom of the neck in miniature form. These additional buttons are used for crazy soloing (as the player does not need to strum) or for an advanced two-handed attack.
Though the fret buttons are no longer solidly colored (in order to blend in with the neck), there are small color markings visible from above and below the neck. The Stratocaster plays about the same as one of the old Guitar Hero guitars, though it felt like it had a bit more heft to it. Getting used to the non-obviously colored buttons was tricky in the darkened room, but it probably won't be a lingering issue for those already used to Guitar Hero. We didn't have time to use it, but a five-way effect switch on the guitar will allow players to further manipulate the sound of the guitar (beyond the standard whammy bar).
The drum set prepared for the game was very impressive in its design and feel, and while it certainly doesn't resemble a real-life wood-and-metal set, it finds the solid middle ground between a high-end electronic set and some low-end practice pads. Four drums, each with a color-coded border, are laid out in a half-circle atop a collapsible riser, while the foot pedal rests comfortably below the right foot. You may have to provide your own stool (or just use the couch), but I'm particularly excited about the ability to use real, wooden drumsticks, a name-brand pair of which will likely be included with the set. I'll probably stick with my black Zildjian 5A's with the nylon tips, but it's always nice to have a backup pair.
As a real-life drummer, I found the transition to the digital set to be extremely comfortable and effective. Alex Rigopulos, president and CEO of Harmonix, approached me following my first attempt to ask if I was a drummer, as my experience showed in the execution of the track. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if real-life drummers have an easier transition than guitarists had with Guitar Hero, but don't think that the drumming is simplistic or easy to pick up from scratch. After seeing one of the more prominent gaming bloggers struggle mightily on Medium, it's pretty clear that, as with the guitars, practice will make perfect.
There's not a whole lot to the actual microphone in Rock Band, but there's certainly a bit more than meets the eye. For starters, unlike Karaoke Revolution, the game is not solely focused on detecting pitch, as it will also feature phoneme detection. What does this mean for gamers? Well, you'll actually have to sing the lyrics, rather than humming at random when you lose track of the words. Taking the vocal part includes an additional level of interactivity, as the player will be prompted to tap the mic at key moments to simulate hitting a tambourine or cowbell. It may not sound like much, but it adds to the collaborative process during instrumental segments.
When playing together, each player has a separate quality indicator, though all four take place on the same meter to save screen real estate. Should one player fall, he/she will not drag down the whole band, and others will have the ability to revive their bandmate. As in Guitar Hero, certain perfectly played segments will unlock juice (boost, power, etc.) that can be used to double one's multiplier, but Rock Band will also allow players to use that accumulated energy to revive a silenced player. Also expected on the full-band front are Unison Phrase segments, which will earn the group bonus points for playing perfectly. We didn't see this aspect in action, but along with the frequent opportunities for soloing, it's clear that Rock Band is a game that rewards both innovation and perfection.
Eight songs were playable at the event: Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," David Bowie's "Suffragette City," The Hives' "Main Offender," Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," Nirvana's "In Bloom," Weezer's "Say it Ain't So," and The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." Of those eight, only "Paranoid" and "Mississippi Queen" were covers, and it sounds as though the full game will be packed with original master tracks, unlike the cover-heavy soundtracks of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II. The playable tracks were divided by era ('70s, '90s, etc.) in the demo we saw, though a different breakdown may appear in the final release. While not officially confirmed, one of the screenshots reveals lyrics for The Ramones' "Rockaway Beach," so chances are good that one is included as well (in original or cover format).
An unbelievably immense amount of content will keep Rock Band rolling well into next year (and perhaps beyond), starting with the numerous single and multiplayer modes and extending to the considerable planned downloadable content. The Band World Tour mode looks to be the true highlight of the game, allowing up to four players (whether local, online, or a combination of both) to participate in a co-op style story mode. A character customization tool will be included to allow players to create the tattooed, patch-wearing rock star of their dreams. The characters that we saw looked fairly similar to those in Guitar Hero, but with more dynamic animations; we were really impressed by the characters' singing and guitar playing.
Three complete single-player campaigns (guitar/bass, drums, vocals) will also be included, with Rigopulos claiming that each instrumental campaign was "already bigger than Guitar Hero." And while downloadable content has yet to be discussed in detail (we don't even have a full track listing yet), Harmonix and MTV have teamed up with a number of record labels to ensure that they have a heap of tracks from which to choose. Word is that Harmonix has also not ruled out the possibility of creating full-band versions of favorites from the Guitar Hero series, so that may be something to look out for as EA and its partners work diligently to keep the Band together.
Despite concerns about pricing, it's hard to believe that people won't go absolutely bananas for Rock Band when it hits the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this fall. It has enough of the Guitar Hero formula to help players make the transition, and with the Neversoft-developed Guitar Hero III appearing to merely go through the motions this fall, Harmonix may have little difficulty holding onto the rhythm crown with Rock Band.
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