The game I took out of my Xbox 360 when I got my review copy of Rock Band 2 was the original Rock Band. This speaks volumes to the original's quality and longevity as a rhythm title. Rock Band entirely eclipsed what the stagnating Guitar Hero franchise was doing with the new rhythm genre, and that puts a very difficult task before Rock Band 2. How do you follow a revolution, without resorting to the glorified expansion pack hucksterism that has marred the Guitar Hero titles of the past year?
The answer is, apparently, that you make an insanely good expansion pack loaded with revolutionary features that enhance and expand on Rock Band 2's core identity as the ultimate party game. Rock Band 2 essentially does everything that the original did, only better, while introducing a slew of user-friendly features that make the title essentially endless. This is clearly something designed to keep people busy until Rock Band 3 hits a year or two from now, and it does a truly excellent job of that. It doesn't feel like a stopgap, instead offering tons of new features without really changing anything that fundamentally worked about the Rock Band formula.
The basic gameplay is the same, for instance. You can do vocals with a microphone, play lead or bass with a guitar controller, or use Rock Band's once-unique drum kit to play the percussion portion of a song. The actual gameplay is still essentially a clone of Guitar Hero's (fitting, as Rock Band is the product of Guitar Hero's creators), where you match cues as they scroll down the screen while the vocalist matches phrases scrolling across a screen. Every instrument does this with its own particular emphasis. Bass can get the highest score modifier but has to be able to hit repetitive beat patterns flawlessly to take full advantage of this. Lead guitar offers more immediate difficulty in the form of complicated solo and harmony patterns. A drummer has to coordinate the basic beats along with use of the foot pedal and complicated rules of taking advantage of Overdrive, Rock Band's Star Power equivalent.
Trying to play the original Rock Band with four people quickly turned your living room into a tangled wasteland of cords and wires. Rock Band 2 simplifies that tremendously, as it introduces a new wireless guitar controller and a wireless drum kit. Both sets are tremendous improvements over the old wired versions simply because they can be positioned more freely in a room. The actual guitar is a massive improvement over the original Rock Band guitar in terms of construction quality, and its Fender Stratocaster styling looks sharp. While the fret buttons are still not brightly colored in the manner of a Guitar Hero guitar, there are now Braille-like bump patterns on the buttons that help you remember exactly where your hand is positioned. This makes the guitar more practical for use on higher difficulty, although I've still never seen anyone use the lower set of "solo" fret buttons.
The major design flaw in the original Rock Band guitar was the strum bar, which was flimsy and broke easily. The one packaged with my original copy of Rock Band became useless for play in roughly three days, rendering the game sort of unplayable unless you already had a pair of Guitar Hero controllers in the house. Rock Band 2's wireless guitar has a much sturdier strum bar; it feels very stiff and "sticky" compared to the looser strum bar of most Guitar Hero controllers, and using it requires a certain amount of adjustment in your technique. Once you are used to it, the Rock Band 2 wireless guitar performs very well both in the bass and lead roles, and on a variety of difficulty settings. It is powered by three AA batteries and didn't seem to be draining them as quickly as Wiimotes do.
As dramatically improved as the Rock Band 2 wireless guitar is, the wireless drum kit is an even more dramatic improvement, and we can absolutely recommend its purchase. Not only is it easier to get into a comfortable drumming position with the wires gone, but the drum pads are much sturdier and better-made this go-round. It has a lot of features that will be of interest to "serious" drummers, as the kit ships with digital ports that allow some fairly sophisticated drumming equipment to be attached to them. Instead of solid plastic like the original, the new pads are rubberized and set into plastic bases on a sort of "stem" that gives if you feel the need to hit the pad very hard. The result is that the pads are far more responsive at higher difficulty, and a bit quieter. However, the wireless drum kit doesn't fully address the needs of a Rock Band "power drummer." If you want to practice without the sound of your drumsticks drowning out your music, you'll still need to use silencer pads or perform the famous drumstick sock mod. While the pads are improved for high-level play, someone really interested in serious online competition is probably still going to end up using modded drumsticks for extra responsiveness.
When it comes to the game itself, the first thing that needs to be remarked upon with Rock Band 2 is its unprecedented backward compatibility. Along with the 84 new songs that ship with the game, Rock Band 2 is fully compatible with the 500-plus Rock Band DLC songs, and allows you to rip and import every single song from the original Rock Band into the Rock Band 2 song library for the nominal fee of roughly $5. No rhythm game series has ever been so concerned with not making consumers pay twice for the same songs, or making sure people really get their money's worth out of DLC. This feature alone almost completely justifies the cost of Rock Band 2 to someone who owns the original game, since it means you can start the game with literally hundreds of songs to choose from and plenty more to buy. To a newbie, it guarantees you can start your game with DLC songs to suit your taste, and it makes the original game a worthwhile purchase for the extra songs.
Granted, you may want to wait until you've cleared the game's World Tour mode and unlocked all of the on-disc songs before you import tons of original Rock Band music. As with the original game, you don't get to use songs in Quickplay or other game modes until you've had a band "unlock" them by clearing them once on any difficulty in World Tour mode. This isn't too terribly time-consuming, and a tour can still be plenty of fun with a good group of friends as your band. Perhaps best of all, you can now tour with a band formed over Xbox Live, which means Rock Band 2 is a worthwhile purchase for someone who doesn't have a lot of gamer friends in meatspace or who primarily wants to play with particular online buddies. You can even move an offline band online and then back again, depending on which people you want to play with, and it's very nice to be able to play with, say, a couple of friends in meatspace and a fourth buddy over Live. Your band is no longer tethered to a "leader" character who must play in order for the band to do anything. Instead, any member of the band can play at any time, online or offline, provided the gamertag that "owns" the band is signed in. This opens up nice possibilities like someone who just feels like noodling solo going into Tour mode to earn goodies for the rest of the band when everyone can get together to play again.
The World Tour mode itself is basically unchanged, save for Rock Band 2 using a different and better-designed song selection. You still play different cities, trying to unlock new venues and the new songs they provide for your Quickplay library. Rock Band 2 is friendlier to a group composed of widely varying skill levels, as the game's low-level songs are more interesting and scale more reasonably up into encouraging play on high levels. You don't stop gaining fans at any point in Tour mode for playing on low difficulty, although the game still counts the lowest difficulty selected by any member of the band as your "real" difficulty level. There are also tutorials to help first-time players who want to learn a new instrument develop basic skills. On high difficulties, Rock Band 2 gets more challenging by default than the original dared, but this is also something that enhances the gameplay. The game is a bit looser in how it detects what is and isn't a valid hit on the beat, so getting up to highest difficulty is more feasible, though you still have to work at it.
Once you've conquered Tour mode, Rock Band 2 offers players a lot more to do than just go back and try to get more stars on higher difficulties in the tour, or compete for position on the leaderboards. Two new modes you can take your band into are the Challenges and Battle of the Bands mode. Challenges are essentially sets that you can play outside of Tour mode, built around particular themes or songs. Completing one unlocks another, more difficult one. Conquering Challenges is quite satisfying, and with Harmonix promising Challenge sets based on different events and DLC songs, a band that really likes them probably won't be able to run out of them easily.
Battle of the Bands mode is cleverly pitched as online "versus" mode that pits rival bands against each other, but it's really more passive than that. Each "Battle" is essentially a custom leaderboard that only posts scores according to certain gimmicks. For instance, Impossible Battle calls for Expert or higher difficulty and no use of Overdrive. Once you agree to the battle, you play what appears to be a predetermined, or at least CPU-chosen, set list. Your score at the end of the set is ranked in a variety of ways, first against the specific "band" you were battling, and then against every band that attempted to compete in the battle. Your band gains money and other rewards for battling, and there's nothing to lose. There are battles for virtually every skill level, which means that you don't have to become a grand master in gameplay before you can enjoy this feature (although being a grand master can't hurt). For competitive players or folks who really like to compare scores with friends, Battle of the Bands also tremendously extends the gameplay by giving your band more to do once you've conquered Tour mode.
For the most part, Rock Band 2 is a truly excellent game just by virtue of sanding the rough edges off of the basic Rock Band premise and offering so much support for online play and expanded song libraries. The game is still not without a small share of disappointments, though. A basic problem of the vocal technology that Harmonix uses is that it lets you pass songs without actually singing the on-screen lyrics; your voice just has to be on pitch. This destroyed the vocal difficulty curve for the original Rock Band, and Rock Band 2 seems to have put no effort into improving the situation. There are plenty of supposedly difficult vocals you can pass easily by just singing random consonants or repeating a particular word. This makes vocals a far less satisfying position to play than any of the others, at least in terms of difficulty. World Tour mode is also far too similar to the original's, with only increased frequency of random events that boost fans and cash and the ability to hire Staffers to set it apart. The former is inconsequential, and for the latter, some Staffers are so obviously better than others that you tend to hire whoever seems best all-around and then forget about using things like regional specialists. Finally, the Rock Shop doesn't offer a selection of clothing that's really any better than the original game's, and there's no hint of DLC support in the form of additional outfits or instruments. Since you can't do anything with money you earn in-game other than spend it at the Rock Shop, not offering better expanded support for this feature seems a little disappointing.
Overall, though, Rock Band 2 is still a game that is completely worth your money. It does a lot to cater to nearly all skill levels and playing styles, and it's one of the most user-friendly rhythm games ever published. The enhanced support for DLC makes sure you always have songs around that people want to hear, and the on-disc song selection is already an excellent assortment of classic rock, pop, metal and alt/indy pieces. The enhanced support for online play makes it easier to find people to play with and gives you more things to do. Rock Band 2 is, basically, an awesome game that's been made more awesome. Here's hoping other rhythm titles see fit to follow in its footsteps, and start making some of its remarkable online and DLC features into the standards they should be.
More articles about Rock Band 2