We've seen a lot of music rhythm games this year. I was running through this year's titles from Harmonix, EA and Activision, and so far, we've had Band Hero, The Beatles: Rock Band, DJ Hero, Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero Metallica and Guitar Hero Smash Hits. Now comes LEGO Rock Band, which is a joint development effort from Traveller's Tales and Harmonix, and it's being published by Warner Bros., as opposed to Electronic Arts. Traveller's Tales has been responsible for all the LEGO-themed titles we've seen over the past few years, starting with the LEGO Star Wars games and moving on to LEGO Indiana Jones and LEGO Batman.
With the combination of two big franchises in LEGO Rock Band, you'd think you would be in store for something special. The end result, however, is a tad bit disappointing, and while I knew that this was going to be a more kid-friendly approach to the Rock Band franchise, there are still a few things that struck me as odd about this release. For one thing, there's no bundle release for this game; it's a standalone product, meaning that they're already expecting you to own a version of Rock Band or Guitar Hero. If you already own one, then why bother with a kid-friendly release in the first place? The other issue is with the title's lack of an online multiplayer mode. These have been standard since Guitar Hero 3, and while the original Rock Band was lacking an online band mode, the sequel more than rectified the problem. There was even band support in The Beatles: Rock Band, so why a step backward for LEGO Rock Band? Both of these decisions struck me as being a little odd, but I remained optimistic about the final product.
The first thing that you'll notice when you boot up the game is that the LEGO license is used to full effect. Little things, like the environments, the venue selection screen, and even the note buttons on the fret board are infused with a LEGO theme, so if nothing else, the game makes great use of the license. Even the venues that you'll play in are all based on pre-existing LEGO sets, including the LEGO Speedway, LEGO Construction Zone and LEGO Skyscraper. It's a nice touch for a licensed title like this, and one that I'd expect to see out of Traveller's Tales to begin with, as they have a particular knack for little details in their other LEGO-themed titles.
The humor is another thing that Traveller's Tales does a solid job with, and it's present and accounted for in LEGO Rock Band. There's a little bit lost since you're not dealing with recognizable characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but there is plenty of stuff to laugh at in the cut scenes and some of the antics that play out while you're playing a song or two (assuming you can pay attention to the background). With the lack of licensed characters, the game more than makes up for it by including tons of unlockable content, both for playable characters and members of your band staff and entourage. For playable characters, you'll get some pretty cool additions like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, but there are also a couple of duds, like the random construction worker guy.
In fact, unlockables are the word of the day when it comes to LEGO Rock Band. As you play venues in the main career mode, you'll gain LEGO studs that can be spent on various items and characters. Most of the unlockable items are tied to your lounge area, which works like the in-game menu for venue selection, band editing and other preferences. From there, you can add new furniture and other knickknacks that you've unlocked for purchasing. It's pretty easy to switch between options, and there's a ton of stuff to buy and unlock throughout the game. As far as additional non-player characters go, you can unlock band staff and entourage members, who will provide bonuses to the amount of fans you'll earn after completing a set and the amount of LEGO studs you'll get. The more fans you've earned, the more venues and sets you'll unlock within those venues, thus opening up more tracks to play. The progression here is remarkably similar to the previous Rock Band titles, so fans of the series will feel right at home with the presentation. Along with characters, you'll also unlock various LEGO-built vehicles to buy, and this also unlocks additional venues.
Since the game is modeled heavily after Rock Band 2, within the venues you'll still have the basic songs available to play, along with the mystery set lists that choose a song or two at random, and the custom set list, which lets you choose your own group of songs from the available tunes. I'm not a big fan of the mystery set lists in Rock Band, and it's no better here, especially when you consider that the track list is made up of a much smaller selection than Rock Band 2. You'll run into quite a few repetitive selections. For instance, I played a venue yesterday with Rascal Flatts' rendition of "Life is a Highway," only to enter a mystery set list that had me immediately replaying the same song right away. I find that aspect to be pretty annoying, and the smaller track list only manages to exacerbate it.
As far as the selection for the track list goes, you can immediately tell it's a more "family-friendly" set of songs than most Rock Band selections. It's not a bad set, though; I found quite a few tunes that I enjoyed throughout the game, but I do lament that it's a bit on the short side. Because of that, the single-player experience is over quickly, and while you can import some Rock Band stuff into the game, and vice versa, it doesn't make the game feel like a full-fledged release within the series. This title does clock in a little cheaper at $50, but without the online mode, I feel that it could have easily been offered at an even lower price point.
Following a bit in the footsteps of Activision's recent "Hero" releases, LEGO Rock Band also includes a few actual musicians to play as, including notable entries like David Bowie and Queen. It's pretty cool to see little LEGO versions of Bowie and Freddie Mercury, but there's not much to do with them outside of their own songs, and I was a little surprised to see that Traveller's Tales didn't try to interject some humor here. A failed opportunity at making a Ziggy Stardust joke or two was disappointing, but I suppose Ziggy might not have much of a place in a kid-themed version of Rock Band either. I'd have still liked to see a little more done with the real musicians if they were going to be used in the game, as their placement here as "inspiration" tracks isn't that well integrated into the experience.
One final addition to the LEGO Rock Band experience comes from event songs that occur in certain venues. These songs play out a bit like a music video as opposed to a normal track that you'd play; as you rock out during the song, you'll cause something to happen in the environment around you. The first time you run into this is with the Construction Yard venue, where you'll be demolishing a building as you play, and you get little bonuses and lines of encouragement as your stage antics pulverize the building around you. It's a neat thing to see, and while it's a little lost on the player since you're so focused on actually playing the song, they're still pretty cool to go back and watch. They're certainly more dynamic than the static stage that you see most of the time. I wouldn't mind seeing this put into future Rock Band titles in some fashion, as it's one of the cooler features to be introduced in this game.
Although LEGO Rock Band does lack online multiplayer and the set list isn't nearly as fleshed out as Rock Band 2, it still has some neat little things going for it, mostly stemming from the use of the LEGO license. As far as how the game plays, it's identical in fashion to previous Rock Band releases, and the difficulty is certainly in tune with Rock Band 2, as opposed to the easier difficulty of the recent Beatles release. If you're already on board with Rock Band, and you're still enjoying the music rhythm genre despite the glut of releases that have come out this year, then there's no real reason why you won't like LEGO Rock Band. I wish it felt more like a full game and included an online mode along and a meatier list of songs, but I can't say that the game does anything particularly wrong. It's certainly kid-friendly, easy to pick up and play, and has enough unlockables to make it a game that you'll spend quite a bit of time replaying.
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