When it comes to cultural icons, The Beatles are worldwide heavyweights. Anyone who was alive in the '60s knows who they are, and chances are that their kids do as well. The lads from Liverpool may have started out as a small local band, but they quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, rising to superstardom across the world. While the individual band members occasionally stirred up controversy, the music they produced rose above it all. Now, thanks to a chance meeting with the son of Beatle George Harrison, the Fab Four have been reborn as ageless avatars on a digital stage, ready to inspire a new generation of music fans with The Beatles: Rock Band.
One part art project, one part game and a whole bunch of fan service, The Beatles: Rock Band is an interesting mix. On the one hand, it is packed chock full of Beatles trivia; the disc contains more than 100 archive photos and rare cuts that very few American fans have ever had the chance to track down, such as the very first Beatles Christmas album. On the other hand, the underlying gameplay is very much Rock Band 2. The core mechanics haven't changed one bit. Sure, the game has been given a facelift and the vocal harmony feature has been added, but under it all, it's still Rock Band 2 driving the show.
For those unfamiliar with the Rock Band concept, the game allows players to take on the various roles of a band — vocalist, guitar, drums, bass guitar — by way of plastic instruments. It's halfway between air guitar and a fancy version of karaoke, but it is loads of fun, so long as the music selection rocks.
The music selection is perhaps one of the most contentious points in the game, both for what it includes and what it does not. Consisting of a total of 44 playable tracks, the game has a number of massive hits such as "Yellow Submarine," "Back in the U.S.S.R.," and "A Hard Day's Night," but others, such as "Hey Jude," are notably missing. It's a given that no particular song selection would satisfy every fan, yet with only 44 tracks on offer, The Beatles: Rock Band is something of a relative lightweight. By comparison, Rock Band 2 shipped with more than 100 songs.
Despite the fact that The Beatles: Rock Band shares much with Rock Band 2, DLC between the two games is NOT cross-compatible. Given that a good deal of the franchise's popularity is due to the rather universal nature of its DLC, it is disappointing to see The Beatles: Rock Band take a step back in this regard. Any songs you have purchased for use with Rock Band or Rock Band 2 are not playable in The Beatles: Rock Band and vice versa. So even though Harmonix has announced DLC for the new game, don't make any plans on rocking out with an ultimate setlist. Given the sheer popularity of The Beatles, this is a decision that we can envision being made for nothing other than monetary reasons.
Aside from those two points, there is little to complain about regarding the game, especially if you're a fan of the group. Harmonix has treated the subject matter with utmost care, creating caricatures that exemplify the band in its youth without looking overly cartoonish. It's easy enough to imagine that you've stepped through a time warp and ended up back in the swinging '60s yourself. The crowd shots aren't quite as detailed (we'd swear we saw the same four girls at every venue), but it's the band that matters.
Where The Beatles: Rock Band does take a departure from the prior titles is with the introduction of "dreamscapes." The first few venues you play are done in the traditional Rock Band style, but once you make it to the Abbey Road studio, the game changes gears a bit. Rather than simply show the band in the studio, each song features an individual fantasy video that is specific to the lyrics at hand. The dreamscapes are virtual videos that could easily stand alone by themselves. They serve to make The Beatles: Rock Band just as engaging to watch as it is to play. If there was something we could add in an update, it would be the ability to just set the game on autoplay and watch the dreamscapes cycle through in full screen mode without any of the game UI to clutter up the visuals.
Also new to The Beatles: Rock Band is the ability to sing a three-part vocal harmony in traditional Beatles style. Supporting up to three microphones (depending on the song), the harmonies require each vocalist to sing at a slightly different pitch in order to get the sound just right. It can be maddeningly difficult to hit on your first attempt, but if you happen to have a lyrically talented group, hearing a trio sing in unison is a treat. Of course, finding three people who are all willing to sing for a round is a challenge in and of itself. Thankfully, there is a harmony section in the training mode, which helps smooth out the bumps in the road when you're first trying to get the hang of things.
We mentioned the unlockables briefly before, but it's worth noting again — these aren't simple throwaways or brief clips. Harmonix has done an excellent job of chronicling some of the key points in Beatles history. The archival photos are a blast to flip through, and the trivia is always an interesting read. There is likely something new to be learned here even for the most hardcore of Beatles fans. Toss in the rare video segments, and you have a cornucopia of treats. Heck, you even get an exclusive Beatles shirt for your Xbox Live avatar.
Hardware-wise, the game is available either as a lone disc, in a bundle with the Rock Band 2 instruments or in a limited edition bundle with Beatles-themed instruments. Buying the limited edition bundle is purely a matter of looks. We tested The Beatles: Rock Band with Lips wireless microphones as well as Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour instruments, and everything worked just fine. If you have a set of instruments lying around from a previous music game, there's no need to splurge for the expensive kit.
In the end, The Beatles: Rock Band is a game for Beatles fans, by Beatles fans. While it may have the Rock Band 2 core underneath, the sheer amount of Beatles content here outweighs the purely gaming content. This is evident throughout, even so far as the Rock Band name takes secondary billing to The Beatles in the title. If you're a Beatles fan of any stripe, then this is a game you need to have in your collection, hands down.
For the non-Beatles fans out there, The Beatles: Rock Band is still a great game, as it does have Rock Band 2 at its core, but it's not quite the experience that its predecessor was. The songs are catchy (and if you start playing, you're likely to find yourself becoming a fan of the band), but the limited track list and limited DLC interoperability knock things down a notch when The Beatles: Rock Band is compared to its peers. So long as you don't mind a short, but sweet, experience, it's worth checking out. Just don't expect a revolution.
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