How can a game be both so much more than its predecessors, and yet so much less at the same time? This conundrum defined what I saw of the upcoming Rock Band release, The Beatles: Rock Band. The game floored me as a Beatles release, but its heritage as a Rock Band game seems a bit tenuous.
The basics are all there; this is Rock Band, with one significant evolution and some major interface modifications that I'll get to in a bit. The big new idea is three-part vocal harmony; if you have enough microphones hooked up, you can have three singers. All three vocal parts are scored together, so for each song section, there are either one, two or three lines. If there's one line, whoever sang that line best is the one scored. If there are two or three lines, however, the main line judged is the blue line of the lead singer. If they all do well and the other lines are well covered in harmony by the other players, you can get a "Double" or "Triple Fab" bonus, earning more points. If you're singing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," having all three people warbling their way through the many solo parts may not feel quite right, even if it is fun. On the other hand, this has the side effect of de-emphasizing the singer — and some guitarists may prefer it that way. I wish that the opportunity had been given to play three guitars as well, for the true Fab Four effect.
The game's interface has seen some major clean-up; not only is there a customized Beatles feel to it (for example, "Awesome" vocal lines are now "Fab!"), but there are also some major changes in how spoken lines are handled. As I was playing the live demo, the group of four random journalists happened to agree on "I Am the Walrus." Those who have paid attention to the song might know that there are two very different sets of spoken words during much of the tune. The game provided neatly for this, with a dedicated line for the second sung or spoken line on the top of the vocal interface when it was necessary. The background of the vocal interface also shifted colors a bit to more precisely show when things could be spoken.
The Beatles: Rock Band will provide 45 songs from The Beatles' catalog, a cross-section of their entire history right off the bat, no unlocking necessary. While it wasn't shown, developers promised to use the Tour mode to provide authenticity to the experience, including re-creations of major points in the band's history, including Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios. The devs admitted that the studio would look rather boring when compared to the crowd-filled, manic backgrounds of the main series, but fortunately, a solution is very handy to anyone who has ever watched a Beatles film. Imaginative, stoner-friendly "Dreamscape" effects will fill the band's performances when the song was recorded at the studio and not often performed live. These effects are neatly done and evoke the films without aping their style.
Notably, the graphics keep the Rock Band style mostly in the background; The Beatles are rendered in that iconic style, instruments are rendered realistically, and nothing gets in the way of the players' performances.
After a group of the developers finished the demonstration, though, I had to pop the question about DLC. The Beatles: Rock Band's DLC store is completely separate from that of the previous titles; as funny as it would be for The Beatles to play some Weezer or AC/DC, it's not going to happen. The fact that this applies both ways disappointed me a bit, but it was noted that the game's DLC packages will be, "at least for the foreseeable future", 100 percent Beatles. I explicitly asked about parody band The Monkees and was told "no," which is odd, since the copyright on those songs is also easily available to Apple records as well.
To put the popularity of The Beatles: Rock Band into perspective, we're talking the biggest rock group of all time, in one of the biggest video games of all time. Harmonix is on its way to making another hit.
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