I wanna rock all over again.
If you were to ask me how many drunken parties I’ve thrown on behalf of the original Rock Band, there’s no way I could produce an accurate estimate. Harmonix’s ambitious musical franchise (with an equally ambitious price tag) has become quite the phenomenon following its release last year. While the thought of pounding out mad beats and searing through licks by way of plastic musical equipment might have initially seemed peculiar, these days it’s happily mainstream and often the life of the party.
Countless nights of pseudo-rock and 207 downloadable songs later, enter Rock Band 2, which might best be described as a cross between a sequel and a massive expansion pack. Purists will be glad to know that, in spite of occasional enhancements, Harmonix hasn’t changed the fundamentals of the gameplay—you can jump right into the sequel and you’ll hardly even notice the difference from the outset. Instead, the developers have layered additional content on top of the beloved foundation to further expand and streamline an already phenomenal experience. The result is a new benchmark for music and rhythm games—one that’s sure to reinvigorate your recreational gatherings.
Picking up a new instrument
Well, sort of new, anyway. While EA were kind enough to send us the game itself for review, I felt it was important to cover some of the aspects of the newly-released Rock Band 2 peripherals as well, so I lumbered over to my local Gamestop and picked up a spanking-new Wireless Guitar and Wireless Drum Set (be sure to get the Rock Band 2 versions of these if you’re out shopping—the original packaging is very similar to that of the new instruments, so it’s easy to confuse them). I didn’t get the new mic, but it’s basically the same thing as the original one anyway.
If you’re an Xbox 360 owner, you may recall the obstacle course of sprawling wires that spider-webbed themselves throughout your living room every time you fired up the original Rock Band for a concert. You have no doubt also grown accustomed to the projectile guitars and microphones as your careless (read: wasted) friend stumbles recklessly through this tangled wilderness and sends them flying from the musicians’ hands. And if you are fortunate enough to have a wife, you’ve probably caught hell more than a few times about the ornamental plastic drum set you left sitting behind the curtains in an attempt to avoid the hassle of disentangling it and hauling it to storage in the hall closet. Well, rejoice, my fellow Rock Band addicts, because with the new wireless guitar and drum set available for Rock Band 2, this scenario is no longer. Now, the room is clean, there’s plenty of space, and there’s no grief to be had when passing the guitar to the next guy after you get sick of strumming mindlessly to Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle after your drummer fails the song for the fifth straight time. I haven’t had the chance to assess the battery life quite yet (seeing as that will take weeks), but we’d imagine it’s probably quite good. Nevertheless, as with the Wii remotes, I always recommend rechargeable batteries if you want to really get your money’s worth.
Apart from that, both peripherals also feature notable mechanical improvements that make for the most seamless virtual rock experience to date. The guitar’s strum bar is now “less mushy” as one Harmonix employee put it at E3; that is to say, it features a much more defined “click” in both directions now, providing additional rhythmic feedback while playing, and it also requires less force. The styling is much slicker and more authentic and the fret buttons feature intuitive Braille-like markers to help you keep your fingers in the right spot without having to glance down at them (which can obviously be catastrophic while playing many of the songs). The drums respond more accurately, are now pressure-sensitive, and are considerably quieter than their wired counterparts. They also feature three ports on the back for soon-to-be-released cymbal attachments (sold separately) which can be used as a substitute for three of the drum pads at will while playing. Some users have reported problems with crosstalk between a couple of the pads, but I experienced no such problems. Overall, the new instruments are an expensive yet luxurious update for those of you who know you’ll play them enough to get your money’s worth out of them anyway.
Harder, faster, and longer†
That pretty much sums up the general Rock Band 2 experience. Let’s start with the set list. There’s more songs (84 on the disc in fact, with 20 more available for free download soon), and the musical selection is diverse and (mostly) logical. You’ll find a good variety of tunes from every decade since the inception of the electric guitar (60’s and beyond), and most of them are well-suited to the Rock Band experience. As always, a few are questionable, however, and there are always going to be songs which are heavy on fun for one particular band member and dreadfully boring for the others (e.g., Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, which hardly even featured any guitar to begin with; I’m pretty sure they interpreted a good portion of the synth as actual real guitar, bass, and drum for sake of the experience). My friends also tell me GLaDOS’ Still Alive downloadable track is also absolutely awful on everything but vocals (which I focus on)—pfft. Just know that, as always, you’re going to run into the occasional sleepwalk track where you’re just coasting along for the next three to five minutes.
Along those lines, it’s sort of surprising that Harmonix didn’t offer a “favorite songs” feature where you can throw together a list of your preferred tracks (or at least an ignore feature). But they did make some serious upgrades to the interface elsewhere. The song list is now sortable based on source (Rock Band, Rock Band 2, and downloadable), which makes selecting music much easier. And, of course, you can still sort based on other parameters as well, such as difficulty and band/song name. In Quick Play mode, you can also string together set lists of whatever length you like, which is awesome. So when hosting a party, there are a lot fewer opportunities for someone to put down their instrument and complain about how it’s four in the morning and they have to get up at eight. Suck it up or go join a wuss group like Maroon 5 instead!
Also new to Rock Band 2 are the challenges. As an alternative to the usual World Tour mode, you can make your way through seven progressively harder tiers of challenges to try and unlock all of the game’s songs. A challenge is a collection of songs sorted by a theme that you must complete in its entirety—for instance, one of them requires you to play through all of the 90’s songs you currently possess, and another pits you against the longest songs in the game one after another. This is a cool idea, but there are a couple of potential drawbacks. First of all, you’ll inevitably be playing through all of the songs in the game many, many times if you want to complete all of the challenges. Also, any imported or downloaded songs (yes, you can play all downloaded songs and all but three Rock Band songs on Rock Band 2 for a mere $5 license fee) also dynamically integrate into the challenges, meaning that they’re exponentially harder if you play them with anything other than just stock Rock Band 2 tunes. Depending on your perspective, either of these could either be a pro or con, but just keep this in mind. The third and perhaps strangest of all the oddities surrounding this mode is that you can still select your difficulty while playing. That means you could potentially complete every last challenge on Easy and not miss a beat in terms of the unlockable content. I thought this was strange –it probably would have been better to require at least one band member, for instance, to play on Expert on the hardest challenges, just by principle alone.
And what if you just want to progress down the song list sequentially as was the case in the first Rock Band and all of the Guitar Hero games? Don’t fret (heh)—there are special “Marathon” challenges as well that let you do just that. This way, you play 84 songs and unlock them as you go—simple as that.
But I don’t want to have to unlock anything
Well, then, you’re in luck! There’s also a widely-publicized code available for those of you who just want to jump right in and choose from the full list. In addition to that, you can also toggle some other options (and enter other codes) in this same menu, such as the wonderfully helpful No Fail Mode, which allows you to play to your heart’s content with as much gratuitous suckiness as you desire and never have to worry about failing (fantastic for lightweights who just can’t seem to stay away from Expert drums in spite of their self-induced impotence).
And that’s a good thing, because many of the songs in Rock Band 2 are much harder than anything in the first game. By the time you hit the later songs—maybe around the time Spoonman by Soundgarden pops up (which is ridiculous on vocals and almost as hard on everything else)—it’s going to take a lot of practice to pass anything on Expert as a band. When browsing the song list, it’s easy to take such bottlenecks into account thanks to the fact that every song’s difficulty is rated, broken down by instrument.
The changes to World Tour are more functional. Perhaps the most impacting among these is the untying of individuals from a single instrument and, likewise, the untying of a band to a certain head member. In fact, if any member of your band isn’t present, you can set Rock Band 2 to provide a fill-in until they return—so no sweat. Even better, you don’t even have to sign into an account to begin rocking with the band… you just jump right in and start playing. Other enhancements to World Tour mode include the ability to play solo as far as you like and less pressure to progress to higher difficulties before earning more fans. You can even fire up the old internet connection and hook up with a couple of strangers for a few World Tour numbers if you’re feeling lonely. The key concept in Harmonix’s alterations to the original formula was clearly versatility; now, you’re no longer subject to many of the constraints of the original game.
And I say that was a good approach, because World Tour is and always has been a blast. Nevermind the other marginal additions to the design—such as the ability to hire staff members like managers and roadies to help promote your cause and earn you special gigs—it’s all good, but the best news for everyone is going to be the increased freedom and greater challenge posed by Rock Band 2. And just in case you start to get a big head, the new Battle of the Bands mode, which is an online leaderboard-based set of challenges that change frequently and dynamically, will shrink you back down to healthy proportionality. It’s an awesome addition that will vastly expand the longevity of the game and make online play that much more enticing for those who shrugged it off previously. Would-be drummers can now brush up on their technique in the new Drum Trainer mode, in which they will confront a number of increasingly-difficult drum patterns to help familiarize them with the motions. You can also play to any music track on your hard drive, or even without any at all (think Wii Music, except with the physical drum set and without the sweaty crazy guy pounding for his life on stage at the Kodak Theatre).
Rock Band 2 does its best to address nearly every other issue that has been reported to date as well. This includes enhanced camerawork during performances and simplified lag calibration with an even more straightforward system for both audio and video. There are also some areas where questionable adjustments have been made. For anyone out there that actually spends a lot of time on the clothing and character-customization side of things, you might be a little disappointed to know that the selection is still pretty thin. With respect to vocals, many people complained that the “talkies” on Rock Band took too much energy to register properly. In response, Rock Band 2 makes them ridiculously easy, so much so that at least one person has successfully recorded a video of himself casually reading the Declaration of Independence in place of the actual lyrics to The Beastie Boys’ So Whatcha Want and scoring 100%. Improved phoneme system, eh?
So maybe everything isn’t perfect, but it’s as close as it’s ever been. Rock Band 2 is worth every penny for its amazing song list and legendary replayability. It’s also more scalable than ever, and it features more modes and more options than its predecessor. Put quite simply, it’s freaking awesome. And if you’re a fan of the series, you’d be positively insane not to welcome it into your library.