Originality: the quality of being new and original (not derived from something else).
Originality within a video game seems to be getting harder and harder to find. There are so many copy-cats out there who think that taking a great idea and doing the same thing will make them successful. We’ve even had our fair share of copy cats here at ConsoleMonster, with various other sites taking our name and/or design.
On the surface, Rock Band seems to actually create something a bit more unique. The idea of being able to play in a band, with your controller being shaped like an instrument – whether that be a guitar, drums or microphone – and rocking your way to stardom is quite an original idea. But if you look in a bit more detail, all Rock Band has done is taken the concept of Guitar Hero III, and Sony’s SingStar, expanded the idea to include drums and merged it into one game.
That doesn’t mean that Rock Band is a bad game, or that it’s not worth buying. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. After all, why try and fix something that isn’t broken? Rock Band actually delivers in all the areas, in quite a fantastic way, creating what I would class as a rather original video game experience. Firstly, we’ll look at each instrument individually, and how they play a role in the game, and then we’ll combine them all to see just how good this game is.
The wireless guitar, which also doubles up as a bass, is somewhat similar to the Guitar Hero guitar. There are 5 coloured buttons at the top of the fret board, each one representing a section on a real guitar neck. For example, the green button (the one highest to the top of the neck) plays lower notes within the game, with the orange one (the one closest to the body of the guitar) plays the higher notes. The main difference, however, is that the Rock Band guitar has 5 smaller coloured buttons lower down the neck towards the body, which can be used to slip your fingers through the complicated solos or jam at the end of a session with the unscripted finales.
It’s not all fun and games with the guitar though. There are a few notable differences in design between the Rock Band and Guitar Hero guitars. The Rock Band guitar is slightly longer in the neck, which is obviously catering for the extra frets near the body. The main issue however is the fret buttons themselves. Instead of being raised (as on the Guitar Hero guitar) they are smooth and sometimes a bit sticky in comparison. Sometimes it can be quite tricky to jump between frets, especially on the harder levels – simply because you can’t really get a feel for which fret your finger is on. There is a small set of dimples on the yellow fret (the middle one) but when you’re in mid-solo, it’s not noticeable enough.
The strum bar is also somewhat different. It doesn’t click when it is strummed, which is fine for those who haven’t really played Guitar Hero. Those who have may take a bit of time to get used to the softer touch. Those of you who prefer to strum down on the quick notes instead of up and down, myself included, will sometimes find yourself inadvertently missing a note because you couldn’t feel when the strum bar was reset to the middle. That being said, the softer touch feels a fair bit more natural to use, and with a bit of practice it soon becomes apparent as to why Harmonix changed it.
The guitar aspect of the game follows the same body as Guitar Hero, meaning you have to push the fret and strum at the correct time as the coloured buttons on the screen slide to the bar at the bottom. Timing is, of course, essential. Strum too early or too late and you’ll bodge up the song, and annoy the crowd. If you manage to pull together a combo of correct notes, you’ll be able to go into overdrive by tilting the neck up. By doing this, you’ll get the crowd cheering and the points flooding in.
Difficulty levels on the guitar and bass go from rather simple, to seriously complex. Those who have never played Guitar Hero would do best to start on easy, to get used to the way it works. Easy will keep your happy fingers in one place, usually taking advantage of just the top three buttons, with the occasional forth button being thrown in. Once you think you’ve got the hang of it, medium will introduce the forth blue button a lot more, with hard bringing in more frets to play along with the high pitched orange button. If you still have fingers once you’ve mastered hard, you can try your hand at expert, with quick complicated solos and hard hitting chords being the order of the day.
The wired USB microphone is a sturdy piece of kit. There’s not really much to say about the microphone itself, as it’s just a microphone really. Needless to say, it does its job, and looks decent.
Singing within the game is relatively similar to SingStar. Across the top of the screen you’ll see the words scroll, along with pitch bars showing you whether to sing higher or lower. If you hit the pitch correctly, you’ll earn points and keep the song going. Failing to hit the right notes will send the crowd booing. An adaption to the SingStar structure, however, is that at certain points in the songs you’ll have to tap the microphone with the beat – usually during solos. If done at the right time, the crowd will start to clap along with you. Other times you’ll have the opportunity to shout profanities (or whatever else you want) down the mic in between the lyrics, again adding to your score and combo.
Unless you can actually sing, the best level of difficulty is easy. On easy, you’ll find that even if you don’t hit the notes spot on, it won’t matter too much. The higher on the difficulty scale you go, the more sensitive the game is to your pitch and tone, punishing you for missing the notes.
The drums are by far the most intuitive aspect of the game. The kit itself is extremely sturdy, with 4 coloured rubber drum pads taking center stage, along with a kick drum for your foot. You also get two wooden drum sticks, which are both solid and seriously cool. It was quite a surprise actually to see just how high quality the drum kit is – it almost resembles a real life electric drum kit. The drums can take quite a beating also, with a solid whack ensuring you hit the right part.
The drums within the game follow a similar structure to the guitar, with the four coloured pads being represented by four coloured buttons scrolling down the screen to a bar at the bottom. The kick drum is represented with an orange bar going across the entire board.
Unless you have some rhythm, the drums are by far the hardest instrument to master. Even on easy, you’ll have to follow the beat as accurately as possible, although there won’t be too many problems having to make your hands and feet work in unison. As you progress to medium, the beats themselves are introduced a bit more, with slightly faster drumming needed. The kick drum still takes the natural spot of being hit at the same time as you hand beat, so even if you’re not naturally a drummer, you should be able to pick it up.
The tricky part comes when you hit hard and expert. Not only are the drum beats harder to master, but you’ll also have the kick drum introduced IN BETWEEN beats. Meaning that you’ll have to press the peddle on a different rhythm to your hands. If you want to see whether you can do it, just practice doing a beat with your hand, and then a faster beat in between your hand beats. If you find your hand copying the beat of your foot, then you’ll need to practice – and practice hard!
Each instrument, on its own, would make a great game. The guitar solos and chords are genius, and as you hit the harder songs with harder difficultly levels, pulling off the complicated fret changes genuinely does make you feel like you are really playing. The same goes for the drums. The fact that each pad represents a drum within the game itself (e.g. the green pad is a symbol, orange peddle is a kick drum, etc) when you hit the harder songs you will feel like you’re really making a drum beat for that song.
The real joy on Rock Band, however, comes in the multiplayer. Getting your mates around, and playing the Band World Tour is simply stunning. You start off selecting your character, customising their look, and creating your band. You’ll then have to jam together in small venues in order to get fans. As you progress, you’ll start getting tour buses, PR managers, sound men – the lot! Of course, as you start to get bigger, you’ll have to up your game. The fact that you’re doing this with your mates, and you’re all feeding off each other’s energy, makes the multiplayer aspect of the game simply superb – and that alone makes this game worth purchasing.
You can even jam together online, especially if you’re missing a vital instrument from your team. Sadly though, you can’t take your tour online – although Harmonix promise a patch to include more online aspects to Rock Band. If you’re a sad loner, or none of your mates fancy coming around and embarrassing themselves, then you can play the tour on your own or hit online and join up with some other chumps.
Although Rock Band only delivers originality in some aspects of the game, the concept is one to be applauded. There is just no other game out there that makes all your mates want to sit and play an instrument co-operatively until their fingers bleed. Quite simply, a work of genius, and the slight discrepancies in the peripherals are forgotten in an instant. Even those who don’t particularly like rock music (including me!) will still find huge satisfaction in completing a song, however awful it sounds. Is it worth the high price tag? I think so.