E3 Hands-On: Rock Band

Without a doubt, the most crowded booth at E3 was the one which featured Harmonix’s latest creation, Rock Band 2. Even though the show was significantly scaled-back this year, there was still always a crowd gathered around the stations where you could jam on plastic instruments and bring out your inner Bon Jovi. The TGR crew got a little time both on the show floor and behind closed doors with the new title, and we came away from our time only wanting more.

There are so many things that make the Rock Band experience unique, and to truly give you the full picture, we have to take them one by one. The instruments, set lists, and gameplay are all integral parts to the rock star fantasy, and Rock Band 2 once again nails every aspect perfectly. The Harmonix crew knows what it takes to make a top-notch music game, and they are proving it once again.

First off, the instruments, those plastic, button-fretted, rubber-padded tools that helped establish the first Rock Band as a force in the rhythm game genre. Both the drums and guitar have been given some subtle tweaks, and those who want to bring out their inner Keith Moon will be happy with some major overhauls to the skins, making them quieter and more realistic than ever before.

The team is sticking with the Fender Stratocaster model, but this year’s version introduces a new Sunburst wood grain look, creating a very classy look and feel. The buttons have been made quieter and the strum bar is now “less mushy,” to use the terminology of our Harmonix representative, an effort to make strumming feel more precise and in line with what players have come to expect from their fake guitars. Also, the hassles of calibrating audio and visual lag are gone, as the new guitar features a built-in lens and microphone that can sync it up automatically. All you have to do is start the diagnostic, hold the guitar so that it has a clear line of sight with your TV, and wait. Of course, for the purists there will still be the option to manually calibrate the settings, but for those who felt frustrated because they believed things were never quite right before, this new system will remove all the guesswork. All in all, the guitar looks, feels, and handles even better than before, and will be considered a major upgrade for those disappointed in the first game’s offering.

The drums have also seen a major overhaul. At first glance, the new “standard” drum set doesn’t appear that much different from what you’ve come to expect. It’s still four pads and a kick pedal, but when you look closer, that’s when the differences start to stand out. This time around, Harmonix has introduced a thicker rubber pad, making the drums immensely quieter than before. No doubt your family, neighbors, and anyone you play with online will be pleased to hear that the assault on their ears is now over, as the new pads are so quiet, you can hardly hear them. They’re also velocity-sensitive, meaning that you will get a different sound depending on how hard you wail. This will obviously be good news to the more accomplished drummers who may want to create a crescendo drum roll or really get that extra “oomph” out of a cymbal crash. Also improved, the bass pedal is metal reinforced to prevent breaking, and it now snaps securely onto the bottom of the set so no more falling foot pedals as you try and move the kit from one side of the room to the other.

Of course, Harmonix could have been satisfied to stop here with the new features, but they wanted more. On the back of the drums are special input ports which were explained to be for cymbal attachments (Mad Catz is making the official cymbals, which will be sold separately), or a second kick pedal. Our demo guide actually took a jab at Activision, asking why the “other guys” were only including two cymbals on their drum set when a real setup has three.

Oh snap, geek war.

One thing to note, the new cymbals will not add notes to the song, but rather reassign already existing pads. So instead of having to worry about four pads, three cymbals, and a kick pedal, you’ll more realistically be concerning yourself with snare and tom drums, a couple cymbals, and a high-hat and bass drum. Of course, that’s really plenty to worry about anyway.

For those who really want to take their drumming to the next level, Rock Band 2 will introduce the “Ion Drum Rocker,” a kit which, when plugged into an Alesis “drum brain,” can be turned into a genuine electronic drum set. Basically, the best way to describe the Ion set is that it takes the standard drums and turns them up to 11. If Rock Band inspired you to take a shot at playing drums for real, then the Ion kit, while expensive, will be a sound investment toward your future as the next Neil Peart.

Honestly, the franchise seems more drum-centric than ever, as it also include a drum trainer which will teach you basics, like rhythms and beats, to more advanced concepts, such as drum fills for various styles of music. If you’re serious about your training, then this new feature very well could transform you from a wannabe skin-slapper into a genuine drummer. Very cool, indeed.

But all the fancy plastic instruments and good intentions aren’t worth squat if the music sucks, but you should know by now that you needn’t fear such things when Harmonix is on the job. The crew has secured some giant acts for the upcoming release, even debuting a few new acts. Guns ‘n Roses, a rhythm game staple, will be featuring a brand-new track from the as-yet unreleased Chinese Democracy album, and first time acts such as Bob Dylan (“Tangled Up in Blue”) as well as AC/DC (“Let There be Rock”), who fans have been clamoring for since the very first Guitar Hero game. Also, the developers are promising that all current Rock Band DLC, as well as “almost all” of the songs from the original game will be forward-compatible, meaning you can simply download them all into Rock Band 2 and not have to worry about any disc swapping. When pressed about what they meant by “almost all” of the original content coming over, the Harmonix representatives played coy, but considering the fact that they are promising to have around 500 total songs available by the holidays, chances are you won’t miss one or two tracks from the original game’s soundtrack.

So with all these new instruments and great songs, you likely start to wonder how the game will actually work. Will it be the standard list progression through the songs we’ve become accustomed to in single-player, or is it set up more like multiplayer’s World Tour mode where you tackle set lists of varying lengths and difficulties? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, as the new setup is a sort of hybrid of what we’ve seen before, trying to bring the best of both worlds.

World Tour is back and it’s better than ever. You are no longer restricted to certain instruments and a band leader, meaning anyone in your group can jump on any instrument for any song. So if you have a particular bandmate who can hit the high notes, put that person up front for Boston; if someone in the group excels at tricky guitar solos, let that soul tackle the thrash metal songs. You have complete freedom now, and like Dave Grohl, you can pretty much just go and play whatever instrument you want. Also, you can now finally take your World Tour online, joining up with friends around the world to form the most rollicking band in all the land. If you’ve got an all-star lineup from around the world, you can bring all those folks together to make your very own supergroup.

For those who love the World Tour format, but prefer to play alone, Rock Band 2 is introducing a new Solo Tour that fits more closely into the World Tour mode. You’ll now be playing set lists and confronting more realistic challenges (what band worth their salt only plays one or two songs in a set anyway?), all in the name of making a name for yourself as a great and worthy rock star.

If at any time you get tired of career progression, there are other new modes to keep you entertained as well. Instrument-specific challenges allow you to replicate the more traditional feel of rhythm games, taking you up through the set list in order from least to most difficult for a specific instrument. As you progress, you unlock new challenges for not just the instrument you’re playing, but others as well, so if you get stuck, you’ll be able to route around the song that’s giving you trouble.

The game is featuring artist-specific challenges, so for example, if you’ve download the "Best of The Who" track pack, there will likely be a challenge waiting for you. These new tasks are added automatically once the game detects you have the proper content, meaning you now have yet another incentive to buy more music (as if you needed one). Basically, the new challenge mode allows you to steer clear of boring songs, meaning that if you are taking the guitar path, you won’t be forced to do a lot of annoyingly simple songs late in the set list that are geared more for drums or bass just as you’re gearing up for the big tasks.

For those wanting to prove they rock the hardest, the game also features a brand new “Battle of the Bands” mode that will pit you against your friends and the world at large in daily challenges. These tasks may be simple high score affairs, or they could be note streak or solo challenges. The game is set up so that you first have to achieve a score higher than that of anyone on your friends list before you can take on the world at large, and daily rankings will show you who the best of the best is. Think of it as conquering the local scene before you move on to playing arena shows.

We wrapped up our time with Rock Band 2 by gathering up our instruments and taking on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the karaoke classic. As The Sassy Lassies (the arbitrary name I had assigned to our band) rocked out to levels as yet unknown, the whole Rock Band experience came together once more, reminding me not only of why I play this game in particular, but why I love games in general. September can’t come soon enough (unfortunately PS3 and Wii owners will have to wait a bit longer) for this latest opus of gaming to be unleashed on the world. Rock Band is back, and you’re going to want to be a part of its return.

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