Monday, September 21, 2009

Plastic Oh No Band

As I mentioned previously, I've been playing a lot of Guitar Hero and Rock Band lately, all leading up to the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, which I have now also played and completed.

As far as last year's games--Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2--are concerned, I have to say that I'm firmly in the Guitar Hero camp.

Rock Band provides a better-looking, more convincing simulation of the tour experience, but that translates to an unexpectedly turgid campaign mode. At first, I liked the realism of starting from local venues and having to earn fans through small gigs. But the progression system requires an absurd amount of repetition to collect enough fame, cash, "stars," whatever to even just earn the right to play all the songs.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, feels much more like a party game. Its interface is less sleek but more functional. Its tour mode is comparatively much more straightforward, presenting players with self-contained gigs one after another and no repeats. Things go by fast, and I additionally appreciate the detailed score breakdown after every performance, which offers much more ammunition for trash-talking with other players.

Also, the Guitar Hero guitars feel way better than the Rock Band guitar, which makes sense, since peripherals were always RedOctane's specialty. It's not a big deal thanks to the cross-compatibility of instruments, but I still have to mention it as a point in Guitar Hero's favor, considering I would rather use RedOctane's guitar even when playing Harmonix's game. (I'm not rich enough to own both drum kits for comparison, but, with my lack of rhythm and coordination, the rig probably doesn't matter.)

Reviews in favor of Harmonix's game note that it offers 1) more faithful note charts and 2) a much larger catalog of downloadable tracks. I'm not so hardcore a player as to play on Expert, so the former bears little significance for me. Likewise, while I much prefer to play tracks that I already know and enjoy, I'm not so into the make-believe that I'll pay extra money to play a plastic instrument version of a specific song. What's on the disc is good enough for my purposes, and, while the two titles are closely matched in that regard, I'll personally take World Tour's "Beat It," "Band on the Run," and "Hotel California" over Rock Band 2's "White Wedding," "Psycho Killer," and "Pinball Wizard." Not that it really matters, since I bought both games and remain mostly satisfied with the combination. If anything, the greatest disappointment is the number of tracks the two games have in common.

Moving on to The Beatles: Rock Band, this is easily the best Rock Band/Guitar Hero yet, and it's not just because of the music. The presentation is extremely slick and really feels like an authentic Beatles product. The linear story mode is a brisk but mesmerizing journey through all the stages of the band's history.

I do wish the chapters were better tied together through some sort of narrative. To really appreciate the progression, you kind of have to already know the band's history. I don't need a documentary delving into all the drama, but I wish there were at least some narration setting up each venue, or an explanation for why they stop touring later on. A lot of that actually comes out in the trivia associated with the unlockable photos, but providing the information as a reward seems out of order.

That said, the tracklist is ultimately the most important part of a music game, and you cannot go wrong with The Beatles. One of the failings of the regular Rock Band and Guitar Hero releases is that they try too hard to have something for everyone, and consequently they don't have enough for anyone. The Beatles: Rock Band is great for Beatles fans obviously, but it's also probably the most nearly universally appealing music game yet. These are the songs that everybody knows, and, in Rock Band form, they make for tracks that even casual players can pick up very easily.

While it's impossible to complain about what is on the disc, it was equally impossible for Harmonix to contain everybody's favorites without literally including every Beatles song. I'm not a Beatlemaniac by any means, but even I felt the glaring omissions of some of the band's most universally recognized hits. Perhaps certain classics would not translate well to the Rock Band format, but I don't think "She Loves You" and "Help!" fall into that category. It's possibly a shrewd and not necessarily mercenary approach, however, to extend the life of the game, keeping it in the news and in players' consoles with a steady flow of legitimately exciting downloadable track packs down the line. I may even consider buying them in this case, but I still feel it a shame that these signature hits were not integrated into the story mode.

I haven't actually tried harmonizing, but this is one game where I almost want to try singing while playing an instrument at the same time. It's a good addition to the band game formula in any case, and it's a shame that there's no way to patch it into Rock Band 2.

On the flip side, with Guitar Hero 5 featuring the ability to play with four instruments on one screen, it's unfortunate that Harmonix could not include the option to play John Lennon's rhythm guitar. Playing bass on these games has given me a very slightly finer ear and appreciation for the bass line in the music that I hear even when not playing, and there's no technical reason I can see for why we couldn't have had another guitar part at least to further deconstruct and reconstruct the sound. Keyboard/piano would be even better, of course, but I can't see any way to render it in a simplified plastic form that would be manageable for mainstream gaming while still being sufficiently evocative of the real experience.

The technology aside, I wonder where the genre goes from here. As someone who always found the band-centric Guitar Hero titles underwhelming, I would think now that every band approached for their own game should want the Beatles: Rock Band treatment. The thing is, I don't know what other groups would merit it. The main reason those Guitar Hero titles were so lame is because none of those bands, in my opinion, had enough worthy material to build a full-price standalone game around. A game covering Michael Jackson's entire career would have enough hits, but I don't know how much that catalog could offer those who would only play the instrument parts. Even as a karaoke game, I'm not sure how accessible it would be. Whereas The Beatles had songs that just about anybody could sing, much of MJ's greatness was in his own performance.

I suppose there's Activision's Band Hero on the way. With this being the "mainstream" version of Guitar Hero, wouldn't it be great if they could get some Kanye West songs in there for the Taylor Swift avatar to sing?

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

At the very least, Rock Band 2 should offer more cut-off shorts and torn-up shirts to choose from. Hulk want more variety!

"this is easily the best Rock Band/Guitar Hero yet"

It's funny how they're so similar, they may as well be considered one series. While there are plenty more songs in the history of music that I enjoy and would be happy to play, I don't know that I'll keep enjoying the format enough to keep buying game after game of the same design. Maybe track packs, but even so, they better be cheap.

Certainly, I'm tired of the roughly 30/70 ratio of good songs to lame songs on the main games. I mean, the occasional "Stranglehold" is a nice gag, and it was worth a chuckle to have to run to Youtube to figure out what these songs sound like, but enough's enough.