I generally try to avoid using the term “best ever,” because whenever I do, something always seems to come along and top it. However, I think that now would be a good time to make an exception! So here goes nothing: Rock Band, from Harmonix, Pi Studios, EA, and MTV Games, could quite possibly be the greatest rhythm and music game yet created. Now, if you are a proud owner of Rock Band for other consoles, you’re probably thinking, How can you say that it’s so good? Due to differences in the graphics architecture of the Wii versus other console boxes, some things had to go, so it’s got no Downloadable Content (DLC), no online play, no Band World Tour, and no character customization of any kind! It’s just a port of the half-baked PS2 version! Yes, I know all of that (where do you think I’ve been, Saturn?). In fact, I’ve been following this game ever since January, when EA CEO John Riccitello revealed it during his press conference. But the main reason I say it’s so good because the core gameplay remains, and that is what gives Rock Band its appeal. Not online play, not character creator, and definitely not DLC. While those are regrettable omissions, this game is still infinitely fun.
The gameplay will be no surprise to an experienced player. There are three boards that have notes scrolling down the screen, one for each individual instrument’s part (guitar, bass, and drums), while the singer’s notes flow horizontally across the top of the screen, above the other players’ notes. The goal is to hit the drum pads, or strum the guitar controller, at the same time that the notes come scrolling down. The singer’s pitch is represented by a little arrow, so the goal of the singer is to get that arrow to stay right on a line by singing on the right pitch. If you find white notes or a glowing golden line coming your way, then that means you will get extra “Energy” if you can hit all of the glowing notes without missing. When you have gathered enough Energy, you can then activate “Overdrive,” which doubles your score multiplier and helps you get a better score.
On the left side of the screen is the Crowd Meter, indicating how much the imaginary crowd likes you. It is a vertical bar colored green, yellow, or red, depending on how well you’re playing (the Crowd Meter is akin to Guitar Hero’s Rock Meter). What’s really cool is that if one player fails (their instrument’s icon falls to the very bottom of the meter), another player can “save” that player and bring them back into the game by activating Overdrive. However, the player can only be saved two times, so if they screw up a third time, or can’t be saved the first or second time, then the rest of the band is brought down. It’s a very useful feature, especially if you have a first-time or younger player in your Rock Band.
Like a real band, your Rock Band ensemble is made up of individual instruments. First up is the guitar/bass guitar. The guitar controller is modeled after the iconic Fender Stratocaster and with it you can choose either the lead or bass guitar part. What’s cool is that it features an extra set of smaller fret buttons higher up the neck, and also has a little effects selector modeled after the Strat’s pickup selector. It also looks way cooler than the Guitar Hero III guitar. It’s wireless, too. Also, you don’t have to insert a Wiimote into every instrument, like you do with Guitar Hero. The bad news is that the little D-pad that sits in as one of the knobs on the real Strat is kind of confusing (up is down, down is up, oy!). Also, the strum bar has absolutely no feedback telling you if your strum registered (a minus when compared to the Guitar Hero guitar’s little “click!”) which is no help at all. The smaller fret buttons are kind of pointless. When you first use them, you have to look down to get your fingering right, making you lose your note streak. Many players prefer to just ignore them. Also, the bundle only comes with one guitar, so if you want to have a full band, with both a lead guitar and a bass player, you’re going to have fork over $60 for another guitar controller.
One of the only disappointments is the graphics that run behind the notes. They are just pre-recorded videos of avatars playing their instruments, and grainy videos at that. So every time you play a song, you’re going to see the same video repeated again and again. While the graphics for Wii seem a little bit better than that of the PS2 version, they can’t really compare with the Xbox and PS3 versions, but that is the tradeoff that Nintendo took with the graphics engine and architecture of the Wii. Comparing the Wii to the other consoles is a bit unfair, since they have such different strengths.
Next up are the drums. The drums for the Wii version have been improved from the initial drum set, being sturdier, having spongier pads, and a stronger kick pedal. Also, they come in a slick Wii White. The drums are essentially 4 colored pads and a kick pedal. The red pad is the snare drum, yellow is hi-hat, blue is ride cymbal, and green is crash cymbal; the orange pedal is your bass drum. A drum player follows the same type of color-coordinated music pattern as the guitar parts, but also will be allowed to unleash a little percussion creativity in the occasional drum fills, where you get to play whatever sequence you feel like and unleash your inner Keith Moon. Drum fills are represented by long colored bars, rather than actual notes. If you hit the very last green note, than you will activate Overdrive, a feature that appears in all of the instrument modes and vocals. To activate Overdrive if you’re using guitar, you must tilt the guitar. Singers, if you see a golden patch, you are allowed to improvise and sing whatever you want.
Singing is very similar to the Karaoke Revolution series, another Harmonix product. Vocalists must try to match their pitch to the pitch of the singer in the game. You don’t need to know the words, just hit the correct pitch - you can even hum or improvise your own lyrics. And occasionally you’ll even get a chance to rap! It sounds very simple, but some of the melodies are very hard to remember, especially for the more youthful players for whom the rockin’ 80s seem like they were back in the Dark Ages.
The Rock Band set list is really stellar. It features songs from all different genres of rock and roll, by legendary artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Nirvana, Metallica, Mountain, and R.E.M. Most of these tracks are master recordings, which is great, but even the covers are actually surprisingly good. Seriously. I almost thought the cover of Aerosmith’s “Train Kept On A Rollin” was the real thing. And also, the songs themselves are great selections. You’ve got songs like “Dani California” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, “Suffragette City” by David Bowie, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. Plus, this Wii version of Rock Band ships with five extra tracks that the versions on other consoles don’t include (although you can buy them as DLC on the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions). And even though this version of Rock Band doesn’t have DLC, Harmonix is making up for that by releasing “Track Packs, ”discs that give you 20 extra tracks that have already been released as DLC, for $30, which is a much better deal compared to the actual DLC on the Xbox and PS3.
So as I finish up, let me leave you with one last thought: With Rock Band, you can live the life of a rock star without all the drama, lawsuits, or headaches. If you want a great game that is a blast to play with three of your friends on a Saturday night, then Rock Band on the Wii is the game for you.
Thomas Fogel, Posted 7/22/2008
For more information on Rock Band visit: www.rockband.com