Rock Band 360, PS3, PS2, Wii Review

Yeah, we know it came out a while ago, but with the UK release of the PS2 and Wii versions looming ever closer, we think it’s about time we had a little chat about Rock Band.

For those not in the know – like, if you’ve been living underground for the last two billion years – it’s the sort-of-logical evolution of the Guitar Hero series – but rather than having just one or two ‘guitarists’ bashing away at plastic children’s toys in a genuinely heartfelt manner, you’ve now got a drummer and a singer joining in on the fun, too. Each player gets a plastic instrument (guitar, drumkit or microphone), and their own little section of the screen telling them which notes they need to play/hit/sing, with the overall aim of belting out the most passable renditions you can of a whole bunch of famous rock songs. Obviously, the concept screams “MULTIPLAYER!” right off the bat, so it’ll come as no surprise to hear that this is where the game excels.

But does this mean the game is rubbish in single-player? Um, kind of. A fair few Guitar Hero veterans who found themselves a little disappointed by Guitar Hero 3‘s occasionally sloppy and inconsistent note-charts and somewhat forced sense of humour have moved over to Rock Band, hoping that they can just happily do the guitar bits on their own, and essentially treat Rock Band as the new Guitar Hero. Sadly, this doesn’t quite work. In the process of making a rhythm-action game using songs that are enjoyable for four performers, Harmonix have shifted the focus away from the lead guitarist, with half the songs not even having any kind of guitar solo to speak of, and some even featuring 20-30 second stretches where the guitarist does nothing at all. Of course, this may come as a relief to those of you who found the Guitar Hero games to be needlessly fiddly, but for the rest of us, it’s a bit… boring.

Still, this isn’t really a criticism – just a warning. For better or worse, this isn’t really a single-player game. Guitar Hero veterans might get some single-player jollies by singing and playing guitar at the same time in order to actually get a challenge out of the game, but that’s pretty much it.

So, let’s take a trip to Fantasy Land and pretend we’ve all got enough friends to actually get a full band going. What happens then? Well, rather than simply working through the songs one by one in the traditional Guitar Hero manner, you’re allowed to choose from a whole bunch of gig venues, then pick from a list of available setlists for each venue. Completing a set earns you fans, and money – fans get you more venues, money gets you more gear to spruce your character up with. The setlists come in various flavours – some simply let you pick two or three songs to play through, while others simply tell you how many songs you have to play, and the actual setlist itself is hidden from you. The latter type of setlist is actually loads more fun than it sounds – there’s something really excellent about going into a ten-song set with three of your friends, with no real idea of what the game will throw at you next, or whether or not you can even play the songs – and the sense of achievement at the end of the set is basically incredible. And even if the game throws a few songs at you that you’re not so great at, your band-mates can use powerups (pretty much the same as ‘star power’ from the Guitar Hero games) to bring you back into the game, so you shouldn’t run into too much trouble. Just make sure you pick the right difficulty setting for your skill level – and it’s worth noting that each player can set their own difficulty independently of everyone else’s, so there’s no arguing over one or two band members holding the others back because they haven’t yet reached idiot-savant levels of pseudo-musical skill.

The character creation system is well worth a mention, largely due to the fact that it’s bloody amazing. You’ll start off with the plain jeans/t-shirt/trainers set-up, but make your way through a couple of gigs and you’ll soon start wasting your vast fortunes on new clothes and instruments for your characters. Because I’m completely dull, I didn’t deviate too far from the original outfit – not least because I found a t-shirt with a massive wolf’s head on it early on in the game, and I didn’t really see why I needed to buy anything else. With a bit of imagination, though, you can spend all day customising your character’s appearance, right down to the positioning and colouring of their tattoos.

A couple of things about the game do grate on my nerves, though. Chiefly, the way the multiplayer ‘band’ system is handled. One person creates a band, and they become the ‘band leader’ – and must always use the same instrument, be signed into the same gamertag, and use the same character. So, say you start off with four players, one person makes a band, and decides he wants to sing – he assigns himself as the singer, and everyone else picks their instruments, and you happily spend a few hours making your way through career mode. Then, the next day, your singer isn’t there, or maybe he just doesn’t feel like singing today, and neither does anyone else. But someone has to sing, because the band leader’s character has to be there, and he has to be a singer. The game will fill in for any other absent musicians, but the band leader always has to be there, or else you’ll need to start a new band, with new characters, and an amount of career mode progress that amounts to roughly half of bugger-all. Another gripe is the Rock Band guitar itself – despite being larger than its Guitar Hero predecessors, it feels a lot cheaper, with squashy buttons and a soft strum-bar that doesn’t provide the same tactile feedback as the vastly superior Guitar Hero 3 controller, which wouldn’t be so bad if the Rock Band instrument pack wasn’t a great deal more expensive – which brings us neatly onto the issue of the game’s price.

At the moment, Rock Band still retails in the region of £130-£180, if you want the game and full instrument set – which is basically essential if you want to actually enjoy the game. As brilliant as the game is, for goodness’ sake try and split the cost with your housemates, friends, or siblings, as paying the full £180 only for other people to come around and enjoy it without paying a penny will surely leave you feeling somewhat bitter. You might also want to consider the cost of deodorant, as a proper Rock Band session with four players will stink your living room up worse than hosting a swingers party. Just a thought.

Still, despite these niggles, the simple fact is that Rock Band is one of the most fun multiplayer gaming experiences around. The usual online modes are all there, but you’ll seldom use them – in an industry that seems to be ever more keen on letting its fans play together while keeping them physically apart, Rock Band actively encourages you to all be in the same room at the same time, and it works all the better for it.

Overall, top stuff. Pricey. But top.

Update 17/09/08: Those of you thinking of checking out the Wii and PS2 versions might want to take a gander at Seth’s comment below – seems there are a fair few changes we weren’t aware of that might affect your desire to pick the game up.

8 out of 10
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