Rock Band 2
Available now for the XBOX 360; in November for the PS3, Wii and PS2
Designed by Harmonix
Published by Electronic Arts/MTV Games
Its been less than a year since Rock Band debuted and immediately made its precursor and chief competitor, Guitar Hero, irrelevant. Developer Harmonix, who created both games, consistently referred to Rock Band as a platform more than a game, seemingly precluding the endless series of ever-diminishing sequels that plague the video game industry. Still, its not at all surprising to see Rock Band 2 arrive so soon after the original. No entertainment industry is as crazed about sequels and name recognition as this one, and Rock Band's publisher, Electronic Arts, is one of the worst offenders. Thereve been enough Madden Footballs to choke Madden himself, even though the annual installments chief selling point, updated rosters, could easily be released as downloadable content. With video games, if something sells, it will be repackaged, remade, and retailed at full price; so, Rock Band 2 was inevitable.
Itd be easy (and not entirely inaccurate) to dismiss Rock Band 2 as an expansion pack. The core game play is identical to the original. Youll still be covering various rock hits of the last four decades on chintzy, space-wasting plastic instruments, while playing through a tour mode full of tongue-in-cheek humor.
The guitar still functions just like Guitar Hero, remapping notes and chords to a five-button set-up that just barely replicates the most minimal possible approximation of actually playing a guitar, without losing any of the fun. Singing remains the closest to the real deal, since, yknow, youre really singing. It requires actual vocal talent, depending on the song and difficulty level. The drums still recreate the physical process of drumming to a surprising degree, with a kick pedal and inputs for four drums and cymbals, and a daunting, quickly escalating difficulty level. And the bass is still just guitar for dullards.
Rock Band 2 isnt just a rehash, though. Harmonix has improved the formula with a few tweaks and new features, fixing a number of minor frustrations from the first game. Rock Band had an unnecessarily convoluted system for logging players into the right characters and right instruments during band play. Also, the originals online component offered only two-player head-to-head modes, lacking cooperative or band play. And the solo tour mode for single players was a bare-bones, fundamentally hobbled experience that offered little incentive or satisfaction. All three issues have been resolved with Rock Band 2. There's also a robust drum trainer mode that makes learning the skins relatively painless. And proving that the platform talk wasn't just that, players can export almost all of the songs from Rock Band onto their hard drive, making them available in Rock Band 2. All these welcome updates foster an experience thats fuller, richer, and yet less complicated than the original.
Even if Harmonix hadnt implemented these improvements, the 100 new songs wouldve made Rock Band 2 completely worth it. Songs are the basic currency that makes Rock Band run, and EA has filled at least a few barges full of the cash theyve made from selling em for two bucks apiece as downloadable content. The 100 songs in Rock Band 2 (84 available on disc, 20 more eventually available for free download) would sell for over three times the disc's price if they were released as downloadable content, so right there the games a huge bargain. Plus the set list is more varied than the originals, tossing out classic rock hits such as Pinball Wizard and Carry on Wayward Son alongside college radio classics from Sonic Youth and the Replacements. The game doesnt offer too many songs from any single subgenre, but has enough variety to appeal to all manner of rock fans.
A lot of folks dismiss Rock Band, wondering why somebody would waste time on a game instead of playing real music. Those people are full of wrong assumptions. Not everybody has the time, talent, or patience to play a real instrument at a level they'd appreciate. Maybe it looks ridiculous to play plastic toy instruments. Maybe these critics actually play in a real band and think a video game version is lame or embarrassing. Maybe they just hate fun. But nobody is too cool, too smart, or too talented to play and enjoy Rock Band. Too smug, maybe, but not too cool.
(Photo courtesy Amazon.com)
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