18th Dec 2007 | 11:14
Your friends are idiots. You've probably had your suspicions for a while, but Rock Band's going to confirm them. Getting a game going in a room full of drunk people is like trying to organise a chimp's tea party where the Darjeeling's laced with smack - everybody keeps prodding buttons and accidentally flicking through menus and quitting out, and it's all you can do not to shout at them to just STOP TOUCHING ANYTHING. Grr.
The hardest bit of Rock Band is explaining to the people who've never played games before that they need to press q to start even if they're only on the mic. Clods. It's worth persevering, though, because once you get into the game it'll bring you all together better than going on a road trip to Tijuana and finding a dead body. It's brilliant like that. There are moments - loads of them - where you honestly feel like a proper band, putting those back-to-back moments from Guitar Hero to shame.
Guitar first, then. This is a contentious one, since it's directly comparable to a game that's already out - and the comparison doesn't always work in Rock Band's favour. Basics are exactly the same - five buttons (although you only use four in Medium), a whammy bar for scoring extra when you hold notes, multipliers for playing ten notes in a row. Star Power's been renamed Overdrive, but one sweet addition is that you can carry on building it up after it's activated - keep hitting those phrases and you can keep your bonus time going for ages. The display also goes blue to show when you're in a solo and ticks off the percentage you've managed so you know how long you've got to survive in the tricky bits.
These are nice touches, but they're minor adjustments to the near-flawless system Harmonix developed for Guitar Hero - and other changes don't work quite so well. Instead of GH's friendly circles, Rock Band shows notes as little metal bars, and ever-so-slightly thinner ones to show where you can do hammer-ons. Weirdly, early screenshots showed a layout much closer to Guitar Hero's - it's like EA's lawyers panicked at the last minute and insisted on new graphics that look a bit placeholder. It doesn't really matter - the system still works fine - but it feels a little bit sterile.
Drumming's the next stop, since it's new and comes with the nicest toys. And the drum kit really is lovely - solid and chunky, the legs on the kit are like scaffolding and the foot pedal puts DrumMania's to shame. One warning - the drums are solid plastic, so unless you wrap your (wooden) sticks in something they'll drown out the TV. Drums are also by far the trickiest instrument to play - getting your foot and hands to work independently is absolutely brain-twanging at first, and you'll sometimes have to stop mid-song, take a deep breath and start tackling bits of the beat one at a time.
This is probably a good place to point out that Rock Band's difficulty is slightly different from Guitar Hero's - it'll kick you out of the game faster if you start scuffing things, but it's also quicker to get your energy bar back to full with a quick flurry of perfect notes. If you're really messing things up on drums, you can afford to just concentrate on the snare and bass pedal, which give up more energy than the others. By the higher difficulty levels, playing drums on Rock Band is probably about as hard as playing them in real life - it's a very different feeling from the lightning-fingered fun of riffing through a guitar solo, but satisfying in a different way.
If you do make an unrecoverable cock-up of things, your mates can actually help you out. Crash out of a song and one of your band chums can activate Overdrive to bring you back in - as long as they've got enough juice they can do this twice, effectively giving you three 'lives'. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to return the favour - on drums, you activate Overdrive by doing a drum roll and cymbal clash at selected bits of song, which is excellent when you're going for a score multiplier but not so good when you're making the save. Certain songs have almost no fills and you've got limited time to bring your bandmate back in before you're booed off the stage. A better alternative is to activate Overdrive while your fret-man's still clinging on - it'll give him slightly more energy than usually for nailing notes, and hopefully let him muddle through the tricky bits. It's a lopsided system, but tactical - and it'll craft your band into a tight-knit group. Hopefully, anyway.
The singing's brilliant. Instead of pasting up whole lines like in SingStar, it scrolls lyrics across the screen like Karaoke Revolution, but that isn't really why. You can pat the mic to do percussion bits in long instrumental sections, but that isn't really why either. No, the really inspired bit is the Overdrive activation - some sections without words are marked in gold, and making a noise in these fires you into bonus time. Hold the note you're already singing, whoop "Hello, New York!", introduce your drummer or just swear at the crowd - there's a legitimate reason for doing it, and it's an absolutely inspired touch.
There are also talky sections where you simply have to read out the words without matching their pitch - and they work fine, like little relaxing little presents amid the often tough singing.
This would probably all work fine absolutely if you simply unlocked songs and went for high scores, but Rock Band goes for something slightly more ambitious - and slightly muddles things - with its Career mode. Instead of doing individual songs, you do whole gigs - made up of random tunes, venue-specific set lists or your own mix of favoured songs. As you earn fans you get the chance to play bigger gigs and get more cash, but the risks are also greater - and that's sort of where problems kick in. After a point, Rock Band simply won't let you get any further without you having to switch to Hard or Expert difficuly, and with the drums being so difficult, this is where your progress is going to stall. You also lose fans for failing, which locks certain venues again and sort of discourages you from trying to tackle songs out of your skill range. It's a nice idea - and effectively endless - but crippled by presentational missteps.
Oh, and until you start downloading song packs, be prepared to spend a lot of time grinding through the same songs time and again, one's you'll eventually come to completely hate, just like a real rock band - we really don't care if we never have to hear Nirvana's In Bloom ever again.
But while it's fine to talk about all the technical stuff, but what it doesn't really get across is the heart of Rock Band. The fun of the game comes from playing with friends, and when you play properly it's phenomenal. Helping each other get through the tricky bits of Enter Sandman is great - letting each player shine in their own sections of Reptilia is even better. And even if the rest of your flawless four-piece isn't around, no-one can resist the lure of Rock Band - whether it's girls who don't normally play games or (honestly) that one crazy neighbour from downstairs who usually complains about the noise.
It's already a great game - and once the song packs get going, it'll be unstoppable. Yes, your friends might be idiots, but you're going to love them.