If you’ve ever fantasized about being in a band, you’ve got to check out “Rock Band,” from MTV Games.
The T-rated game gives you a taste of the big time — without ever picking up an instrument. Or, we should say, a real instrument. It lets you strum a guitar controller, bang on a “Rock Band”-ized drum kit, and croon into a special microphone. You’ll play or sing along to any of the game’s 50-plus tunes, including the classics “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and “In Bloom” by Nirvana. Plus, your friends can join your virtual band in person — or online.
Reality check: Starting a “Rock Band” group is expensive. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game will set you back $169.99, but come bundled with a microphone, a Fender Stratocaster-shaped guitar controller and a drum kit controller.The PlayStation 2 bundle, available Dec. 18, will be a little less, at $159.99.
If you only want to sing and you already have a USB-compatible microphone — even the Xbox 360’s headset will work — you can purchase the game by itself ($59.99, Xbox and PS3; $49.99, PS2). Likewise, if you have a 360 and you only want to play guitar, you can get just the game and use your “Guitar Hero” controller. (Sorry Sony fans, but your controllers aren’t interchangeable.) But since there are no compatible drums on the market for any system, if you want the full “Rock Band” experience, you're going to have to shell out for the whole bundle.
To play the game’s guitar licks, you’ll fret (or press) buttons on its neck and strum (by flicking a lever) in time with the music and the colored markers that roll down the screen. This action will feel completely familiar to anyone who has played the “Guitar Hero” titles before. In fact, both “Rock Band” and the original “Guitar Hero” were developed by the same company, Harmonix.
The game’s singing component works a lot like Konami’s “Karaoke Revolution” (which was also developed by Harmonix), with words flowing across the top of the screen, and a pointer to indicate when to sing as well as if you’re sharp or flat. While the more difficult levels will demand that you be precisely in tune, the game is pretty forgiving on the easiest level. Even those who truly can’t sing in real life will be able to join in and have some fun.
Unfortunately, the drum element isn’t so merciful. You’ll need to learn real drumming skills if you want to keep the beat in the game, as gamers physically strike a drum kit (comprised of four plastic pads and a kick pedal) with actual wood drum sticks. And your timing better be good because the audience is quick to boo, even on the easy level.
No matter if you choose to sing, strum, or drum, performing well fills your Energy meter. In solo mode you use Energy to build points faster, but in group play it can help bandmates in trouble. If you see that a friend is having an off night, unleash the Energy and whip the crowd into a frenzy. In “Rock Band,” as in real life, if one member fails, the whole group gets kicked off the stage.
It’s this cooperative spirit of play that makes “Rock Band” such a great party game. Having people work together to reach the common goal of rock stardom makes sure that no one gets left behind. Plus, since this game gets players to stand up and perform, other partygoers can enjoy the show as well.
But there’s a lot to dig into even when you don’t have friends over. The game has multiple modes for solo play, where the games plays the parts you don't. There's practice mode, which lets you can slow down songs drastically to work on difficult sections and Quickplay, which lets you pick any tune from the list and perform it right away. Particularly cool is the World Tour mode, which you can also play in group mode. In it, you'll start off in small clubs and try to build a fan base — kind of like real life. The more fans you have, the bigger venues you can play. But flub up songs and fans will walk out on you, leaving you right back where you started.
“Rock Band” also has three online playable modes. Tug of War and Score Duel are head-to-head modes where you compete to be the better musician, while Band Quickplay lets you pick a song and play it with your online buddies.
But as good as “Rock Band” is, it does have some flaws. Its Strat-shaped controller doesn’t feel as sturdy or as comfortable to use as “Guitar Hero III’s” thicker guitar-controller. Instead of saving the entire band’s info to one login, each member has to individually sign in. Plus, each group has a designated band leader and if they aren’t available to play, then the band can’t either.
Also, you’ll repeat songs often while in World Tour mode. Yes, real bands may play the same song night after night, but doing that in a game can get boring.
But “Rock Star’s” positives more than make up for its negatives. It’s such a rush to play a tune and hear the audience — your audience — shout the words back to you. It's a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy come true — and you don't even have to pick up a real instrument.