Publisher: EA/MTV Games
Developer: Harmonix
For: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, Wii, PS2
ESRB Rating: T for Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes

After the late-2006 release of Guitar Hero II, Harmonix, developer of the now insanely successful franchise, had a less than amicable split with publisher Activision, resulting in one final game—the largely mediocre Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s—and a purchase by MTV Games. Harmonix had a long history of creating music games, including the first three Guitar Hero games (Guitar Hero 1, 2 and the first expansion), as well as Phase, the innovative iPod music game that lets you game with your songs. Yet what they had in mind next was considerably more ambitious than anything that had come before.

Rock Band exploded out of the gates against all odds, a month after Guitar Hero III launched. It came in with a price point that challenged precedent on the market, at $170, which included a drum kit, a guitar and a microphone. Both the guitar and the drums experienced problems for many users from day one, and an extremely limited warranty (60 days) from EA didn’t help matters.

What Rock Band gets right, it gets right in spades. The graphics are smooth and stylized, with phenomenal animation and stage shows that are synchronized with the music. As for the actual game play, the note patterns make sense (unlike in Guitar Hero 3), gradually stepping up in difficulty as you move down the list of songs to play. However, the free form nature of the Band World Tour means that the difficulty fluctuates wildly, often with some of the hardest songs on disc ending up next to the easiest ones. While this results in a wildly uneven difficulty at times in the multiplayer mode, it encourages team work and cooperation as a means to succeed.

Single player, however, takes another form, regressing to the typical Guitar Hero career mode structure, where songs are placed in a tier according to difficulty. While this doesn’t really affect the main game play, it does show that Rock Band was meant to be, primarily, a multiplayer game.

And in that, it works quite well. Never is Rock Band so effective, or fun, than when it’s played in a group of three or four people. Cooperation is imperative to the game itself, both to making the best sounding music possible, as well as scoring as high as you can. If a player isn’t hitting their notes, then the part of that instrument stops playing. This can be set for vocals, too, but the default is with the actual singer of the band singing along with the player. As a band moves through songs, little things occur that show how well the band is doing. One is called Band Unity. This icon appears during specific sections of the song, and gives extra points when that section of the song is hit dead-on. Another of these things is for the bassist; when the bassist starts playing well, the on-screen fret board turns blue, showing that the bassist is hitting the rhythm just right.

Overdrive is Rock Band’s answer to Guitar Hero’s Star Power, and it functions in much the same way, amping fans up and saving the player from failing the song. During multiplayer, however, Overdrive can be used to “revive” failed players, bringing them back in the game and saving the band from getting booed at the hands of the merciless crowd.

Customization is a major part of the Rock Band experience, and it’s one that demolishes expectations. Players can customize everything, from their haircuts to their tattoos, from their clothing to the stickers on their instruments, and it all works flawlessly. In fact, the only real problem with the customization is a severe lack of faces to choose from: while there are at least ten for either male or female, you’re likely to see the same face in a band twice, which is a bit of a disappointment. Still, with so many accessories, make-up options, clothing and hair styles, as well as a ton of instruments, the chances that your character will look exactly like another in the same game is slim to none.

The song list in Rock Band is easily the best that Harmonix has come up with. The vast majority of songs are fun to play and memorable, with only a few stinkers in the entire bunch. Add in downloadable content, and Rock Band is practically infinitely replayable. The main problem that I noticed with the soundtrack, at least during play-throughs on consoles without downloaded songs, was that songs tended to repeat, and often. If you haven’t progressed to a certain level in the Band World Tour mode, you’re likely to hear songs repeating over and over again, ad nauseam. For my band, this was exemplified in two songs: “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage. These two songs played over and over, often showing up next to each other, to the point where everyone in the band dreaded when they showed up, refusing to play gigs with those two songs in the mix. Luckily, this is remedied by the constant stream of songs from Harmonix; the only people likely to experience this problem are those without internet connections, or those playing on PS2s or Wiis.

By and large, the songs that are featured in Rock Band aren’t all that offensive. At least three songs on disc feature offensive lyrics (“Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, “Here It Goes Again” by OK Go and “Highway Star” by Deep Purple), with at least one featuring some sexual content. Players looking to download songs should be far more weary. From disturbing or sexual lyrics (Queens of the Stone Age, Haunted) to profanity (Weezer) to occultic and drug references (Black Sabbath), downloadable songs should be looked over prior to purchase by any concerned about possible offensive content. Add in to that the ability to dress female characters in rather skimpy attire, as well as some optional occultic references (i.e., a goat\'s head guitar), and you’ve got a great game marred by a few unfortunate flaws.

Still, for those rhythm game junkies (like me), or those looking for a great family/party game, this is it. Rock Band is sure to last you years, and with the recent announcement of Rock Band 2, which features full compatibility with the first game’s downloadable songs, Harmonix has the hit that will keep them going as a studio.

Final Scores
Appropriateness 41.5/50
-Violence 10/10
-Language 6/10
-Sexual Content/Nudity 8.5/10
-Occult/Supernatural 7/10
-Cultural/Moral/Ethical 10/10
Gameplay 20/20
Graphics 8/10
Sound 10/10
Stability 3/5
Controls/Interface 5/5

Final 87.5/100


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