Inside Pulse 12

Review: Rock Band 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Rock Band 2
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 09/14/08


The original Rock Band was something of a revelation for most US gamers; I don’t care what Neversoft says, they can stick it, Rock Band was pretty much one of the biggest things to come to the home console market, ever. Was it the most innovative? Sort of; while the whole rhythm game genre had pretty much been around for years at this point, and the idea of playing video games with plastic musical instruments in your home had popped up in Japan years prior, Harmonix was pretty much the first company to bring the home experience to US audiences. This is hardly surprising, given that they more or less started the whole craze, between being the people behind Guitar Hero and more or less pioneering the karaoke video game and all, but it IS kind of surprising that the product has taken off as well as it has, considering the high price point and the fact that their own creation is now their direct competition. Of course, Rock Band wasn’t perfect, but it was a fabulous first attempt at a new concept for the company, and it certainly paved the way for a sequel.

So now, here we have a sequel in Rock Band 2, and while it is indeed still a fabulous product, the question becomes “is it worth it?”, to which the answer is… let’s find out.

The gameplay modes in Rock Band 2 are largely similar to those in the prior installment, though there are some new things here and there for old fans. The Quickplay option offers the player the ability to simply jump in and play songs solo on your instrument of choice with no hassle of choosing a venue (though you CAN do that if you want) or avatar, as well as the ability to put together a whole group of your friends for the same purpose. Quickplay is also where your competitive gameplay modes are housed, of which there are two; Tug of War essentially puts two people playing the same instrument against one another, performing alternating parts of the chosen song, with the person who scores the best moving a sliding arrow in their direction to indicate that they are winning, while Score Duel basically pits two players against each other, performing the entire song, to see who can earn the most points. You can also jump into the Tour mode, which is the same this time around for solo or multiplay; make a character, make a band, play tunes, earn cash and prizes, unlock songs, and so on down the line. From Tour mode you can also take on Challenges and Battle of the Bands modes; the former are essentially just various challenges of your skill that can also be used to unlock various things in the game, while the latter features constantly updating challenges (if you have Xbox Live, of course) with interesting rules and track restrictions (play Expert only with no Overdrive through three Megadeth Songs, things like that), so you can compare your scores with the top bands/players from around the world. You’re also offered a Training mode, which features various instrument tutorials, a Practice mode to fool around with the songs, and a Drum Trainer, for those people out there who want to improve their drum skills (which teaches, among other things, some good fills to use that won’t mess up your band, and THANK GOD for that), or at least stop sounding like Animal. Rounding things out, the Options menu features the normal compliment of audio, video, and calibration options, as well as the ability to modify bands and members, Extras features the leaderboards, credits, and the option to change various game mechanics, including a “No Fail” option that keeps members from failing out, which is great for kids or poor players to learn the basics, and the Music Store allows you to hop online and preview or download new tracks, for a price. It should also be noted that all of the Quickplay modes but Solo can be played online, as can Tour mode, which is, again, absolutely fantastic. Old veterans will note more than a few modes are carried over from the last game, but the new modes should be more than enough to keep your interest, and in general, everything is as awesome as it ever was.

The visuals in Rock Band 2 are largely the same as the original, though they look cleaner and more vibrant across the board, which is always nice to see. Further, aside from the “adding in more customization options for created rockers” one would expect, there are also some new band animations added into the mix, and a few neat tricks that pop up here and there (particularly the filming of music videos, which generally look pretty awesome each time they show up, and often work with different themes each time) that give the game its own distinct feel, as opposed to simply feeling like a carbon copy of the first game. On the audio front, well, a rhythm game is only as good as its music, and as such, Rock Band 2 is pretty good; the game features seventy-five tracks from recognizable artists across numerous decades, as well as a few extra tracks from smaller bands, and all of the tracks sound quite good. The song choices might baffle some folks, as while songs such as “Go Your Own Way” from Fleetwood Mac, “Livin’ On A Prayer” from Bon Jovi, and “Down With the Sickness” from Disturbed are awesome, instantly recognizable songs for most everyone, other songs (Nirvana’s “Drain You” and Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” come to mind) are probably going to be baffling to all but the fans of said bands. Also, more iconic songs (“Livin’ On A Prayer”, “White Wedding”, etc) now feature the fans in attendance singing along with the songs at various parts, which is totally awesome and adds to the experience; on the other hand, on the several occasions where your band will be asked to record a music video, the game also features the various crowd noises, despite the complete absence of any fans, which is kind of silly.

Assuming you’ve never played a game like Rock Band 2 before, here’s the deal: you will take on the role of either the drummer, guitarist, bassist, or singer in a band, and attempt to sing/play various songs to earn points, stars, and money, which you will use to move forward in the game in one form or another. Singing works as it does in most karaoke games; a bar moves across the screen, you sing in such a way as to mimic it, if you manage it you get points, and if you don’t you move closer to dropping out. Singers will also have to occasionally bop the top of the mic in time with moving icons, more or less as a way of simulating playing the tambourine or something similar, depending on the song. Some songs also feature “freestyle” singing, IE rapping or speaking parts, which more or less work in the same way, only they’re a lot more generous with their scoring, as they don’t have any actual scoring bars. Guitar and bass playing works identically to other, similar products; you press one or more colored frets on the neck of the guitar and strum the strum bar to play a note; play it right and earn points, play it wrong and move closer to dropping out. You will also see notes with lines trailing behind them, and holding down the appropriate frets after strumming these notes holds the notes, which can then be modified by wiggling the whammy bar up and down. There are also smaller notes that pop up here and there, which can be played simply by pressing the fret, without the need to strum, provided you hit the prior note. Drumming works similar to guitar and bass playing; hit the pad that corresponds to the colored note on the screen to play the note to earn points, miss it and, again, move closer to dropping out. Drummers also have to watch out for long yellow lines that come down along with the notes; these lines represent the foot pedal, and again, require to hit the pedal as they move down to earn points or risk dropping out, as needed. Each position in the band can select one of four different difficulties (with Easy being good for inexperienced players and Expert being good for insane supermen/women) to play on, meaning experienced players can play with newer players without one or the other having to adjust their play level.

Beyond all of the above basics, there’s also the matter of Overdrive (AKA “Star Power”) and Score Multipliers. Each member of the band will have opportunities to earn Overdrive while playing, as various white notes/vocals will pop up; playing/singing these notes successfully adds Overdrive power to the meter below your instrument display. When the Overdrive meter fills up halfway, your Overdrive becomes available for use, and using said Overdrive then boosts your score, either by doubling your Score Multiplier when playing solo, or by adding an additional multiplier per player in Overdrive in multiplay. Guitar/Bass players can activate Overdrive at any time by pressing Select on the guitar, or by tilting the guitar upward, while drummers and vocalists will be provided with freestyle sections that pop up in their instrument displays, allowing them to activate Overdrive if they choose. Aside from allowing players to achieve higher scores, Overdrive also allows players to save other players who have dropped out, IE failed too many notes and been kicked out of play. By engaging Overdrive, the engaging player saves the player who dropped out, bringing them back into the song for another shot at it (though if you drop out three times, you’re out for good). Now, if you’re playing well, on the other hand, your Score Multiplier goes up, thus boosting the amount of points you earn per note hit. Basically, every note you play without messing up adds to the multiplier, which in turn adds to the amount of points you earn per note played. Each instrument has a different Score Multiplier maximum (Drummers get four, Bassists get six, and so on), meaning that each member in the band has some benefit to being there, which is good considering some songs make more use of certain positions than others (guitarists and drummers get their own solos, which add additional points to the roster, the bassist has the highest score modifier of the lot, and the singer gets all the groupies… or something like that).

So, okay, let’s talk about the new stuff.

First off, character creation, as noted, offers up a bunch of new clothing options, both in the same old categories and in some new ones. Want facial piercings? You got “Ëœem. Want a bandanna over your mouth? Go nuts. There still aren’t as many options as there are in comparable character creation modes (say, the various Smackdown vs. Raw games), but there are definitely enough options to keep most folks happy for a while. In another nice touch, again, you can also retain hairstyles you’ve purchased, which basically means you can change your hairstyle whenever you want at no cost instead of having to pay for changes over and over when inspiration strikes you. Your band is also no longer restricted to having a leader and whatever members are present when the band is created; instead, members may be added or removed from active duty at any time, meaning you can build multiple characters and have them switch in and out as you get bored of them without a problem. In another awesome touch, you can actually dictate WHO subs in when no one is playing a particular position, meaning that if your actual drummer isn’t there, you can have the character jump in and play anyway instead of some random character (assuming said drummer is saved locally on your console). You’re also no longer constrained to whatever instrument you create your character with; characters can switch instruments at any time, meaning you can start as a guitarist for the band and switch to drums with no problems, which, again, is a fantastic change that makes things a lot better overall.

Tour mode has also seen some significant improvements in all categories. Aside from the addition of new cities and venues, Tour mode is now the same in single or multiplayer modes, meaning you can make progress alone or with friends through the normal Tour instead of playing through completely different modes, which will please some folks quite a bit. You can choose to play through Tour locally or through XBL, meaning you can make progress with friends or strangers, either through your career or theirs, as you want. Tour mode also allows access to the previously noted Challenges and Battle of the Bands modes; both modes essentially allow you to complete various challenges against specified songs for bragging rights, which will appeal to high-level players with lots of skills, though it won’t appeal so much to players who play casually (as you’re probably never going to rank high in many of these challenges). Aside from earning various new venues, tracks, and items as you complete songs, you’re also given the option to hire crew members as you progress, with each offering up different effects (one might open up new venues to play in, another might earn you fans while losing you money, and so on). You can only hire one at a time, but you can change which employee you have at any time as your needs change. Again, this is a simple change, but it’s quite useful for, say, unlocking venues early, or for earning money once you’ve earned up enough fans. The pacing of Tour mode has also changed up quite a bit, thanks in large part to the added number of venues and tracks in comparison to the previous game, meaning you’ll spend a good bit more time earning stars, fans, and cash than you did in Rock Band.

Speaking of tracks, there are a LOT of tracks available in Rock Band 2; even if this is your very first experience with the franchise, the game comes loaded with a whopping eighty four tracks right out of the box, which should keep you entertained for a while. For those that love to have more variety, you’re in luck, as not only does the game come with a coupon that will give owners twenty free tracks to download (though the download itself isn’t active yet), it’s also compatible with Rock Band DLC, meaning any songs you’ve already downloaded will work, as will any new songs you’re interested in. On top of THAT, you can also install the original Rock Band track list to your hard drive (at the cost of about a gigabyte and a half of storage space and five dollars for licensing fees), save for three songs in the US and four in Europe (“Enter Sandman”, “Paranoid”, “Run to the Hills”, and in European case, “Monsoon”, with the former two being because Ozzy is apparently Guitar Hero exclusive now and Metallica is, well, Metallica, FYI). You can also delete specific songs from the original game once they are installed on your hard drive, so if you never want to hear a song again, you can trash it and move on with your day. In other words: THERE IS A LOT OF CONTENT AVAILABLE TO YOU. This, too, is pretty sweet (especially considering the fact that the marketing machine is touting a possible five hundred tracks by the end of the year, and they’re probably NOT exaggerating), as is the fact that the menu displaying the tracks also displays your scores on each song you’ve played, as well as a little icon reminding you whether a track is from the first game, second game, or XBL. Again, the little things make all the difference, and in this case, the little things are pretty spiffy.

(Also, for those wondering about the hardware designs; the wireless Rock Band 2 guitar feels pretty much identical to the wireless Rock Band guitar that came out a few months ago, but if you don’t own that, it’s a good investment, as the battery life is HUGE and the guitar in general feels sturdy and functional, and it’s not as noisy as the old Guitar Hero guitars. The drum kit is, in general, quieter than the original, generally better built, and has a metal pad on the foot pedal, and while the wireless functionality of the set might not matter to you per say, the fact that your potentially lead-footed drummer is less likely to snap the pedal in half is definitely reason enough to buy the kit as soon as you can. Just saying.)

That all doesn’t mean that Rock Band 2 is the total package, unfortunately. Some of the issues in the game will only matter to certain players, such as the general inability to use “No Fail” mode for much (disabling Achievements makes sense, but turning off the ability to save or play online AT ALL seems a bit much), the fact that the Solo Tour mode has been excised (as it was a fairly easy way to unlock songs), and such, which is a personal preference. The track list may also not be for everyone, and while it’s fair to say “that’s the way every game of this sort works”, it still bears noting that, for instance, there’s a decent amount of modern and classical rock, and yet despite the numerous goth clothing options, staffers, and poses, there are very few goth songs across the board (and don’t say “What about Lacuna Coil?”; until something from Comalies comes up as DLC you’re just playing the same damn song from Guitar Hero 3). It’s also kind of silly that, while you can use all of your downloaded content, you CAN’T use your old Rock Band bands and members, especially since all of the content from the first game is IN this game. Not transporting over, say, the money and wardrobe might kinda-sorta makes sense, since you might well own everything and thus not see the need to spend much time with the game, but there’s no reason your old characters and bands couldn’t have been brought over, ready to rock. The worst complaint about Rock Band 2, though, is pretty much that it’s really a sixty dollar stand-alone expansion pack. Now, if you loved Rock Band, paying sixty dollars for eighty songs, online play, and new character costumes isn’t a bad deal, especially when you can pay an extra five to have nearly everything available to you all at once, but if you were hoping for a little more advancement to the product, you might come away a little disappointed, as the game is mostly more of the same.

Still, if you’re a fan of the franchise, or of the genre in general, Rock Band 2 is definitely still well worth the cash. It still looks and plays fabulously, features a strong collection of new songs, and offers a ton of content even if you DON’T own the previous game. It’s a great party game, it’s a fun game to play online, and what changes have been made to the experience are almost all unquestionably for the better, which should certainly please fans and newcomers alike. Some changes may not be as well received as others, true. It’s disappointing that you can’t carry over your old characters and bands from the first game, certainly. It’s disappointing that more wasn’t done to modify or freshen up the product beyond what was done, absolutely. But frankly, if you loved Rock Band, you’ll love Rock Band 2 all the same, and the price is more than worth the content included in the game. Fans and newcomers alike will find this well worth the cash, both for the new tracks, the new options, and the still fabulous gameplay, and given the choice between the same old, perfectly functional thing or a brand new, broken product, sometimes it’s better off NOT to fix what isn’t broken.

The Scores:
Game Modes: UNPARALLELED
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED

Final Score: CLASSIC.

Short Attention Span Summary:
As Rock Band was a mostly great game, Rock Band 2 is a mostly great sequel. In most all respects, it is a fantastic experience, and between a largely excellent soundtrack of tunes, excellent visual presentation, a wealth of game options and replay value, and a huge amount of features, options to extend the variety of the track list, and general tweaks and improvements, it essentially justifies its asking price and then some. Some changes may not be as well received as others, and the game largely still feels like the same experience, so those who are worn out on the first game, or happened to prefer distinct single and multiplayer Tour modes might be disappointed. For most people, however, Rock Band 2 will be well worth the money spent and will spend a significant amount of time in their console, and for fans and newcomers alike it’s worth the asking price.