Review: The Beatles: Rock Band (Microsoft Xbox 360)

The Beatles: Rock Band
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 09/09/09


With the evolution of the rhythm genre bringing us games where we can play plastic instruments and pretend to be rock stars, it was inevitable that we’d begin seeing games focused around specific bands. While being able to play as your own customized band on the road to fame and glory is cool, who wouldn’t want to pretend to be a REAL rock star for a little while? Video games ARE escapism, after all, and if your ideal escape involves jumping into the shoes of your favorite guitarist/drummer/singer/whatever and rocking out, hey, the technology is certainly there, why not let players go nuts? Therefore, we have seen games based around some of the most iconic names in the business, from rock icons AC/DC to metal pioneers Metallica and the always iconic Aerosmith, we’ve seen a few band-centric rhythm games pop up over the past few years, and Activision has a Van Halen-based game on the way. When one begins to contemplate the idea of jumping into the role of a famous band and rocking out with their tunes, however, one band is always going to come up: The Beatles. The Beatles were one of the most iconic rock and roll acts EVER, few musical acts have TRULY been as influential and revolutionary as they were, and decades after their peak they still retain a legion of fans across the globe. Put simply: if you don’t like The Beatles, even a little bit, you have no soul. So it’s obvious that SOMEONE was going to throw some money at everyone attached to the band’s legacy at this point until someone gave them the rights to make a game, and the winner of that race was Harmonix and Electronic Arts, with the end result being The Beatles: Rock Band. To compare the game to Rock Band 2 would be unfair to both games, as The Beatles: Rock Band is meant as something of a career retrospective of the band more than anything else, and as such lacks certain features its predecessor contains. However, it does offer a surprisingly solid Beatles experience that fans will love, and as a game it completely beats out the competing products, if only because it actually FEELS like a Beatles game instead of a Rock Band game that the Beatles happen to be in.

The gameplay modes in The Beatles: Rock Band are mostly similar to those in Rock Band 2, though there have been some changes made to accommodate the focus of the game that, while not explicitly better or worse, are worth mentioning. 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 (this time around the game chooses the venue based on the song picked), as well as the ability to put together a whole group of your friends for the same purpose, both online and off. 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. Story Mode has replaced Tour Mode for this incarnation of the game, allowing you to play through various significant events in the history of the Beatles, from their beginnings in small bars to their Ed Sullivan set, their Budokan concert, the Abbey Road recording sessions and beyond. You won’t be customizing the characters or earning money this time around, but successfully completing sessions in Story Mode unlocks various videos and picture sets for you to peruse, which should be cool for fans. From Tour mode you can also take on Chapter Challenges, which are essentially just challenges of your skill that allow you to compare your scores with friends and the top bands/players from around the world, while Battle of the Bands mode has been excised from this game. 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, 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 Xbox LIVE Party Options, 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 Story mode, which is as one would expect from the prior game. This is mostly the same as it was in Rock Band 2, with a few tweaks here and there, such as how “No Fail” has been moved from the Extras menu to a selection you can make when picking your instrument, or how “Performance Mode” and other such modifier modes have been moved to Options from the Extras menu, so fans of the prior game should be able to jump in and understand how things work in seconds.

The visuals in The Beatles: Rock Band are based around the engine of the prior games, but are redesigned significantly to capture the essence of The Beatles, and for the most part, they succeed nicely. The character models are designed in the semi-cartoony style Rock Band is known for, and look excellent at the various stages of their life, from the early mop-top days to the psychedelic and crazy end. The various different venues and locales are lifelike and vibrant, featuring lots of excellent little details that bring the experience to life nicely. The best part of the visuals, of course, are the Abbey Road recording sessions, which feature all sorts of trippy dreamscape venues as the characters perform, which essentially takes the music video recording stages from Rock Band 2 and makes them a million times more awesome. The audio is also outstanding, thanks entirely to the entirely Beatles composed setlist. The songs included in the game are a good cross-section of the band’s career, and casual and hardcore fans alike will appreciate having classics like “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Ticket to Ride”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and others on one disc. Some songs are probably not the first choices one would make for such a compilation, of course, and “Dig a Pony” and “Paperback Writer” might not see much time in rotation when you play, but they’re not bad songs at all, and for the most part, the songs in the game are all generally fun to play if nothing else. There’s also some DLC available to round out your collection, with tracks from Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band available for download and more promised down the road, so you can fill out your collection with the tunes you want if they’re not already on the disc.

Assuming you’ve never played a game like The Beatles: Rock Band before, here’s the deal: you will take on the role of either Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon or George Harrison and attempt to sing/play various songs to earn points and stars, which you will use to move forward through the history of The Beatles. 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. 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, though this doesn’t affect the sound of the notes in The Beatles: Rock Band. 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 beastly players) 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 Beatlemania, which is the new term for Overdrive/Star Power, and Score Multipliers. Each member of the band will have opportunities to earn Beatlemania while playing, as various white notes/vocals will pop up; playing/singing these notes successfully adds Beatlemania power to the meter below your instrument display. When the Beatlemania meter fills up halfway, your Beatlemania becomes available for use, and using said Beatlemania then boosts your score, either by doubling your Score Multiplier when playing solo, or by adding an additional multiplier per player in Beatlemania in multiplay. Guitar/Bass players can activate Overdrive at any time by pressing Select on the guitar, or by tilting the guitar upward, while vocalists will be provided with freestyle sections that pop up in their instrument displays, allowing them to activate Beatlemania if they choose. Drummers were originally presented with said freestyle segments, but now are simply presented with regular drumming segments that can activate Beatlemania at various points, presumably to retain the integrity of Ringo’s drumming. Beatlemania essentially allows the group to achieve higher scores when used effectively, though unlike other Rock Band titles, you won’t be using it to save players who have dropped out; players no longer drop out here, so a terrible player is less likely to tank the entire band, if the other band can carry their mistakes, which also allows players to not have to worry about storing up Beatlemania to save a struggling player. Now, if you’re playing well, 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 often has some of the hardest segments in several songs, and the singers have some impressive timing tricks they can pull off for bonuses, which we’ll get to in a bit.

The Beatles: Rock Band isn’t dramatically different from the prior Rock Band titles, though it does offer a few differences here and there. As noted previously, character creation has been ditched entirely, though the game now allows you to unlock various videos and photos to showcase parts of the career of the Beatles, which should interest and amuse fans. The one major change to the mechanics is the vocal harmony system, which allows for up to three players to sing a song at one time, depending on what the song itself asks for. Basically, the lead vocals will show up in blue, while the harmony vocals will show up in orange, and the singers will be asked to sing along with those harmonies. Ideally, each singer will stick to their own specific harmony, and while this is by no means required so long as everyone hits a harmony correctly, sticking to one harmony and running with it rewards you with more points. Story Mode, as noted, is more straight-forward than the Tour Mode from prior games, giving you various venues and set lists to play through across the career of the Beatles instead of any changing venues and such, though, as with Tour Mode, you can play it with friends on and offline with no trouble. There are a good bit less tracks available on the disc with The Beatles: Rock Band, with the on-disc track list topping out at a little over forty songs, though the song list is entirely composed of Beatles tunes, making the game a good bit more focused than some similar band-centric products, and it’s intended that there will be several more Beatles albums made available for the game over the coming months, so fans should be able to get their fix easily enough.

The Beatles: Rock Band is obviously a product for the fans, and in that respect, it whole-heartedly succeeds, though it fails in some minor, if not unnoticeable, areas. This being a band focused product, obviously you cannot use your songs from the other Rock Band products in this game, and obviously the song list is a bit smaller than the eighty-plus tracks most non-focused music games offer. That the game doesn’t offer any customization options for the Beatles characters is a little sad, as it would be fun to have different Beatles from different eras playing along-side each other. The biggest issue with the game, unfortunately, is that as a Beatles product, the game is purely meant as a Beatles-centric stand-alone product, which hurts it a bit. You can’t play anything but Beatles songs in the game and you can’t play the Beatles songs in other Rock Band games, and while I’m not saying that I want to be able to have the Beatles sing Flyleaf, I AM saying that I’d prefer the option to download the songs from this game to my hard drive and play them in Rock Band 2. Having the songs available is great, but having to specifically boot up this game instead of being able to integrate the songs into my existing song list is a hassle at times, especially if one wants to only play one or two Beatles songs and then switch to something else, and while I can understand the reasons for this, it doesn’t make it any better that such an option is not available. Further, several neat features and challenging mechanics, such as band members failing out and drum fills, have been excised from the game entirely to preserve the Beatles experience, and while that’s fine on an aesthetic level, from a gameplay standpoint it’s annoying because it feels like a step back. Further, the songs themselves aren’t especially difficult, as the Beatles, while fans of complex compositions, were not on the insane level of bands like Dragonforce, making this a product that’s more for casual fans of the genre, as hardcore fans will blow through this without a second thought.

To say that The Beatles: Rock Band isn’t a great product on its own, however, would be inaccurate, as it accurately captures the Beatles experience in a way that fans will appreciate, thanks to the amazing attention to detail in the visual and aural presentation, while retaining many of the gameplay modes and options that make Rock Band a fun and enjoyable franchise. There are plenty of things to unlock, modes to tool around with, and songs to play, and the game is both accessible to casual players who are massive Beatles fans thanks to some gameplay tweaks that simplify the experience while also offering some new gameplay elements with the vocal harmony system. The game is obviously meant to appeal exclusively to Beatles fans, as it excises customization modes and does not support non-Beatles songs, but the inability to install the songs from the game to your system is disappointing, as is the removal of some more challenging mechanics that might put players looking for a new challenge off from the game. Still, from an aesthetic perspective, The Beatles: Rock Band is spot-on outstanding, and the game is still a blast to play alone or with friends, making it easy to recommend to almost everyone. It might not be perfect, but it’s quite good all the same and is easy to recommend despite its flaws.

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

Final Score: INCREDIBLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The Beatles: Rock Band is, as were its predecessors, mostly a great experience, and fans of the band and rhythm games in general should have a blast with it, as it’s a fun and solid recreation of one of the greatest bands of all time, even if it isn’t as solid a product as its predecessor. The visual style is outstanding, the audio is composed entirely of generally good Beatles tunes, and the ability to play through the career of one of the most iconic bands in existence is great for fans of all sorts. The game is as easy and fun to play as ever and offers just as many single and multiplayer options as one would expect, and the game has been tuned to be accessible to casual and experienced players alike while still offering some interesting mechanical additions and changes to keep things fresh. The game is entirely centered around preserving the experience of The Beatles, however, which can be disappointing, as there are no customization options, no options to install the game to play the songs with Rock Band 2, and the game is simplified enough that hardcore fans won’t find much challenge to the game at all. As a game The Beatles: Rock Band is a couple steps backward but still manages to be fun and entertaining, and as a celebration of The Beatles, The Beatles: Rock Band is everything a fan could ever want, making this one pretty easy to recommend.

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