Guitar Hero is unquestionably one of the best games I’ve ever played, and Neil and I have anxiously awaited each follow-up. My favorite part is the cooperative two-player version introduced with Guitar Hero II which allows one of us to play bass while the other plays the guitar line. This Christmas, however, EA’s upped the ante and released the video game version of crack for the music-loving set with the most painfully addictive game in years. It’s called Rock Band, and it’s a four-person music game where you and your friends can form your own band using guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.
The set currently only comes as a $169 bundle which includes the game, a guitar controller, a microphone (which doubles as a cowbell/tambourine during non-singing parts of songs), and a 4-pad (+ kick) drum controller. They even throw in a pair of drumsticks for good measure. Inexplicably, individual instruments have been announced for sale, but won’t actually ship for a couple of months. Therein lies my greatest source of woe with the game—more on this in a bit.
If you’ve ever been in a garage band, the process of clearing away the sofas and setting up your drums and guitars in the middle of someone’s living room (generally the band member with the most tolerant wife/girlfriend/parents) will be frighteningly familiar. As the game begins, you name the band, set up your online avatars from a number of basic “types”, then start rocking your way through tunes like Radiohead’s “Creep” or Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. Some 58 songs are included in all, and you can download new ones from the Rock Band online store.
You start out doing tiny coffee house gigs, and slowly work your way up to larger venues as you attract fans. Our band, “The Quadratics” (featuring ace guitarist Neil, vocalist Carolyn, and me on drums), had its big moment when we won a 1967 van in an early level, allowing us to travel to different cities. The game itself features venues inspired by real locations in any number of places, including New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and our own San Francisco. Each successful gig can earn your band more fans, as well as a bit of much-needed cash which you can use to equip yourselves with clothes, instruments, and accessories. (For our part, Neil and I bought our virtual selves new T-shirts, then let lead singer Carolyn blow the rest of the band’s cash on a bitchin’ new hairdo and clothes. This part is also frighteningly like being in a real band).
We spent a crazy evening our first night with the game, with Carolyn thrashing it out until she nearly lost her voice. It was some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game, and compared favorably with at least half the times I’ve had playing in real bands. We even fell into all the old rock habits including Lead Singer Grandstanding, Constant Drummer Fiddling, and gymnastics as we hit the Big Rock Ending on some of the songs. When your band’s cooking along, you can easily get lost in the whole groove, and you even get a chance to devise your own riffs and solos at various points in the game, mimicking nicely the balance between script and improvisation that’s at the heart of playing live music (albeit without the degree of freedom—or difficulty—that real instruments have).
We were all revved up to go at it again two nights later, and both Carolyn and I were ready to take it up a notch on the respective difficulty levels of our instruments—a critical prerequisite to gaining more “fans” as your band works its way through the game. For me, the hardest part was making the bridge between the “real ”drum part, and the part the game expected: on medium, it’s pretty clear you’re really playing the skeleton of the real drum part, laying down the basic beat (sometimes at cut time). When I switched to “hard”, it got really confusing, however, as the drum part was quite close—but not quite the same—as the beat I’d play if I were playing the song for real. For instance, on “Blitzkrieg Bop”, the arm parts (tom/snare/hi-hat) were almost exactly what you’d expect, but the kick drum part had only the downbeat. It was like having to learn a new, “dub” version of the punk song, which was a bit of a challenge, but still fun. I’d get into trouble, however, when I’d let my concentration lapse and my right foot would slide into playing the “real” kick drum part, causing my score to plummet or even fail me out of the game.
We’d managed to slog our way through “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden when I started to realize that my I wasn’t just getting into trouble for misreading the drum part. My yellow drum pad, which is most frequently used for hi-hat parts, had started to trigger only periodically, and soon stopped triggering at all. Since most rock songs call for a steady 8th or 16th-note pattern on the hi-hat, this meant that I was soon failing automatically on every song.
This brings me to the biggest heartbreak of Rock Band: the instruments. The message boards are full of tales of problems triggering the strum on the guitar controller, as well as periodic problems with the sensors on the drum controller. The lack of individually-purchasable instruments means that spares can’t be obtained without buying the entire kit again (itself an impossibility, since it’s sold out everywhere). EA has a fairly efficient RMA system in place, and will cross ship you a replacement instrument using 2-day shipping, but as I write this, the replacement has not yet arrived. Presumably, they’re either short on instruments at EA central, or are overwhelmed with the sheer demand for replacement instruments.
The other problem is that, despite assurances made before the game shipped, on the Playstation 3, neither the Rock Band guitar controller works with Guitar Hero III, nor does the Guitar Hero III controller work with Rock Band. (Apparently the Xbox 360 situation is a little less bleak in this regard). This means that it’s currently impossible to set up a 4-piece band on the Playstation 3, since the kit only comes with one guitar, and no third-party replacements exist. Not surprisingly, there’s a growing list of Rock Band games for sale on eBay with every instrument except the guitar—that one presumably having been spirited away to act as a bass guitar for a different set, or as a replacement for a failing guitar controller. It’s madness, but the game is so addictive that I’ve seriously considered buying a second set myself just so I could scoop the guitar and sell off the rest on eBay. But even that isn’t an option, since the entire set is sold out everywhere.
Argh! Such a good game! And so maddeningly frustrating! I know the situation will be worked out in the months ahead, but the waiting—for both a replacement drum kit and the chance to get a second guitar to use for bass—is killing me.
Any of you EA guys able to hook me up? We have a big office Christmas/Rock Band party coming up, and I’ll bet we could help you out on the comic software front (hint! hint!)