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Game Review

Rock Band, the video game that took a Guitar Hero by the collar of his tattered T-shirt and set him to playing in a rockin' band (well, a gaggle of gamers with a likeminded taste for plastic musical instruments, anyway) has just rolled back into town. Rock Band 2 is ready to set up in your local amphitheater (read: family room), riff through its latest playlist and show you some new party tricks.

The game itself is essentially unchanged. Creative thinkers at Harmonix figured, "Why fix what ain't broke?" The title features the same scrolling lyrics and color-coded blips. The same karaoke-style play- and sing-along. The same multi-city virtual stages (along with 15 new arenas). And the same toy-like guitars, drum pad and microphone that many a band whaled away on last time. The Harmonix gang, however, did send out some roadies to fix up a few bits of the game that fans complained most about in the first edition:

Too Easy or Too Tough
Most everyone agreed that the original game played well enough, but it didn't offer a really intense challenge for those who had already mastered a couple Guitar Hero titles. On the other hand, the purely party-minded who just brought out the game when family and friends were over—and didn't want to spend their weekends slaving over a game controller—found a number of the tunes too hard.

So this time around, not only is Rock Band 2 pumped up with songs that get progressively more challenging—with complex beats and guitar note combos—but it also offers a no-fail setting for the less-serious rockers. That way the well-meaning warbler who can't carry a tune in a bucket or would-be virtuoso who can't seem to master those colored buttons won't penalize the rest of his crew.

Another pick-up-and-play feature: Bands no longer have to be tied to a specific player—or a player to a specific instrument. Gamers can just jump in and play whatever instrument suits their fancy and play pretty much instantly in any game mode.

Hitting the Online Road
Speaking of modes, the World Tour has been given a boost as well. This time around gamers can recruit local bandmates, or join up with a far-flung group via the Internet and play their way to superstardom in an online tour. Which means that fun and a rippin' band can always be yours even when no one shows up at your party. (Hey, more chips 'n' dip for you, right?)

But the biggest addition is the game's song-list capabilities. Not only can most of the original Rock Band tunes be downloaded for play (for a $5 fee), but this game offers another 80-plus songs that once again cover a huge variety of bands and styles: AC/DC, Alanis Morissette, Avenged Sevenfold, Beck, Elvis Costello, Foo Fighters, Jethro Tull, Metallica, Panic at the Disco, Paramore, Steely Dan, Smashing Pumpkins, The Who—to name a few.

Once the tunes are unlocked—as you progress through the World Tour—the game allows the option of putting together a playlist of your favorites for quick head-to-head competitions.

Unfortunate Clunkers
For all the variety and fun this game's collection of music can offer, it's also the biggest problem area. Let's face it, with an artist list as diverse as this one, these so-called purveyors of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are going to sing about, well, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. All of the crudest language is blanked out or substituted with something milder, but the words "a--," "d--n" and "h---" still make it through a number of times.

And for every positive lyric such as those in the Jimmy Eat World song "In The Middle" ("It's only in your head you feel left out/Or looked down on/Just try your best"), there are several others with seriously twisted worldviews, such as Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" ("Sitting on a park bench/Eyeing little girls with bad intent").

Then there's the problem of players seeking out some of their favorite songs or artists online and being surprised by the unfiltered version or far cruder sister titles. (Nearly half of the songs in the game contain harsh profanity in their uncensored state.)

Add in some of the new clothing selections for onscreen male and female avatars—such as the "demons and lace" top which features a metal demon that perches on your character's back and reaches around to cover her breasts—and you suddenly end up with a mixed bag that isn't as friendly as it originally appeared.

That's not to say rockin' fun can't be had here. But gamers looking for musical bliss with their friends and family need to keep their eyes and ears open to avoid Rock Band 2's unfortunate pitfalls and ugly clunkers.

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