Have you ever daydreamed about standing onstage with your best buds, shaking back a thick mane of bleached blonde hair and really laying down some rock 'n' roll? Well, if that's one of your fantasies—even if you don't want to admit it—then the video game Rock Band is out to make your Cinderella dreams come true.
Now, I'm not saying the gamemakers at Harmonix know anything about fairy godmothering, but they sure know a thing or two about rock simulators. They're the guys who developed the first two, very popular, Guitar Hero games. This time around, they're stepping back from the solo ax grind and encouraging players to get their friends together and form a band. Thus, the Rock Band: Special Edition box set comes with all the necessities for a three-member group: the game, a guitar, an electric drum kit and a wired mike.
We Could Start a Rockin' Band
In a way, Rock Band is three games in one. First of all, there's a guitar sim that allows you to play a lead or bass guitar line (or both if you happen to have another guitar kicking around). The idea behind the play is much like karaoke. As a song progresses, notes scroll down the screen in the form of color-coded blips on a fretboard. When a note or chord reaches the bottom of the screen, you push the corresponding colored buttons and flip the strum bar on your guitar-shaped game controller. Sounds easy, right? And it is, until you start hitting the tougher songs with fast riff lines and multi-note chords that'll have you breaking into a sweat.
The second part of the gameplay is the drum kit. Instead of pushing colored buttons on a fretboard, you whale away with real drumsticks on four color-coded drum pads while thumping the bass drum with a kick pedal. And here's the really cool part. Since drums are a rhythm instrument anyway, you're actually learning how to play—for real—as you progress through the songs. By the time you ratchet your play up to the expert level, you are playing the drums.
Then there's the vocals. Much like the mechanics of games such as American Idol and Karaoke Revolution, players sing along as lyrics are displayed on the screen, aided by a phrase meter and a pitch arrow that moves up and down with the song's original vocal track. There are also spots in some songs that call for a little improvised vocalizing or a rhythmic thumping on the mic which is interpreted as a tambourine or cowbell.
Takin' It on the Road
When you put it all together, you've got a band. This is undeniably the most group-oriented party game (of the console variety) out there. And it is indeed fun. You can break the game out and throw together quick competitions to see who performs the best on favorite songs, go head-to-head on specific instruments or even name your group and take it on an in-game road tour. But once you get to the Band World Tour part, then the real challenge becomes evident: getting your band to actually play like one.
Each song is broken into phrases and your performance is measured on how well all the players nail each phrase. If one or more players falls out of sync with the rest, it can get to the point at which your virtual audience rises up and boos you off the stage. (And even virtual embarrassment is hard to take!) If band members are all clicking together, however, not only will the fans go wild, but you'll start getting bonus overdrive opportunities that give your group big points and spread your fame far and wide—think money, recordings, over 40 venues to play, billboards and a tour jet with your group's name on the side.
A Note About Sour Notes
It's a bummer, then, that Rock Band bungles a few performances—in ways gamers won't be able to avoid. This is a game centered around the hard-edged world of rock music, and the 45-song track list (and growing catalogue of downloadable tunes) cuts a pretty wide swath through contemporary and classic rock. Included: Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Metallica, The Rolling Stones and Kiss. And while the crudest language has been sanitized, an occasional "d--n," "h---" and misuse of Jesus' name still show up.
Even the tunes that receive a lyrical cleansing can still be potentially problematic. A Radiohead track called Creep or the Beastie Boys song Sabotage, for example, are free of crudity in-game. But if young gamers get hooked and download the originals from iTunes they'll find a few raw f-words they might not be expecting.
Typical rock angst and drug themes are also present. And players might not expect that the game's onscreen avatars look as hard rock as they sound. Outfits take on a variety of rock, goth and punk flavorings, and you get an eyeful of outlandish makeup and tattoos, accentuated curves, shirtless torsos and cleavage.
If that kind of rock 'n' roll baggage fails to fully strain gamers' allegorical camel backs, the strain on their wallet might be one straw too many. Rock Band: Special Edition carries a hefty $170 price tag. The special guitar and drum controllers are of good quality and might be considered worth the extra freight. But that's some major cash for a video game even if you're a real music star, much less if you're just a daydreaming one.