Vocals are a little different. One sings the actual vocal part into a special microphone. To score points, you have to stay in sync with the recorded track. More crucial, the microphone measures your relative pitch — you don’t have to hit the notes exactly, but you need to sing higher notes and lower notes as the song requires. The vocal parts are represented on the screen by a left-to-right scrolling staff, with the lyrics at the bottom. The vocal lines are represented by a bar on the staff — when you’re required to sing in the upper register it will appear higher on the staff, and so forth.
It’s in your face, but you can’t grab it
I started getting excited about Rock Band as soon as I found out about it, so when I walk into that studio with my fellow Phoenicians, I am giddy. I sit out the first round or so while the rest of the guys tear through Faith No More’s “Epic.” I hover over shoulders, grinning and laughing like a maniac at how much fun it looks. I don’t even get my chance until the third song, “Suffragette City,” for which I practically bowl over Spitzy to jump on the guitar. “It’s no sweat,” I boast to my mocking bandmates. “I’ve beaten ‘Freebird’ on expert — twice.” (For the uninitiated, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic ballad is the last, and arguably most difficult, song in Guitar Hero II.)
Thankfully, playing along to each song is intuitive, both melodically and rhythmically.
It’s tough to say for sure what has led to the popularity of these games, but as with most post-millennial gaming-success stories, such as Halo and the Nintendo Wii, there is a significant social factor. When we play Rock Band at Harmonix, we find that we’re digging it as a group — busting on each other when we blow a difficult passage, dropping jaws at each other’s successes, and joking around about theoretic bonuses you should be able to earn by doing things like “windmilling” your guitar, flipping your drumstick in the air, or strutting around like David Bowie. This is the sort of thing Harmonix envisioned when it designed Rock Band, as much as helping non-musicians play.
“I think we’ve always wanted to make social games,” says Baptiste. “Games that you could build an entire party around. Will this be fun if you have four people [playing] and then a bunch of people around you also watching? Is it fun to look at? Is it fun to listen to? Is it fun to play? We put a lot of effort into that.”
Even so, there is a degree of risk for this game. For starters, it ain’t cheap. For the time being, Rock Band will only be sold as a full bundle, with a guitar controller, a drum pad, and a microphone (yeah, you’ll have to spend even more cash if you and a friend want to play guitar and bass guitar at the same time). The resultant retail cost of the package? Roughly $170 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation-3 versions. That’s $100-plus more than the average game on either system, which usually retails at $60. Yet at press time, pre-orders of Rock Band were the number-three best-selling video game on Amazon.com, behind Call of Duty 4 and Super Mario Galaxy. And Electronic Arts, which is distributing the game, has already indicated that copies will be in short supply through the end of the fiscal year (meaning March 2008).