UNCANNY: Harmonix still has a mortal lock on fiendishly addictive gameplay.
No need to double-check your calendar — Rock Band 2 really is available only 10 months after the release of the original. (That’s for the Xbox 360 for now; a PlayStation 3 version will follow in October, with Wii and PS2 versions in November.) Given such a short time frame for its development, you might well wonder whether the sequel is more than a spit-and-polish of its predecessor. It’s true that the changes are incremental. Still, taking one of the most compelling rhythm games ever created and making it better results in a mandatory gaming experience.
|Rock Band 2 | For Xbox 360 | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Harmonix | Published by MTV Games | VIDEO: Watch Trailer |
The core gameplay has changed not a whit. As many as four players grab a microphone or the appropriate plastic instrument to play one part of a rock song — guitar, bass, drums, or vocals — and make music by following a scrolling note chart on screen, with adjustments for different difficulty levels. Since the first Guitar Hero, this has been the formula for fiendishly addictive gameplay, and that’s the case here. The folks at Harmonix — musicians all — have an uncanny ability to construct their note charts in such a way that every part makes you feel you’re playing actual music and not just pretending.
So what’s new? (Besides the 80 new songs available on the disc.) Mostly, there are new gameplay modes, and tweaks to familiar ones. Although much of Rock Band lives outside traditional video-game paradigms, what “game” there is comes from the World Tour mode. Here you start as a no-name band in humble Boston and work your way to global superstardom. You do so by earning money and attracting fans from your gigs; that in turn allows you to play bigger shows and hire staff to help out. All of which is not essential to the game’s main purpose of letting you rock out — earning fans, in particular, does nothing but score you on-line bragging rights — but it’s a decent enough way to go about unlocking tracks.
A more satisfying feature, and one that should have been in the original, is the inclusion of on-line play. I had my doubts about how well this would work. Most of the fun of playing Rock Band with your friends is watching everybody act like an idiot in the same room. That’s still the optimal way to play, but Xbox Live makes for a worthy substitute, particularly if everyone has constructed his or her own avatar.
Also welcome are improved peripherals. Here too the differences are slight but noticeable. The new drum pads are a bit more rubbery than their predecessors; this results in a duller, less obtrusive sound on contact. The guitar feels almost exactly the same, but now the Xbox 360 version is wireless. The sunburst finish is gorgeous and well worth the purchase for folks in need of a new controller.
True, in the absence of earth-shaking new features, like different instruments or a create-a-song mode, it’s hard to see why this game couldn’t simply have been released as downloadable updates to the original. Harmonix’s stated intention was that Rock Band would be a platform for the oodles of downloadable content they’ve been pumping out for almost a year now.
Then again, at $60, it’s a good enough deal for people who own the first Rock Band to get 80 songs and several new features for the disc-only version. And it’s a required purchase for those of us who never got our hands on the original. It seems almost perverse to be complaining about a game this good. What more could we ask for?