In a bit of a jam

The follow-up to video-game smash Guitar Hero lets everybody play — even the weakest link
By RYAN STEWART  |  November 14, 2007


VIDEO: The Phoenix's trip to Harmonix

Ten songs we’d like to play in Rock Band
Hum, “Stars”
Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”
Mastodon, “Seabeast”
Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”
Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”
Tom Petty, “The Waiting”
Sonic Youth, “Teenage Riot”
The Replacements, “I Will Dare”
Alice in Chains, “No Excuses”
The Breeders, “Divine Hammer”
To suck at an electronic endeavor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of all places, is analogous to sucking at, say, making soup at cooking school. But that’s exactly what I’m doing.

I’m outside on a gorgeous autumn day in front of the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center on the venerable MIT campus, playing a demo of one of the season’s most-anticipated video games. I’m seated alongside three “teammates,” all of whom are students, I assume, as a small, curious crowd looks on. We grab our controllers and, as the game starts, I quickly realize I’m in over my head. Targets are whizzing by me faster than I can process them. My hands can’t keep up with my brain. I’m not even sitting down — I’m hovering an inch above my seat. My play is so atrocious that the crowd is mock-applauding any meager success. Mercifully, the round ends, and I discover that I have the lowest score among anyone who has played today. The game is Rock Band, I’m on the drums, and I really, really suck.

Rock Band is the latest game from the Cambridge-based development house Harmonix. (“Harmonix,” by the way, is an awesome name for a video-game company specializing in rock games: it looks and sounds just enough like “Hendrix.”) Whereas Harmonix’s previous video-game smash, Guitar Hero, allowed competitors to go toe-to-toe on the phallic ax of the rock-and-roll deities, Rock Band expands the concept to get the rest of the lads some glory too: not just the guitar, but also the all-important bass, drums, and lead vocals. With songs ranging from “Gimme Shelter” and “Suffragette City” to “Maps” and “Main Offender,” the goal of Rock Band is for the entire group to conquer the world with its omnipotent, face-melting, leather-spandex-wearing, head-banging tuneage. (Leather spandex sold separately.)

Harmonix’s previous output has included such music-oriented duds as FreQuency and Amplitude, and the mildly successful Karaoke Revolution. But it’s Guitar Hero and its sequel, Guitar Hero II, that broke the mold, selling a combined 4.5 million copies, taking over regular nights at bars across the country, and appearing in no fewer than three television shows (Veronica Mars, My Name Is Earl, and South Park). It may have even indirectly influenced the results of at least one World Series (when Detroit Tigers flamethrower Joel Zumaya was shelved with wrist inflammation in 2006, it was later revealed he was addicted to the game). Now, two big-name companies, Electronic Arts and MTV, are betting on Harmonix’s ability to once again deliver a monster of rock.

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Related: Review: Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Players only, Game Review: The Beatles: Rock Band, More more >
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