Can we agree that the music-game market is saturated? We've come a long way from the surprising success that was the original Guitar Hero. This year alone, four Guitar Hero games have come out across multiple platforms. There's been a Rock Band adaptation for the PlayStation Portable, and a LEGO-ized version is upcoming for the kids. I won't even mention DJ Hero, which, I'm sorry to say, is a real thing. To stand out in this crowd, you'd need something special. You'd need the Beatles.
VIDEO: The trailer for The Beatles: Rock Band
Rock Band developer Harmonix and publisher MTV Games actually got the Beatles, and their efforts have produced a slick stand-alone product. The Beatles: Rock Band lets you pick up a plastic guitar or drum set and jam with the Fab Four. By now, you know the drill: as many as four players can take part of a song, matching colored notes on-screen to play the music. A story mode follows the band's career, from clubs in Liverpool through their American breakout on Ed Sullivan, the famous first Shea Stadium show, and, finally, the farewell gig atop the Apple Corps building.
All this is presented with remarkable fidelity. The Beatles: Rock Band is the beneficiary of the recent catalogue remastering, and the lads have never sounded so good. Each instrument is clearly discernible in the mix, with full-sounding bass and distinct vocals. John, Paul, George, and Ringo look great, too — just like their real-life counterparts, without ever stumbling into the uncanny valley. And more care has been taken with the visuals than in past games. During "Here Comes the Sun," the drab recording studio gives way to a verdant field, a sequence that seems all the more dreamlike when we find ourselves, at its end, back in the studio.
The Beatles: Rock Band doesn't require any new peripherals. You can buy vintage-looking guitars (including Paul's famous violin bass) and drumkits if you like, but at $249 for the set, I'll stick with my old stuff. It is worth investing in a new USB microphone, since the game supports three-part harmonies — the one real innovation here. Harmonizing is tough unless you're graced with actual musical ability, but nailing it provides a fresh thrill that harks back to the sense of discovery that marked the original Guitar Hero.
What's disappointing is that the game doesn't interface with the rest of the series. Your expectation upon buying the original Rock Band was that you were getting a platform for life — that you'd be able to add songs for as long as Harmonix was able to create them. Even when Rock Band 2 came out, you could import the tracklist from the first game onto your hard drive. Later expansions, such as the AC/DC live set, have followed this model. Not so The Beatles: Rock Band. It's expandable to some degree, with full downloads of Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, and Rubber Soul in the offing. Otherwise, it's walled off.
And though previous Rock Band games afforded space for drum fills and other experiments, this game compels you to adhere to the recordings. Given that the upcoming Rock Band Network application will allow artists and labels to create and upload their own tracks, it's clear that the future of the franchise lies with more variety and democratization, not less. Fans of the Beatles won't mind — this is a great product. But The Beatles represents rock music's past, when Rock Band ought to be its future.