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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.

On a steel horse I ride
The event at MIT — part of a lengthy  “world tour” in which, for the Boston stop, the game was demoed in the back of a semi truck and featured a performance from local umpteen-lead-singer rockers Bang Camaro— is actually my second time playing Rock Band, though it is my first foray into pounding the skins (as it were). The first was a recent semi-exclusive field trip to Harmonix’s offices on Mass Ave in Central Square, during which a handful of Phoenix staffers got a chance to play the game and film ourselves doing so for a video-blog entry. The team comprised myself, Will  “Not Swallows” Spitz, Carly “Not Simon” Carioli, and three members of the Phoenix’s in-house band, Hookers and Blow. The Harmonix crew let us jam — or whatever the video-game equivalent of “jamming” is — for about two hours, which easily could have turned into four or five had their security staff not thrown us out on our oh-so-ready-to-rock asses.

The Harmonix receptionist is a guy with spiky hair and piercings who looks like he is in his 30s. Above his head on the wall is a framed illustration of The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, blissfully wielding a toy instrument: “Sitar Hero.” This building once served as offices for Harvard’s Korea Institute — the Harvard logo still adorns the plastic name cards on each door.

We’re led into a large room where Rock Band is being set up for us. This is Harmonix’s sacred inner-sanctum practice space, and it’s outfitted with a gigantic plasma-screen TV, a purple futon, a bunch of Christmas lights, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for, we’re later told by Sean Baptiste — Harmonix’s handlebar-mustachioed director of community relations and the de-facto spokesperson for Rock Band—  “when the Narragansett runs out.”

There’s also more than one Xbox 360 gaming console, and a plethora of various Rock Band instruments, including the Fender Stratocaster–style guitar controllers, complete with an additional set of buttons high on the neck so you can solo like a pro. The walls are decorated with poster-size pictures of a bass-guitar headstock (the part with the tuning pegs) and a drum kit— icons that appear in Rock Band to help you differentiate your performance from those of your teammates. And it’s Friday, all-company lunch day, so the halls smell of egg rolls and lo mein. Harmonix, it seems, has come a long way since Guitar Hero was released two years ago.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Guitar Hero , EA , MTV ,  More more >
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