Rock Band revolutionized the music game genre, allowing users to play with not only a guitar peripheral, but a drum set and microphone as well. Many dubbed it the perfect music game. A year has passed, and Harmonix has crafted a sequel to the original legendary title. While the main formula remains relatively unchanged, Rock Band 2 is more than a worthy encore.
The guitar peripheral has seen subtle yet beneficial enhancements. Visually, the color scheme has been altered entirely in an attempt to mimic the real Stratocaster. Although plastic, the guitar looks more like a genuine instrument than a toy. The other major change is the new strum bar. That “mushy” feeling that so many hated the original peripheral for is gone. Instead, strumming is a perfect hybrid between the “mushy” Rock Band 1 strum bar and the “click” of past Guitar Hero peripherals. This combination is sturdy, yet not rigid. Other minute changes include the altered placement of the effects pickup switch, raised surface around the start button (to prevent accidental game pausing), a more reliable overdrive accelerometer, and quieter fret buttons.
The drum set is undoubtedly the most improved piece of hardware. First off, the set is now wireless, so no more pets (or people for that matter) can trip on the wire and yank your PS3 off the shelf while you’re jamming out. Second, the pads are velocity sensitive, so your hits dictate the in-game volume. Third, the pads are much quieter with better rebound, so you don’t drown out the song, but concurrently feel more like you’re playing a real drum set. Last but not least, the bass pedal is now reinforced by a metal plate, so no more snapped pedals.
The Rock Band 2 microphone is identical to the previous one. So, yes, it’s still wired. It’s a classic handheld mic, and if you like singing you’ll love it. If not, well, you won’t. Simple as that.
But I digress, for there’s a game buried in the massive Rock Band 2 box too! For those of you who played the first game, the base gameplay in Rock Band 2 is virtually identical. For the guitar and bass, there are five notes to press and strum along to; the drums, four pads hit and a bass pedal to press; and the microphone, scrolling lyrics to sing along to with while matching your pitch to the undulating bar on the top of the screen. It worked well before, so Harmonix didn’t reinvent the wheel, and that’s fine. A few minuscule gameplay additions include the occasional drum solo and a revamped atonal voice detection system. Unfortunately, Rock Band 2 has taken a minor step backwards as well. On certain displays (or with certain sound systems), drum fills and pitch recognition are laggy. This issue can be remedied with some crafty tweaking, but you may be required to shut off surround sound output in the process. If there’s one game that has to be played in surround sound, it’s Rock Band 2.
So, if there aren’t major changes, why does the Rock Band 2 disc warrant a purchase? Two reasons: songs and polish. Let’s start with the songs. There are over 80 songs on the disc, and the game comes with a code to download an extra 20 songs for free. That’s absolutely unprecedented – over 100 songs for $60. Even if this game were merely a Rock Band 1 track pack, it would still be worth it. Some of my favorite bands/artists on the disc include AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers. As taste in music is entirely subjective, none of those picks might necessarily float your boat, but with a total library of nearly 600 songs (between all released downloadable content, exported Rock Band 1 songs, the AC/DC track pack, and all Rock Band 2 tracks), Rock Band 2 is variety in a box.
Then there’s the incredible amount of polish that pervades every aspect of the game. Nearly everything that you have possibly wanted added to Rock Band 1 is present. Online World Tour mode helps alleviate the loneliness of solitary rockers. A drum trainer mode provides hope for Keith Moon aspirants. A “no-fail” option curtails despair as you watch your wife’s drunken friends stumble about while attempting to play “Eye of the Tiger” on easy. All of the above are relatively simple features, but they comfortably fill out the overall Rock Band experience.
One chief change in Rock Band 2 is the addition of the Tour Challenge mode. There are dozens of non-linear challenges in the game that each have their own theme. For example, one challenge might feature Red Hot Chili Peppers songs, while another might have songs with a common genre. Downloadable content is fully integrated into these challenges too – downloading a song pack or an album might unlock a specific challenge, while certain songs from that content might be added to, say, the “70’s hits” challenge.
The Tour Challenge mode’s superior counterpart is the Battle of the Bands mode. This mode allows your band to compete in a range of continuously varying challenges against thousands of other bands online via leaderboard score-tracking. Wacky challenges, sometimes with specific parameters, are added daily. For example, one that’s up now is the “The C Marathon,” featuring Carry on Wayward Son, Chop Suey, and Come out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated). Then there are other more venerable competitions like the "Child’s Play Charity Battle." Considering the volume of challenges available, aiming for that number one spot is a realistic goal. As a result, this mode has incredible replay value, because not only are new challanges available every single day, but you’ll want to play them all.
Sometimes an experience doesn’t need more additions, it needs to be streamlined. Harmonix axed the single-player career in favor of a dynamic World Tour mode. Bands aren’t restricted to a set number of members anymore; anywhere from one to four players can be in a band at any one time, thus the boring “play through the entire setlist by yourself to unlock all the songs,” otherwise called the solo career, is finally irrelevant. Characters aren’t locked into a single instrument either, and the process of character selection doesn’t require meticulous precision as it did in the first game.
I could list out even more minor enhancements for you, but here’s what you really need to know. Rock Band 2 is not a true sequel. It’s Rock Band 1: The Finely Tuned Edition. And guess what? It’s virtually flawless. The graphics are nearly identical to those seen in Rock Band 1, but the presentation and layout of the game have improved dramatically (and you stare at the scrolling notes the whole time anyway). The gameplay is uncannily unchanged, but it was brilliant to begin with. The peripherals haven’t been reinvented, but each – with the exception of the microphone – has been refined well. Throw in worthwhile new modes, a no-fail option, and 84 on-disc master tracks, and there’s no excuse not to attend this encore.