Checkpoint: Rock Band

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This column originally ran on November 5, 2009.

Rock Band heads into a strange dimension with this week’s release of Lego Rock Band for a variety of systems. The blockheads from Checkpoint take a look back on the first two iterations of the game, as well as what the RB series has done better than Guitar Hero in the past three years.

Plastic and magic combined to make this.
Plastic and magic combined to make this.

Let There Be Rock

Lee: There are not many musical games out there. Dance Dance Revolution incorporated a system with gaming and physical exertion combined. However, some people were not too keen on the exercise required for more advanced levels, or posing as a break-dancer. Then the video game industries came out with Guitar Hero. While it was a good game, it did not allow for a great multiplayer experience. That gameplay came about in Rock Band, which allowed for up to four players to pretend they were stars.

Shaun: Not to mention the ability to play more instruments was nice, drums in particular.

Chris: Really, Rock Band was the consummate experience. Playing the guitar in GH made you feel kinda like a rocker, but surrounding yourself with three friends and playing the set of instruments was about as close as you can get.

Shaun: And I think it’s important to make the distinction that although many music games existed, the genre itself was far from mainstream. Guitar Hero and Rock Band changed this. They made playing plastic instruments cool, which I am personally grateful for. I had a friend who had this piano playing game from China–it used ten keys, and they all moved as fast and faster than Dragonforce. Not exactly something you can bring out at the party.

Chris: Yep. Harmonix had some success before with other music/rhythm games, like Frequency and Amplitude. But this was different because it had something tangible. In fact, I really feel like that works against these ideas like Project Natal, where there’s nothing connecting you to the interface in a game. Holding that plastic guitar or hammering away on drums is a huge part of this experience.

Lee: The ability to get four people into a room and play a game is difficult. Schedules don’t match up, whatever. Rock Band was fun and didn’t have a cohesive storyline. You could pick it up alone, or get several people together at one time with no previous experience.

Chris: And really, it didn’t need any kind of storyline. I liked that you essentially just went around playing gigs, and unlocking band-related stuff like groupies and city T-shirts.

Shaun: Oh man, what about in Guitar Hero III, where the campaign took you to places like Hell? Where you got to fight the devil! In Hell!…what a horrible excuse for a campaign. Just give me venues, and I will pretend.

Chris: Although I did like that guitar-heavy version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. But that’s about it.

Lee: I loved singing the James Bond Theme in one of the later Guitar Heroes. But really, playing those multiplayer Guitar Hero versions made me miss Rock Band. They tried so hard to copy the style, but they missed out.

Shaun: Segue: not everyone is so enamored with the musical instrument movement. For example, Prince…ah, sorry — the artist formerly known as Prince — has condemned the series, saying kids should be practicing on real guitars instread of playing these videogames.

Chris: I really hate that entire debate. If anything, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have contributed in a huge way to kids wanting to pick up and learn instruments. Players get it: We’re not actually in a rock band. That’s not the damn point.

Shaun: Not to mention that could be argued for every game. Don’t play a college football video game — go tryout, you lazy ass.

Lee: I can get behind that playing this game is not the same as playing an instrument (except maybe the drums). But it is not supposed to be. It’s more fun to play for an hour or two and break up than try to learn how to play an instrument, form a band, write songs, etc. Not so much heartbreak and drama.

Chris: It’s just not as much fun. Rock Band emphasizes the co-op elements that really bring together a “band,” like saving someone when they fail or combining overdrive into a huge multiplier. In GH, if someone dies you all die, and you have to somehow share the same star power meter.

Shaun: And I don’t play for the “instrument simulation.” I like how my inputs interact with the music I like, and the score-keeping aspects.

Chris: Right. Both GH and RB have had that element — the guitar sends out feedback when you miss notes, the drums sound like frame hits and the singer — well, you can just hear how awful the singer is on his or her own.

Being able to make your own bandmates is an important touch.
Being able to make your own bandmates is an important touch.

Shaun: Well, for me, the Guitar Hero series started its downhill descent with Guitar Hero III (which, coincidentally, is the first GH that Harmonix did not work on). The difficulty was way too hard, the button pressing was too precise, and the boss battles were just frustrating, relying on luck rather than true skill. And the achievements were terrible, too. “Play using the standard controller.” Why would you promote us playing your guitar peripheral game without a guitar? Stupid.

Lee: I liked the scoring aspect because it gave you something to shoot for. Without the score, it would just be playing instruments without the game telling you how bad you were.

Shaun: Well, the scoring, and earning money for clothes and such. I like that too.

Lee: I NEED more fans.

Chris: Yeah, being able to play dress-up was actually pretty fun. At the very least, it was entertaining watching the band members you created interacting on the stage during songs.

Lee: I remember the greatest part of our band was the logo. We spent a large amount of time on that, and it had nothing to do with our band at all. Vampire rabbit vomiting and shooting fire out of its anus? Sucking the juice out of a carrot? Yep, sounds like the logo for Body Massage Machine.

Chris: A perfect fit.

Shaun: Our Stalin4Gary logo is pretty great as well–a panda riding a bicycle. I also think it’s important to point out that Rock Band seems to have the better business strategy. In the time it took Harmonix to release three major Rock Band titles (including Beatles Rock Band), Guitar Hero has released about 300 entries. Hell, in the five minutes you have been reading this, more Guitar Hero titles are littering your store shelves. It just never stops, but instead of growing in popularity, this oversaturation appears to be doing the exact opposite.

Chris: People will continue to buy games in the GH series (and proclaim it as the better title, which is really a matter of personal preference at best), but having six new GH titles in the past 12 months is flat-out embarrassing. It takes away any potential interest I might have.

Shaun: So it seems to be our consensus that Rock Band is better.

Chris: I think so, yes. And it’s not really close. Guitar Hero started it all, and the first two games were fun, but Activision made a huge mistake splitting apart from Harmonix.

Lee: I agree.

Shaun: Ha, not a whole lot of disagreement here in Checkpoint. It’s just because we’re awesome. We don’t have opinions. We have facts.

Chris: Right. Opinion-based facts.

Shaun: Fact-based opinions.

Shaun: That doesn’t make sense.

Lee: Fact. Shaun does not like sunlight. Fact..

Chris: Does he sparkle? Because if he does, he’s probably a vampire. You know, by today’s standards.

Shaun: And super defined cheekbones.

Lee: Fact.

It's simple: guitar, drums, guitar, ice cream cone. Band's ready.
It’s simple: guitar, drums, guitar, ice cream cone. Band’s ready.

Chris: Both GH and RB have had pretty solid setlists, introducing a variety of genres and pretty big musical groups into a new medium.

Shaun: It’s nice that as the games grow with popularity, the more master tracks (official songs by the actual band) are included, as evidenced by The Beatles. Another nice bonus? The Beatles licensing their music for Rock Band.

Lee: I was impressed by the songs the companies were able to put in. Many of them were the versions by the original artists. I think that makes a difference.

Chris: Yeah, at this point almost 100 percent of what Harmonix picks up are master recordings, which is a huge plus. The covers that both series did for the tracks they weren’t able to license weren’t bad, but the differences are noticeable. In the past year and a half of DLC, Rock Band has avoided that almost entirely.

Shaun: And question some of the downloadable content if you will, but the fact is that they are keeping up with it very frequently, like they promised. No other current generation game supports their titles after release like Rock Band.

Chris: Yep. They said they’d have x amount of tracks by the end of each year, and they delivered. And then some.

Lee: The song downloads are what makes me appreciate Rock Band. They really reduced the need for creating a new game a year. Guitar Hero doesn’t rely on this aspect enough.

Chris: Plus, they’ve done a good job of releasing free and reduced-price tracks, either for April Fools’ Day or with fun stuff like Still Alive or Skullcrusher Mountain.

Shaun: And while some are songs I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, they are maintaining some pretty solid stuff, as well as a good variety, such as country and less known rock.

Chris: Yeah, I see a lot of complaints from people when a country pack comes out, or when they don’t release metal songs every damn week. For me, even though the word Rock is in the title, I like the wide assortment of genres they’ve put in. Appeals to a wide audience, which is kinda the idea of these games.

Shaun: Yeah. Plus only losers don’t like the country songs. You…you forgot to put that in Chris.

Lee: Fact. Only losers don’t like country. Fact.

Chris: You’re right. I did forget to put that in. My bad. How careless of me.

Chris: I’m also a fan of the idea of entire albums. It’s nice to get a selection of songs from one artist, and if you’re not a fan, you can just steer clear. No Doubt’s greatest hit collection is a good example.

Shaun: It’s just nice because it gives the title such replay value. Even when you finish everything, you want to check back to see if more songs you like have been added to the playlist. They definitely have a good system set up, and the interface is really easy to navigate as well.

Lee: Still, it seems like you can shell out more for a few songs than you did buying the original disc. That’s why you have to look out for the deals.

Chris: True. Rock Band ends up being a tremendous investment, considering the cost of the instruments, the game itself, and the huge assortment of songs. Because I love the series, I don’t mind it, but let’s face it: downloading all the DLC to this point would run you more than $1,500.

Lee: And that is money in the bank for the company, but it only makes it more profitable for them to increase the quality of the content.

Shaun: That number makes me cry, but luckily, I don’t have a great interest in the majority of the DLC.

Chris: Exactly. You can cherry pick the releases each week and pick up what you want, and avoid the indiscernible metal tracks and country. Oh wait, I’m a loser if I don’t like country. Damn.

Lee: Fact.

Party like a rock star.
Party like a rock star.

Shaun: As a fan, I want to see the inevitable Rock Band 3 release with triple the songs the first two installments did. However, as someone who is not a moron, and happens to like money, that won’t happen. As long as customers are buying, there is really no reason for Harmonix to change anything.

Chris: Well, we saw a difference in 1 and 2 — 57 songs in the first installment, 84 songs in the second. Popping that up over 100 doesn’t seem unreasonable. I don’t know about triple though.

Lee: They could always increase the venues and character design accessories, but it would really be unnecessary.

Shaun: Some changes are nice, but I don’t think the series needs a huge overhaul. Also, stay away from the gimmicks of the Guitar Hero series. Party Mode is unnecessary, especially now that Rock Band is moving beyond the “party mainstay,” anyway.  We also don’t need a music creator so that 5 percent of the world who falsely think they are musically inclined can pretend they are dong something important.

Chris: Actually, I’m fine with a music creator — provided that it’s done right (so, not done like Guitar Hero, basically). Harmonix has released some info on the Rock Band Network, which is a full set of tools for bands to create their own note charts for songs and submit them to be added to DLC. Basically, it opens up the game for any band who wants to be in, be they a garage band in Flagstaff or the Red Hot Chili Peppers deciding they just want some more exposure.

Lee: Don’t know too much about the music creator, but if people can pull it off, more power to them.

Shaun: Meh. As long as it’s not some half-assed feature at the expense of the core experience, I could care less. I just want to make sure they keep the same polish as the first two.

Chris: Personally, I’m pretty much fine with the experience as is. Trump up the graphics a bit, toss some more songs on the disc, give me a couple new game modes to try out and make me suffer with an even longer Endless Setlist, and I’m good to go.

Shaun: Yeah, with a bunch of solid songs and more achievements, Rock Band 3 will pretty much be a guaranteed purchase for me, especially now that I have the instruments.

Lee: As long as they don’t make the old instruments incompatible with new systems I think this series will be long-lived. Seriously, those things are expensive.

Shaun: Somebody’s gonna die if that happens. At the very least, I will kill myself.

Chris: I agree. That’s one thing that’s been a big-time benefit so far: Harmonix and Activision, despite their split, have made the games compatible with old instruments as well as ones from the opposite series. A smart move for such a costly piece of plastic.

Lee: Fact. Shaun will kill himself if companies don’t pander to him. Fact.

Shaun: Bash my head in with my old, incompatible Rock Band 2 guitar.

Chris: Either way, RB (with some original help from GH) took music games into the mainstream unlike anything else we’ve seen to this point. Dance Dance Revolution got some cult support, but I’ve had family members who won’t touch video games want to come sing Jimmy Buffett or flail away madly on the drums.

Shaun: On a quick side note, DJ Hero seems cool, but I already own too many plastic instruments to maintain any sort of dignity, so I will have to pass. Let’s hope they keep future releases under control (cough Guitar Hero’s 9 million installments cough).

Lee: I wish we could get four people together at the same time, instead of having to wait for and hour before Gary gets his ass back to where he LIVES.

Shaun: Quick, songs you want to see in future installments, go! Stairway to Heaven. For that matter, every piece of Led Zeppelin they can get.

Chris: Well, one of the main songs I wanted to see in Rock Band, even though the bass guitar is iffy, is The Final Countdown. But Lego Rock Band is taking care of that for me, so I’d have to pick something new. Let’s say I’d love to see a Stadium Arcadium album release. 27 songs for less than $20? Sold!

Lee: The Little Things by Danny Elfman.

Shaun: Kelly Clarkson. More country. There is some good stuff out there that can make for some great note charts.

Chris: Yeah. Like that one song where they talk about divorce and trucks and dogs and guns and America. That’s a good one.

Shaun: Ha…ha. Haven’t heard that one before… More classic rock, less modern Indie that no one cares about. And Kelly Clarkson, right guys?

Lee: Fact. Kelly Clarkson is Shaun’s favorite artist. Fact.

Chris: Checkpoint fans, don’t be surprised if Shaun is replaced next week.

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

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