Review: Rock Band, the operative word is "Rock" [Updated]

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Guitar Hero was a good start, but Rock Band is the next logical step in multiplayer rock gaming, and it rules. You don’t have to be a musician or a gamer to get into it, and in the new world of Social Video Gaming (yes, I’m coining a phrase), Rock Band is an important opening salvo.

On a tech or gadget website like this one, you’d expect the review to come from someone who’s more at home in a trench in Call of Duty than sitting at a drum kit, but I’m a lifer musician who’s toured extensively, played to huge audiences, and played with Grammy-winning musicians. This review is from that point of view, as I’m not a serious gamer. And that’s why Rock Band rules: if it can get me interested, it’s worth playing.

[Update] The day after this review ran, the good people at Harmonix announced a downloadable update that makes things even more badass.

Rock Band

There have been thousands of words written by others on Rock Band and why it’s great, and most gamers have taken them to heart and started their own bands. This review isn’t for those guys, for they were prone to join the club on their own. No, this review is for non-gamers, and is an attempt to convince you that even if you don’t have a game system and won’t buy Rock Band yourself, you’re going to want to make sure you know someone who has it.

I’ll be writing about the Xbox 360 version as I don’t do Playstation, but the game itself is rather the same across platforms.

The Good Stuff

Everything you need to get going is included. The drum kit is solid-feeling and can take punishment, even if your drunk friends are like mine and miss the pads from time to time. The included sticks are real drumsticks, though light ones. While some people have had problems with the kick pedal, mine’s held up admirably.

The USB microphone is just great. It’s tough, just sensitive enough, and the right size. Mine’s taken its share of spills and still works great. In my rock band, I’m not the singer, but man it works at the one thing its supposed to do.

The thing I think I like best about Rock Band over Guitar Hero is the guitar controller. A licensed Fender Strat copy, the controller feels far more like a real guitar than the clunky, cheap Guitar Hero controller. The thinner, rounded neck feels natural, whereas the Guitar Hero controller’s squarish neck gives my hand cramps. The addition of the noodly buttons near the pickups is a good one, for if want to really rock out during solos, that’s where you do it. Chalk one up for Total Fretboard Awareness (TFA).

Those downloadable songs are a great idea and I’ve bought several, but there should be more quality stuff. Some are just bad. It’s not that they’re crappy recordings; indeed most are taken from the studio masters. The problem is that a lot of it is just crappy music. Grateful Dead week came and went, and I wept. I do not need Touch of Grey on my Xbox.

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The Not So Good

For the instruments to all work, you need to utilize the (included) 4-port USB hub. In all, it’s not a big deal, except that there are cables everywhere, and it makes setup and teardown a chore. There’s word of wireless controllers coming but until then you’ve got to watch your step, which sucks when you’re trying to rock out.

The USB hub is also not bus-powered, meaning you need another wall outlet to plug it into. It’s not a detraction, just more of an annoyance.

The drumsticks are rather light weight and I have a bad feeling that in the near future one of my overzealous drummer friends is going to break one during a game, sending pieces of sharp wood flying at my delicate LCD TV. Ouch.

The point of Rock Band is that it’s social; it’s really no fun to play by yourself. Because of this, I find it rather disappointing that I don’t have access to all of the songs out of the box. Sure, some groups are going to come together to unlock additional songs and features, but when my booze-addled bandmates are over, we don’t want to jump through any hoops, we want to rock. Thankfully, there’s a well-known cheat to unlock all the songs, but it’s just another extra step.

Conclusion

If you have a group of friends who like to rock out, this is the game to let them rock out. It’s not how I want to spend my weekends, but an evening watching TV can be supplanted by an evening playing Rock Band any time. It brings my loser friends and me closer together and while that’s cheesy, it’s more than most video games are capable of, so I’ll take it.

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