Rewind back to November 2005. Developer Harmonix, loosely famous for its music-rhythm titles Frequency and Amplitude are preparing to release Guitar Hero on PS2. It’s another music-rhythm title, a genre of modest size, unbeknown to scathes of gamers, definitely unknown to the non-gaming public. Unlike previous titles, Guitar Hero kits players out with a plastic guitar complete with five frets and a single strum bar. The game features songs from some of the biggest bands of the previous fifty years including Jimmy Hendrix, Megadeth, and Judas Priest. Despite being cover versions they’re faithful adaptations and a sequel is released a year later. The music industry is again hesitant to offer the rights to original songs and so again the game features mostly cover songs yet Guitar Hero II becomes the fifth best selling game of 2006. Fast forward to the present day and the once ridiculous concept of playing guitar on a games console using a plastic guitar isn’t just a reality; it’s a cultural phenomenon, financial blessing, and one of the largest, most successful genres in our hobby. The music industry is falling over itself to capitalise on a medium almost entirely free from the reign of piracy, and gamers are handing over triple figure sums of money to play the games.
And so Rock Band 2, the second instalment of Harmonix’ popular full band music rhythm game in which you still pick one of four instruments (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) with up to three other players, choose from a huge selection of original songs (84 in total) and play, has launched.
As far as change is concerned, nothing drastic has been altered. Besides an entirely new set list this is Rock Band as it is known, with slightly enhanced aesthetics and menu screens complimenting the familiar slick and tidy note chart.
It’s the nuances however, that have been tweaked, subtly improved variations that together go a long way to cement Rock Band as the must-have game for music-rhythm fans. The improved career mode, which now resembles the band career from Rock Band, is the biggest alteration. Rather than playing through set lists of four to five songs the career is split into dozens of venues each with their own pre-determined set lists (some single songs, some larger lists), mystery set lists, and the occasional option to make your own set list from however many tracks you personally own in your library. It’s far less restrictive, and a lot more band-esque than the previous career mode. It’s also punctuated with managerial decisions, though these are limited to the staff you bring on tour, and occasional performing variations, such as recording a music video.
Besides the career mode a rather intimidating number of challenges will test the mettle of those who breezed through the previous game. There’s also two online modes, Tug of War, and Score Duel with the option to play either ranked or socially. Rock Band was always designed to be a party experience and it again comes into its own when played with a large group of friends all wailing in the same room.
How many songs Rock Band 2 has to offer will vary between players. There are 84 tracks on disc, but those who own the original Rock Band will be able to import nearly every song from the previous title to play as part of Rock Band 2. This feature isn’t limited to quick play, rather it has been implemented fully so all the songs can be mixed and played alongside Rock Band 2 songs. Besides that, all tracks downloaded from the Rock Band music store work fully with both games, and with downloadable content consistently being released each week, the number of available songs begins to knock on the glass ceiling of five hundred. These are almost entirely original songs, graphed for all four instruments, entire albums are frequently offered and all tracks can be played in all the various game modes. It’s integration taken to a whole new level, a distant silhouette on the horizon far off from the competition.
If you can’t find something here to suit your tastes you’re musically inept. Criticism regarding the ease of the former Rock Band has been put to rest. The set list is far more challenging, some of the songs on expert drums in particular are borderline insane (read: Wow).
If there is criticism to be levelled it is again towards the hardware, rather than the near-flawless software. Without the release of Rock Band 2 instruments us Europeans are left with either the original Rock Band kit, or various Guitar Hero accessories. The Rock Band drum kit, especially the pedal, has a notoriety to break under pressure and with a far greater challenge on display the chances of it failing are higher. However the Guitar Hero III controller is fully compatible, as is the World Tour kit so choice is in abundance.
There’s no sense of revolution here and there’s no need for one. With the astronomical number of songs available both off and online, a continuing stream of downloadable content available weekly, and a career mode culminating in a set list of all eighty-four songs, Rock Band 2 is the perfect music rhythm game. It’s still extremely accessible, easy to grasp near-impossible to master, but overall incredibly fun. A must have.