GAME REVIEW: 'Rock Band' steps up the rhythm game

A little less than a month after Activision released the highly anticipated "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock," game developer Harmonix swooped down and stole its thunder with "Rock Band." If the name Harmonix sounds familiar, it should be no surprise as the company developed the first two "Guitar Hero" games, as well as the PS2-exclusive "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s," the "Karaoke Revolution" series, "FreQuency" and its sequel, "Amplitude."

With a resumé that includes some of the top rhythm games in the genre, Harmonix was poised to jump into the task of creating a band-encompassing game after MTV acquired the company in September 2006. No longer would gamers have to be trapped within the confines of a small-scale, plastic guitar; rather, they could sit behind a replica drumkit, strap on the guitar as a bass, don the guitar in the classic manner and even sing along with an encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll legends.

Admittedly, I was a skeptic. The "Guitar Hero" franchise became such a giant that it was difficult to imagine a game that could challenge its crown. More so, the guitar was hard enough to play; I couldn't fathom sitting at a drumkit and moving my feet and hands independently.

This doubt was quickly lifted at a small pub called River Gods in Cambridge, Mass. As I sat at a corner table reserved for Harmonix employees and guests, I watched group after group step up to the plastic instruments and fumble through Radiohead's "Creep," Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" and Nine Inch Nails' "The Hand That Feeds." And while there was certainly an overwhelming feeling of frustration exuding from those who attempted to play through drum licks and rolls on the Easy difficulty, it became abundantly obvious that "Rock Band" is the ultimate party game.

Despite most people's ineptitude on a set of drums, or even with a mic, "Rock Band" is about bringing people together for a unifying experience incomparable to any other video game yet released.

For "Rock Band," Harmonix dumped the cartoony graphics that helped define the "Guitar Hero" games and adopted a more realistic style akin to the EA Sports games. In addition, the artists used a grainy overlay on much of the game's performance videos to give the impression of classic rock docs and music videos. This idea of creating an all-encompassing rock 'n' roll experience carried through to the camera work and color palette, which is obvious in the performance video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage."

Regardless of how much the graphics have improved, let's be honest - who really pays attention to the action behind the flying frets? The biggest aspect that sets "Rock Band" apart from the "Guitar Hero" games is the incorporation of a guitar, bass, mic and drums, rather than just a guitar. So the question is whether or not Harmonix successfully implemented these other instruments. Resoundingly, the answer is yes. In fact, the developers claim that if you can play the drums in "Rock Band" on the Expert difficulty, then you can play a set of drums in real life. And I can speak from experience in saying that after playing the role of the drummer for nearly 20 hours in a two-day rockfest, I have begun dabbling in the Hard difficulty and have enough confidence to sit comfortably behind a true set of skins with a pair of sticks.

Like "Guitar Hero," gamers have the options to play through the game on a solo tour - unlocking songs and venues as they progress from tier to tier. However, the most prominent gameplay element of "Rock Band" is its Band World Tour. In order to play this mode in the game, you'll have to explore outside the realms of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network to find a real friend with whom you can tackle the feat of rock 'n' roll world domination.

Within the Band World Tour, gamers must create unique avatars to represent their rock 'n' roll persona and decide on a hometown to serve as a starting point in their career. From this point, every decision a player makes directly affects the outcome of the game. If one should decide to go the route of a rockstar living in excess and snubbing their fans, then don't expect a warm welcoming at gigs and prepare to be labeled a sellout. However, there is the option to play for the fans, therefore leading to less money but greater popularity. The wiser would obviously choose to earn more fans and less money, that is unless you are looking for green to fund flashier guitars and drumkits.

Along with choosing gigs to earn money and fans, it is up to the gamer to decide which venues to play and when, and what songs to perform. By choosing venues and songs carefully, one has the opportunity to earn more fans that build up to opportunities to play gigs that earn roadies, vehicles (to travel to neighboring cities, countries and continents) and PR firms. "Rock Band" truly gives the aspiring virtual rockstar the tools to build a kingdom of rock 'n' roll fandom.

While the Band World Tour is certainly the most immersive of the "Rock Band" gaming modes, its multiplayer band quickplay provides the most bang for the buck when hosting a "Rock Band" party. That's right, you read that correctly - "Rock Band" party. Since the game's release, parties have begun springing up (most particularly around college campuses) that are themed around "Rock Band." Often times guests show up dressed in outrageous, ostentatious costumes for all-night events the lead to cramped fingers, sore arms and strained vocals. But rest assured knowing that the events provide good times to be had by all.

The actual gameplay is very similar to that of the "Guitar Hero" series. Players must hit scrolling colored notes as they pass by rhythm or beat indicators at the bottom of the screen. For the drums, the gamer should use the pedal for the orange notes that stretch the length of the fret and the other colors match the pads on the drumkit. In order to execute Overdrive (which is "Rock Band's" equivalent to Star Power), drummers must use an improvised drum-fill, while hitting the final green note in the special section. This action will execute Overdrive and give the player up to an 8x multiplier on the notes hit. The Overdrive for the guitar is similar to what was used in "Guitar Hero," however "Rock Band" provides special solo sections during which players can utilize the five buttons located higher on the neck (closer to the body) of the guitar. By using these buttons during the solos, a player only needs to push the corresponding colors rather than strumming. This frees up a hand for throwing rock 'n' roll hand gestures or tapping through harder guitar parts.

The one instrument that strays the most from the "Guitar Hero" mold is the part of the vocalist. Rather than banging or strumming plastic toys, the singer must sing the actual words to the song while varying their pitch. This is very different from "Karaoke Revolution" in that in the harder difficulties, the singer can not get away with just humming the vocal parts because Harmonix introduced a phonic-recognition system that forces your band's vocalist to sing the actual words to a song. In order to execute the singer's Overdrive, there are portions of the songs that are indicated with a blue tint, which means the vocalist should sing or scream whatever they please. Hopefully they're yelling something that will really get your virtual (or in-house) fans on their feet.

At this point it should be overwhelmingly apparent that there is one major drawback to "Rock Band." That is that once a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and drummer are all performing at the same time, the game is extremely loud. This loudness can be amplified when a bad singer is matched with the dead thwack of wood on plastic (drums) and metallic clicks (guitar and bass frets and strumming). An easy remedy for this otherwise obnoxious game aspect is to turn up the volume on your television or stereo system and let the neighbors scream hopelessly as you fall deeper into the rock 'n' roll mindset and one of the most fun games released in the last year.

After six hours of beating on the drums between the hard and medium difficulties, I burned approximately 2455 calories and woke up the following morning feeling like I'd biked more than 10 miles, 4.5 out of 5