Monday, September 22, 2008

Rock Band 2 Impressions

Well, it's just brilliant.

Rock Band 2 is so jam-packed full of win that it's hard to know where to start. Maybe something simple like the auto-calibration feature, which accurately and automatically calibrates both the audio and video lag on my plasma screen. No more manually calibration, then re-calibrating, then still not being completely convinced that I've got it exactly right. Maybe something else simple, like how quickly all the menus load now. Maybe the way that hammer-ons and pull-offs are now much easier to see on the note chart. Maybe the outstanding use of color throughout the game, creating rich and vivid imagery. Maybe the humor, because Harmonix, as well as being a company of musicians, is also a company of wiseasses, and they are funny at the most unexpected times. Maybe I should mention something big, like the remarkable addition of the drum trainer, which has greatly expanded the game in a musical sense.

At a higher level, though, Rock Band 2 does what very, very few games have ever managed to do: encourage participation while still rewarding excellence.

Think that's tough? Try to think of another game that did it well.

I'll go one step further: no game has ever rewarded both participation and excellence as well as Rock Band 2.

Now, let's look at why.

In previous Guitar Hero/Rock Band games, no matter how inexperienced someone might be, there was a place to get in. Yes, progression in single-player mode was always very linear, using the standard "complete tier, move to next tier" scheme, but easy difficulty was so easy that anyone could enjoy the game and learn how to play.

The different difficulty levels were always distinct, and overall, a higher difficulty level was significantly tougher than the previous one. But the first few songs on Hard, for example, were often easier than the last tier on Medium.

However, at some point, most of us hit The Wall.

You know The Wall. It's the song (or songs) that you just can't pass. For me, it was Cowboys From Hell in Guitar Hero, then Freebird and Hangar 18 in GHII, and Green Grass and High Tides in Rock Band. So I got close in all three games to finishing the solo tour on Expert, but those songs stopped me.

And once you hit The Wall, the game really isn't as much fun, because you spend 90% of your time replaying songs and sections that are too difficult for you. Sometimes, it eventually clicks, and you pass the song, but fun returned versus time invested just plummets.

Also, the structure of the previous games really lended itself to score whoring. I tried to optimize my career score to rank as high as I could on the leaderboards, but when you're spending time replaying songs you don't even like in order to get 30k more points, then fun/time goes down again.

With Rock Band, the addition of band mode was a huge departure, but this was only available if you had a friend who could play locally with you. No online mode, and if you were by yourself, solo career was all you could play.

These games were still an incredible amount of fun to play--I spent hundreds of hours on each one. Rock Band 2, though, makes conceptual changes that completely eliminate the kind of limitations I mentioned.

With Rock Band 2, the distinction between solo career and band is gone. Now, if you're playing by yourself, you're still in a band. Three CPU session players will fill in as the other band members. That's a great idea, because it means that all the flexibility of tour mode is now available to single players, so instead of a very linear progression through song tiers, there are literally hundreds of different gigs you can play. Even better, these gigs can vary substantially from each other. You might play a single song, or maybe you'll create a four song setlist. Maybe it will be a six song "mystery" setlist, where you don't even pick the songs. There are dozens of variations and a huge number of locations.

In other words, goodbye to linearity.

Plus, score whoring has changed substantially. Now, you're trying to acquire fans and performance stars, not points. If you think that's the same thing with a different title, let me tell you why it's not. Before, I'd be trying to squeeze out another few thousand points on an individual song to get my career score higher. Now, individual song scores are relatively meaningless--once you get five stars, you've gotten the maximum "star value" for that song. It's not necessary to "sqeeze" that song over and over again, trying to get more points.

Fans are different, too, because while it's somewhat analagous to career score, it's possible to attract more fans to your band even if you don't improve your high score on a song. So again, you don't have to focus on best score only.

Those changes are conceptually wonderful. It makes playing as a single player both more fun and more relaxing. It's focused much more on "getting better" than "passing song X." And since DLC is incorporated, it means that you could potentially have hundreds of songs to play.

I also really like how the walls between individual instruments have been dismantled. I've been playing guitar in tour mode (less stress on my forearms), but if I want to play the drums for a song or two, it's as part of the same band. I don't have to back out of "guitar career" and enter "drum career." It's a much, much more natural way for the game to work.

At the top, though, the best players are still the best players, and they're still rewarded. If you want to check out a career score by instrument, you can still do that. You can still check out your score on individual songs.

The game is very challenging on Expert, and Harmonix has deftly used some of the DLC to provide an even greater challenge. Rock Band 2 can be a casual game, a party game, if you want, but it's also very hardcore at the highest levels. And even though that aspect of the game probably only matters to the top 1-2% of players, I still think it's important to have.

I haven't even mentioned the online tour mode, or the ability to challenge other human bands, or any one of dozens of other features. I haven't seen any of that yet. There's already so much to keep me busy that it may be months before I see all the features.

If you bought the first Rock Band, this is a must-buy. If you didn't buy Rock Band, this is a must-buy. It may well be the zenith for music games, because I have no idea how they can top this next year.

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