I hit up the Rock Band bus Thursday to check out the next contender to the music throne. The game was set up outside the halls in an area that included a little stage and a really big tour bus. On the bottom floor of the bus was an audition area where gamers could try their hand at the game. If they were good enough they could earn a chance to play on the stage, rocking it out in front of the waiting gamers with a sound system and fog machines. Upstairs a quartet of Harmonix and EA folks let press get their hands on the game in a more intimate setting.
Like Guitar Hero, Rock Band really isn't about the fun. It's more about the experience. It gives people like me, people who have no rhythm, no musical talent, a way to connect with the music they love, to experience it on a level that is, I imagine, only a taste of what real musicians feel when they perform. When you play Rock Band you're not playing the music, it's playing you. At least it is, when you finally get it.
Rock Band's most popular instrument is going to be the drums, both because guitars and vocals have been done to death, and because drumming, the most primal expression of music, is a relatively untapped experience. But drumming isn't nearly as easy as you'd think, and those first few times can feel much more frustrating than Guitar Hero ever was. That's because deep down we all think we're natural drummers, and we're most definitely not. But once you get it, once you sync up with the music, the feeling is just amazing. Add to that the ability to jam with friends and you've got something special, something different.
The drums are, initially, distractingly loud, not the real drums sounds, but the sound of those wood sticks smacking into those rubber pads. I think that's because most people tend to pound the shit out of them when they first try it out, but as you start to get the feel for the drumming, your touch tends to lighten up and the unwanted rattle of stick on plastic fades away.
The guitars don't seem to suffer from the same issue of controller noisiness. That could be because for most gamers, strumming on a plastic guitar has become something natural, so your touch tends to be lighter from the get go. The buttons seemed a bit less spongy than I was used to initially, but nothing I found too distracting. The guitar also has a switch that allows you to move between four effects, which is a nice little bonus. I also noticed that activating the rockstar mode seemed easier than it is in Guitar Hero II.
The singing is surprisingly forgiving. Playing on easy essentially allows the most tone-deaf of gamers, AKA me, to wail along with songs. The game also does a lot of mixing of your voice to smooth out those jagged edges, sexing it up so you don't have to come face-to-face with the reality of your crackling, off-key crooning.
I verified this by singing almost every song on the demo including Rush's "Tom Sawyer", yes Rush, without causing any injuries to myself or others... actually I think I actually did something painful and poppy to my throat on that Rush song.
One of the cooler elements of Rock Band, besides the whole kicking-ass and drumming along to the Ramones, is that all of the songs have these solo sections where you can, no matter what instrument you're playing, break loose and wail. On drums this translates to lots of painful drum rolls, but on guitar the freeplay sections actually let you feel like you're really playing a guitar, for a second or two. The voice bit just allows you to scream, go death metal, or, my favorite, beatbox for a few seconds.
I ended up spending three hours on the bus playing through nearly every song on every instrument and, while the initial thrill may have faded over that time, it was replaced with a burning desire to get this game into my house and get down to it.