Saying "peripheral-free" is like saying "castrated" when it comes to music games. Isn't half the fun of playing Rock Band the plastic instruments?
But there must be market for people (parents) who don't want to deal with a plastic drum set and two guitars cluttering up the living room - and for these spoilsports comes Ultimate Band on Wii.
Ultimate Band uses the Wiimote/Nunchuck control scheme, which means you've got to use your imagination when it comes to strumming on guitar. The flicking of the Wiimote feels almost like strumming, I guess - but having to tilt the Nunhcuck left or right to hit certain notes was a bit of a stretch for me. To be fair, the game designers did try to make the game such that you could move the Nunchuck up and down like you were changing chords - but the Wii isn't sensitive enough to pick up that kind of motion. Drums are pretty straight forward - up and down waving of the Wiimote and Nunchuck with flicks of each to the left or right, as if you were hitting the snares.
I tried out bass because it was some ungodly hour of the morning and my fingers weren't having that press C, then Z, then both at the same time and spin your arm in a Pete Townshend windmill junk. At the Easy setting, bass plays just like guitar - press buttons, yay. At Normal or above, the two instruments diverge and the game starts getting pissy if you haven't tilted your Nunchuck just so in order to nail a note.
The interface looks comfortingly like Rock Band or Guitar Hero - notes fall downwards towards a target and you've got to hit them by performing the correct motions when they get there. Because there are no vocals on Ultimate Band, the "frontman" player is mostly just doing dance moves with the controls (like Boogie or Samba de Amigo). The other players also have to perform some of these moves - like a clapping motion or tilting the controls this way or that to strike a pose. This gets even more intense if you fill up your grand stand meter and then press A. Grand stand mode then interrupts the song (kind of like a drug-fuelled drum solo), and players have to perform various dance moves or poses in sequence to score points.
I thought this would be kind of a drag, but it turns out grand standing is a great way to take a break from a song that's kicking your arse. And, I'm shocked to say, some of these songs destroy your arse. Even Rock Lobster on easy was a tough grind, and I was grateful when the guy running the demo triggered grand stand, just so I could give my arms a break.
The cool thing about Ultimate Band - for me, at least - was the absence of Hannah Montana. This gives the game freedom to do something else besides the sugary Disney Channel shtick, and I don't have to listen to Miley Cyrus's hateful voice. The developers chose to go with a "wholesome kids take their garage band pro" angle, which you get to experience in story mode (complete with cheesy Saturday-morning style cutscenes). By playing through story mode, you unlock songs to play in jam mode, which is just a free play setup. You can create your own band (as in, you can customise their clothing and pick a gender - they're pretty much all skinny kids with questionable taste in fashion) to take through story mode and the game will adjust the cutscenes and even the lyrics to acknowledge your choices. For example, the song "Fell in Love With a Girl" would be sung as "Fell in Love With a Boy" if your frontman is a lady.
To me, little touches like that mark the difference between a developer phoning it in and a developer out to make a real game. And it gets points in the feminist bracket because if I were singing a cover of "Fell in Love With a Girl," I damn well wouldn't be singing about a girl. Thanks to Disney not smothering the IP with Hannah Montana, developer Fall Line Studios is able to explore original territory - and even if a peripheral-less Rock Band holds no interest for you, you've got to admire their spirit.
In particular, I was impressed with the inclusion of a Music for Relief level in the story mode. Music for Relief is a real-life charity founded by Linkin Park, and recently they partnered with Disney to do a benefit. As a salute to the charity's efforts, the developer put a level in the game based on the location the benefit took place in and made it the final level your band has to play through en route to the ultimate competition at the Rock Dome.
And if that doesn't make you give a damn: giant robots. Yes, giant robots are in this game. I'm not sure what they do, because I was too busy trying not to fail out of Rock Lobster, but they're there - and for me, that's a definite plus.
Ultimate Band on Wii is out mid November.