Rock Band was great, but Rock Band was also awkward and cumbersome. Now here comes Rock Band VR, a few years after most of us got rid of our last plastic instrument. It's also cumbersome, and it's also great. In fact, it's the most fun I've had with Rock Band in years.
Rock Band VR has you put on a virtual reality headset, pick up a plastic guitar, and virtually act out your most fundamental rock star fantasies. It is an improbable game, to say the least. As fun as it is, it's virtually guaranteed that only a small percentage of the people reading this will ever even have a chance to play it.
To wit: it's a new entry in a series that spent the last six years declining from mainstream to niche. It's also an exclusive for the already niche Oculus Rift VR system, so, a niche within a niche. It requires that you own a Rock Band guitar, but even those of us who loved Rock Band games four or five years ago may have gotten rid of their plastic peripherals by now. And if you thought you looked goofy playing Rock Band with a tiny plastic guitar, imagine how much goofier you will look doing that while wearing a VR headset.
And yet… do I look like I'm having fun in that GIF? Because I am. I am having so much fun that I don't care how ridiculous I look. Rock Band VR is a hell of a good time, and so different from previous games in the series that calling it "Rock Band" occasionally feels like a misnomer.
You may look like a doofus when you're playing it, but this game can make you feel like this:
Actually, Steve also kinda looks like a doofus when you can't hear what he's playing.
A disclosure up front: I'm friendly with a couple of people who work at Harmonix, and one of the guys who worked on this game was a few years behind me in music school. I don't think that influences my appreciation of Rock Band VR, but there you go. On to the game.
Rock Band VR was funded and published by Oculus, so don't expect it on any other VR systems. Oculus Touch controllers even shipped with a branded Rock Band dongle for attaching one of the controllers to your guitar.
I didn't have a guitar, so I hadn't been planning to play, but my curiosity got the better of me over the weekend. I stopped by a local used game shop to see if they had any Xbox One Rock Band guitars for sale. Turns out they had exactly one. I bought it, bundled with a used copy of Rock Band 4 that I will never play, and connected it to my PC.
The little dongle attaches to the back of the headstock, and the Touch controller fits snugly into it. Weird, but functional.
In order to use a Rock Band guitar with this game, you'll need to use that special dongle to attach your right Touch controller to the headstock like you see in the picture there. It's a pain in the arse and makes the guitar top-heavy, but it's also a smart use of the controller. Because the guitar is a single inflexible object, the game can use a single Touch controller to match your in-game guitar's movements and rotation perfectly.
From the outset, everything feels intuitive in that way good VR games feel. You look down, and there's your guitar. Move it around, and it moves around. Look around you and you see the stage. I even found myself naturally stepping over my headset cable the same way I've learned to step over a guitar cable, albeit from the other side.
I played a lot of Rock Band back in the day and have also played my share of real-life rock shows, so I assumed I'd figure this game out quickly. Midway through the lengthy and involved series of tutorials, I realised that A) they have overhauled gameplay to the point that this is not really Rock Band anymore, and B) the tutorial doesn't do a good job explaining how things work.
When it comes to channeling the feeling of being on stage with a band, this game gets a ton of little details right. There's always a handwritten setlist taped to the stage — maybe a little too easy to read, but a nice touch. There's the location of your guitar stand just behind you, in front of the drummer. You can lean into your mic and speak, and your voice will echo through the club. Walk (or warp) around the stage during a song and it will change the balance of what you hear. Stand next to the drummer and you can even hit his crash cymbal with the head of your guitar. It doesn't knock your tuning pegs out of whack, but hey, some things are better left un-simulated.
When it's time to actually play some music, you'll immediately notice how much has changed. The familiar Rock Band/Guitar Hero note-track is gone. Rock Band VR is a much more free-form experience, unconcerned with making you match regimented note-for-note transcriptions. Instead of following preordained note gems, you strum in time and make different chord shapes, following (or not following) a left-to-right song chart that hangs above the audience.
It's a completely different experience from playing old-school Rock Band. You're more or less free to play however you want, depending on how you want to shape your hand measure to measure. It's more like guitar karaoke, really. There is a scoring mechanism, but you can't fail or anything. You're just up there to have a good time.
Chord shapes are intuitive and easy to remember: Put two fingers next to one another and you get a muted power chord, while two fingers separated by a space gives you an open power chord. Three close fingers and you get a full open chord, while three fingers with a space in between gives you a more aggressive arpeggio. Invert that shape to get a muted arpeggio. Two fingers with two spaces in between gives you an octave.
Here's what those shapes look like on the guitar:
Abstractly, those chord shapes match pretty well with what it's like to play those shapes on an actual guitar. The open, two-finger power chord feels about like a power chord feels to play. Put three fingers together and you're playing the plastic guitar version of an open A chord, or maybe a D. The green arpeggios feel similar to a three-finger index-middle-pinky shape you might make higher up the neck, and aside from making you use your pinky, the power octaves are spot-on.
Abstraction like that is central to what Rock Band VR does well. After the success of Rock Bands 1 and 2, Harmonix spent a few years getting increasingly lost in the weeds trying to match instrumental performance down to the note. That reached an apotheosis in Rock Band 3, which you could play using an actual Squier Stratocaster or a ridiculous, button-covered plastic Mustang. Rock Band VR pulls things waaaay back, refocusing on the feeling of playing guitar. It's a smart move.
The scoring system is hard to keep track of, particularly in the heat of the moment. Fortunately that doesn't make the game less fun. You're meant to change up your chord-type in varied patterns throughout each song; occasionally the song's chart will give you an indication of how you might want to play a section. You can do whatever you want, though, which leaves a small but important amount of room for expression.
You can, say, pop from muted power chords to open arpeggios in the middle of the verse on Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait" regardless of what the guitarist did on the original recording. It's just enough to make it feel like you're putting your mark on the song, without you needing to worry about making mistakes or playing out of tune.
Functionally, each guitar part appears to draw from a collection of pre-recorded guitar tracks, cross-fading between them as you change position and even adding muted string scrubbing in between chords if you speed up your right hand. It's an ambitious real-time approach that works pretty well, all things considered, though it sometimes leads to awkward transitions, hiccups, and screwy timing. When I'm in the zone on a song I know, it really feels like I'm controlling how I perform the guitar part.
Rock Band VR's purpose is to make you feel like you're rocking out on stage in front of a couple hundred adoring fans. It accomplishes that admirably, mainly by stripping away many of the things that made Rock Band what it was. It's single-player only, so you'll never have that Rock Bandy feeling of playing alongside your friends. You can't pick your band name or customise outfits. The 60-song music library won't import the hundreds of Rock Band songs you may have on your other consoles. And of course, you can only play guitar. No bass, no vocals, no drums, and no keyboard.
If you want, you can play through all the songs in "classic mode," which puts you in an empty black room in front of the familiar note-roll of past games. I'm pretty sick of guitar games at this point, so classic mode did very little for me. I could see series diehards getting something out of it, though. I've been much more interested in playing through story mode, in which you're the guitarist in a very Rock Band-ish group called Autoblaster, playing bigger and bigger shows on the road to fame.
Before and after shows, you'll hang out with your bandmates during brief, cute vignettes. They're a cartoonish trio — the neurotic lead singer, the fuckup drummer, the irritable bassist — but their dialogue is just believable enough to be enjoyable. While waiting for an early gig, your frontman has a minor freakout because he's misplaced his guitar picks and is very particular about what gauge he uses. Yep, feels about right.
Occasionally the VR simulation gets awkward, but even that can be funny or interesting. As you play, rapt audience members stare at up you. They smile and occasionally wave. If you look right at them, they will sometimes make a "who, me?" gesture, thrilled that you would notice them. There are few things more uncomfortable than performing music for an audience that can easily make eye contact with you, and Rock Band VR's low-fidelity audience members simulate even that with unusual, if unintentional, precision. Why won't they stop looking at me? Why won't they stop smiling? They're going to kill me after the show, aren't they?
Whenever a song gets to the guitar solo, any semblance of verisimilitude goes out the window. A huge glowing light appears above the crowd, which means it's time to wave your guitar around, press keys at random, pummel the strummer, and work the whammy bar like Steve Vai at the end of Crossroads.
A mix of pre-recorded riffs more or less matches up with your inputs, and while your solos may not sound good, they certainly contain a lot of notes. All the while, your guitar sprays neon "musical energy" all over the audience, leaving them drenched and joyfully screaming like extras in a musical bukkake film. It is a hilarious, near perfect realisation of something many rock guitarists have imagined since the advent of the electric guitar solo.
Only out of sincere dedication to my job do I share this gif of me enthusiastically jacking a plastic guitar off onto a couple dozen virtual audience members.
Given the relatively tiny number of Oculus Rift owners in the world, I have a feeling very few people will play Rock Band VR. Even if you've read this far, you probably won't play it. That almost makes me like it even more. This game probably shouldn't exist, and yet here it is, one of the clearest benefactors of Oculus' decision to throw money at interesting VR projects heedless of market analysis or projected profits. Rock Band VR won't single-handedly revolutionise virtual reality, nor will it mark the triumphant return of the plastic instrument genre. It's fun enough that it doesn't really matter.