Rock Band

Earlier this year I was introduced to Guitar Hero, which became the first game in years to get me excited1. It’s a simple enough idea: you play a 5-button guitar-shaped thingy, pressing down its strum bar and appropriate-coloured button when a particular note hits a particular area of the screen. It’s vaguely like playing a real guitar, and ridiculous amounts of fun. The game is loaded with decent music, and the difficulty levels scale nicely. In April I clubbed together with some friends to buy a second guitar, so one person can play lead and one play bass. This is much better for parties as there’s less time sitting around waiting, but we knew there were better things ahead. Namely: Rock Band.

Rock Band is the same thing, but with 4 people: lead guitar, bass guitar, drums and microphone. It costs a fortune: the game’s £40 and the instrument kit – with just one guitar – another £100. The final guitar is ~£30, although the Guitar Hero varieties are compatible2. That’s a serious amount to spend on one game, and we split it up. A friend had already bought the game for use with his GH guitar, and this weekend the rest of us chipped in for the instrument box. All on the promise that it’s great fun.

On Sunday morning we lugged in the enormous amount of kit, plugged everything in, and prepared for the inaugural concert of N00bs in Space. You have to say it like this: N0000000000bs iiiiiiiiinn Sssppppaaaaaaaaace3. Incidentally, it is good to be in control of the controller when choosing a band name, as some people – drummers, say – will opt for The Most Boring Name in the Universe if given half a chance. A veto system is preferable, although I still don’t know what was wrong with The Loquacious Fuckwits.

So is it fun? Oh god yes.

Lead Guitar. Come on. Chronic attention-seekers like, say, me, will naturally gravitate to this position. You play the melody and power chords. Most importantly, you also get the solos. At the higher difficulty settings these are do-or-die moments, and tremendous fun. The supplied guitar has five extra buttons at the opposite end of the neck that are only for soloing, and as such don’t need to be strummed. This results in a brief moment of feeling cool as your hand slides up the neck, followed by a fit of swearing as you fail to get into position quickly enough. It’s very obvious when lead guitarists make mistakes, but wonderful when you don’t.

Bass Guitar. Yeah, it’s ok. If you’re into that kind of thing. It’s the Jim Corr position.

Singing. Oh man, was I terrified of the singing. I don’t do singing. It’s not that I can’t hit the notes so much as I can’t tell even when I do – it’s probably diagnosable as Imperfect Pitch. I haven’t sung in front of anyone since the school play when I was 164 and only now try when in splendid isolation on the M5. And here’s the thing: the game has pitch detection. An on-screen indicator shows whether you’re too high or low, along with the lyrics. You’re scored on both pitch and whether you hit the vocal on time. Oh, crap.

I had a go. It was horribly embarrassing and secretly thrilling. I had to be Thom Yorke (‘Creep‘), Courtney Love (‘Celebrity Skin‘) and…Jon Bon Jovi (‘Wanted – Dead or Alive5 ). I sucked. It’s inevitable that your voice will waver as you try to hit the note, but mine just did anyway. It was shameful. But in the very back of my mind I was a little bit happy. 15 minutes of this and my voice died – on Easy, which is pretty forgiving – and I was croaky for another 24h.

Drums. Woohoo. This is the stand-out impressive bit of kit. Four drums and a pedal. Were it four drums, I’d have had a chance. But I struggled with the pedal. Even at Easy level, you have to hit the pedal at the same time as a particular drum, then it’ll switch to alternating, and…I sucked. Again. I’d never played a drum kit before, and I’d wondered whether I might discover a new ability. No. Not a picobit of natural talent. Lead guitar is where I live. The others were all much better than me, and I have new respect for drummers. In fact, they don’t have to sit with the bass guitarists any more.

Here’s a terribly facile observation: the secret is to make sure you’re finding it difficult. It’s still fun if you’re hitting most notes, but you need to be out of your comfort zone for the real adrenalin. When you hit the solo, or nail a particularly tricksy section, or just finish the song without failing, it’s really quite the feeling of success. It’s actually possible to do so badly you get kicked out of the song, but other players can save you if they’ve hit particular targets. But only up to three times. This is clever – each player can set their own difficulty level, so you can try something tricky and have it be dangerous but not so much that it’ll spoil everything. And it’s perfectly possible to substantially improve between the start and end of a song. Particularly one by Rush.

I had a great time. The songs are good and mostly original versions, and the Xbox 360 can download new tracks to keep it fresh. This costs more, but isn’t surprising – nothing about this game is cheap. They recently released a load of Oasis tracks, and we got through Don’t Look Back in Anger in expert guitar (those of us who are Oasis fans did, anyway), then realised Liam Gallagher can do that, so we probably shouldn’t be too proud.

There were a couple of problems. The game itself involves playing gigs, and gaining fans and cash to progress up to the harder songs. Some gigs have surprise setlists which select random songs, but fail to take into account those you’ve already completed. So you can end up playing the same routine three times in quick succession. But not often. Plus there are apparently concerns that the drum pedal quickly wears out. But these are, currently, pretty minor.

Rock Band is basically Guitar Hero with extra instruments, but has a few neat touches. The most impressive, I think, is the freak-out section at the end of the rockier numbers. After the main melody ends there’s sometimes a go-nuts-hit-as-many-notes-as-you-can section, which turns into utter white-noise crescendo as everyone tries to rack up as many points as possible. But at the end of this section come a few isolated chords / notes, and everybody has to hit them to get the points. This was designed in a moment of brilliance, and makes for some dramatic endings, followed by cheers or, usually, abuse toward the offending player.

My favourite moment was the final song of the night: The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. Particularly the last two minutes: Wonderful pre-storm calm, followed by Very Important drum solo, then BLOOD-CURDLING SCREAM and power chords. It’s got everything. Well, apart from bass guitar. But who really cares.

  1. not a comment about the state of modern games, more about me []
  2. this is not true in reverse []
  3. in my head this is a reference to a shortlived CBBC show that I can’t remember the name of, but I know it had General Dogsbody in it. It’s nothing to do with INXS []
  4. inexplicably as part of a 4-person gang in Bugsy Malone. That poor, poor audience. Bloody great play though. []
  5. I actually quite like the band, but the level to which I am not Jon Bon Jovi is ridiculous []