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 []

Wii Table Tennis

I played Wii Table Tennis last night. It’s a separate game rather than the Wii Sports version, and much more fun as it actually involves some skill.

Swinging the wiimote left/vertically/right aims it at the relevant side of the table, and up/down determines the front or back of the table. How well each attempted placement works depends on both the physical position of your player relative to the table (in the basic modes the computer moves them automatically, but in the higher levels you control them with the nunchuck), and your particular character’s skill level. You also use the direction pad, while swinging, to add topspin, backspin, leftspin or rightspin (?), or a ‘soft shot’ to really wind up your opponent. The ball changes colour depending on its spin, so this can be taken into account when returning.

All of which gives you a decent amount of control, without being excessively complex. The physics is good enough to be predictable, so it’s much more a game of skill than blind luck. The hardest part is thinking fast enough: you have to swing after your opponent has hit the ball, which in the faster games means you’ve a very short amount of time to process all the variables. This is quite the mental workout, but achievable without ridiculous amounts of practice. It’s a physical workout too – my arm is still hurting this morning. Good fun.

Wii Dancing

We bought Guitar Hero III for a friend this Christmas. Mistake. Should have gone for Dancing With The Stars:

Is it bad that I quite want it? Unfortunately it’s apparently not up to much:

While you’re moving your hands around, your couple will be dancing up a storm, doing their best to impress the judges. This is where one of the biggest faults of this game appears: namely the complete and total disconnect between your motions and the actions of your couple. While you’re going through the motions, your couple will dance impeccably, regardless of how poorly or how well you’re hitting all your moves. In fact, putting the Wiimote and nunchuck down and not doing a blasted thing while the song plays results in your couple having the time of their lives with the only indication that you’re not doing so well being the boos of the crowd and the disgusted looks of the judges.

Shame – the risk of ‘doing a Matt’ would be an incentive. There’s doesn’t seem to be any real element of competition either. But:

herein lies the hidden fun of Dancing with the Stars, however — in a group, it’s both fun and hilarious. Like any other rhythm game that gets you off the couch, Dancing with the Stars becomes exponentially more fun the more people you have around. What’s more, since it’s user-friendly and features something a lot of people know about (celebrities and music), it probably won’t be too hard to rope family members and non-gamers into the swing of things

Hmmm, his birthday’s coming up.

Guitar Hero III

The New Year’s Eve party on Monday night was completely dominated by Guitar Hero III. Coincidentally, everybody at the party had clubbed together to buy it for the host as a Christmas present, and we were keen to see it in real-life. I’d heard tell of this much-beloved game, and read plenty of reviews to check it was worth buying, but hadn’t seen it in person before. I was blown away.

For the uninitiated, here’s the premise: you hold a guitar-shaped controller, which has a movable strum bar on the right and five coloured buttons on the fretboard. On-screen, identically-coloured dots fall at varying speeds and frequencies. You have to press the appropriate button(s) and strum the bar as the dots pass a particular point.

It is a ridiculous amount of fun.

The game does an excellent job of making you feel resplendent, and I think a key element is the sound. The (sometimes covered) songs have all the required layers and sound accurate, yet somehow your single notes (in easy mode, anyway) aren’t amateurish as part of the whole. Combine this with the tactile experience of pushing buttons really fast and ‘playing lead guitar’ over the top of a decent song is, somehow, a genuinely exciting experience. I imagine the higher skill levels are a hell of an ego-trip.

While not even close to capable on a real guitar, I was hoping that three years of practice would give me an advantage over the others. I don’t feel bad about this at all, since it is no exaggeration to say I suck at all console games1, and it’d be nice to actually be good at something 🙂 I wasn’t anything special, but the greater brain mass devoted to controlling my left hand meant I probably scaled better with speed, at least until everything went mental half-way through Knights of Cydonia.

Two people can play Guitar Hero simultaneously (one on lead, one on bass) but the main disadvantage is the cost of the guitar controllers – at £40-£60 each it’s hard to justify buying an additional unit, so the bass guitarist has to use a standard controller; this requires as much skill, but isn’t quite as much fun. Which is interesting, really: you’re still pressing five buttons in a particular order, and it’s still difficult, but the act of pretending to play guitar-shaped-thing is that much more enjoyable.

Rock Band, as yet unreleased in Europe, provides guitar, bass guitar, drum and microphone controllers, so four people can play simultaneously. Costs a fortune, but must be bloody great.

It’s quite a while since I’ve enjoyed a new game this much; I think the original Wii Sports are the closest anything’s come. I don’t have a console, and certainly can’t justify the PC version at £45, so shall instead invade my friend’s house at every available opportunity 🙂 And, you know, play my actual guitar.

I wonder whether properly midi-d guitars could be theoretically hooked up to a more complex version with scrolling tab and background music…The gaming aspect would be a cool way to practice. Update: apparently there’s one on the way.

  1. all right, possibly not Wii Sports, but even there I hit average and stop []

Wiilly good fun (sorry, had to be done)

Yesterday night was spent playing with a Wii. Stock levels are still astonishingly low, and my friend Nod finally picked one up with the help of www.wiipreorder.co.uk. It arrived on Saturday, and was swiftly configured. I’ve never been one for consoles as I quickly get bored of pressing buttons1 but the Wii really is good fun.

The motion sensitive controllers mean playing tennis is a joy – it’s good enough that you can aim the ball, rather than just getting in its way – and two people leaping around a lounge makes for some entertaining moments. It supports up to four players, which would just be dangerous 🙂 I was also impressed by baseball (really quite tricky) and bowling (not so tricky), but the standout game was Rayman Raving Rabbids, which is completely mental.

In it Rayman the picnicking duck is kidnapped by a giant and placed into an arena with a crowd of dynamite and scythe-toting rabbits, and made to complete increasingly insane tasks in order to win plungers that allow him to climb a wall to his escape. It’s like David Lynch doing Watership Down for Dreamworks. The tasks are mini-games that take full advantage of the Wii’s motion-sensing abilities, from simply pumping the controllers up and down to make Rayman run very fast (this is surprisingly tiring) to whipping one in circles around your head as to throw a cow as far as possible to flicking the controllers to destroy rabbits attacking Rayman on the dancefloor, perfectly in time with the beats and syncopations of Cyndi Lauper songs. My favourite, however, involves Rayman manning some kind of beach-hut when from the sea rise hundreds of snorkelled zombie rabbits. Obviously the sane solution to this predicament is to fire your gun of carrot-juice at the invaders, filling their snorkels with orange goop until they drown. Aiming is done by the right hand while the left furiously pumps the carrot juice gun2. It hurts like hell, but is oddly entertaining.

If I could afford a Wii I’d pick one up in a heartbeat, but for now I’ll steal Nod’s 🙂

  1. PC games have a mouse, so it’s different. It is. []
  2. yes, it is possibly the most euphemistic children’s game ever []

Monkey Island Hotel

Dad passed this at the weekend:

Monkey Island Hotel

You’re probably thinking, big whoop, but you really don’t want to be going there – it’s cursed, mainly occupied by men of low moral fibre, and it may take you literally months to find the exit. Furthermore, the beer could burn through steel, there are gates leading to Giant Monkey Heads that cannot be opened for love nor money, and spitting contests are seriously difficult. It’s the kind of place where you’re forever checking over your shoulder, just in case there’s a three-headed monkey. I’ve also heard that people wander around insulting you and the best reply you can think of is “I am rubber, you are glue”.

Gaming Technique

I’ve never played with consoles particularly, but I’ve noticed that many people who do have an…interesting…style. When in a tricky situation they’ll eschew pressing buttons on the gamepad in favour of the wave-the-whole-thing-around-in-space technique. Need to turn left faster than is possible with the analogue joystick? No problem: move the entire gamepad as far away as possible, preferably while leaning in that direction. Although I invariably lose when playing anything on consoles, I contend myself with my dignified, albeit ultimately pants, performance 🙂

Unfortunately, the new console from Nintendo apparently has controller sensors to detect position, velocity and tilt. Dammit!1

However I can still maintain a somewhat puerile superiority, given that anybody owning such a device will have a large box in their lounge boldly displaying the phrase “Nintendo Wii“.

  1. Actually, the new controller is apparently quite different from previous incarnations and can be used for swordfights! I’m ignoring this for the sake of winding people up. []

Evangelise and Conquer

From Penny Arcade comes news of upcoming computer game “Left Behind: Eternal Forces”. It’s a Real Time Strategy, meaning that you have an overview of the situation, controlling people and units as you see fit. This is generally used for war games such as Command and Conquer. It’s described as follows:

Left Behind: Eternal Forces is set in the future when the faithful have been gathered up and ascended to Heaven during the Rapture. In the chaos that follows, the Antichrist has taken the reigns of power at the United Nations and is gathering the countries of the world under his banner. But a small resistance, the Tribulation Forces, have formed to oppose Satan’s legions.

Tribulation Forces! Also, is it me, or is there a tiny bit of a message hidden in that description?

LB:TE has some, um, innovative features:

  • Conduct physical & spiritual warfare: using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world
  • The first RTS where every unit has a unique identity; every character has a name and a back story, providing 1000’s of hours of interesting reading
  • People are the most important commodity: players must protect the lives of their warriors and recruit “neutral” and even “evil” units to their side
  • Command your forces through battles across the most realistic depiction of New York City in any game
  • Recover ancient scriptures and witness spectacular Angelic and Demonic activity as a direct consequence of your choices. Unlock inspirational content that makes players consider the larger concepts of good vs evil
  • Control more than 30 unit types – from Prayer Warrior and Hellraiser to Spies, Special Forces and Battle Tanks
  • Play multi-player games as Tribulation Forces or Global Community Peacekeepers

Hopefully the power of prayer will follow the results of this recent $2million investigation into its actual healing powers, the results of which showed that people who knew they were being prayed for were more likely to develop complications following surgery. LB:TE could easily incorporate this – simply tell the enemies you’re praying for them (it wouldn’t matter whether you really were). I wonder: would people actually pray to help themselves win the game?

I think this game has the potential to be good fun, but it’s apparently being marketed to ‘the christian market’, as well as being based upon a series of christian novels. This, I should imagine, will suck out all the enjoyment. Can I play as the Antichrist and invade Heaven? Hell’s been done many times in computer games, but fighting elite angels amongst beautiful towering spires could be cool.

A preview includes a shot of smoke rising from the New York skyline. Nice.

I wonder whether the reviews will simply say ‘holy crap’.

F.E.A.R Demo

I just played through the singleplayer F.E.A.R demo, and I’m glad it was the daytime. Sunlight was streaming through the window and a dog slept by my desk, which meant that when I stepped onto the ladder and saw a little girl standing right in front of me I only jumped a little, instead of dying right there and then. It only lasted twenty minutes or so, but I was quite impressed. The sound was immersive, even using my two tiny speakers, with the sound of your own breathing becoming very loud at the darkest points, as well as excellent use of incredibly unnerving silence. The graphics were excellent – extended gunfire produced smoke, obscuring your vision, and the grenades produced impressive shockwaves. Dodging bullets resulted in sprays of wall-material flying in all directions, and the ‘fast reflexes mode’1 saw projectiles rippling through the air in a very Matrix-like fashion. Not that I had much chance to notice these effects, given that I was desperately trying to survive at the time.

What most impressed me, though, was the general creepiness. The little girl spoke in whispers of death and coming horrors, then crumbled into ashes; hallucinations of the man I was chasing appeared once or twice, fading into the shadows and vanishing; silhouettes of the grotesque passed through open doorways. And just when you’re getting used to the atmosphere, some kind of assault-armour clad marine drops through the ceiling and unleases eighteen rockets in your direction.

The plot, that I know of anyway, revolves around an elite army unit (First Encounter Assault Recon) who deal with paranormal situations. The level I played was very Doom3 like, but without being so goddamn macabre. The setup of F.E.A.R sounds much more promising, as when you complete a mission you presumably move onto something different, and hopefully not just another industrial area with flickering lights.

F.E.A.R’s definitely going onto the wishlist, but the thought of playing it alone, at night, in my flat? I’m nervous already.

  1. think bullet-time from Max Payne []