The popular music game comes back for an encore!
Despite an expensive $170 price tag, Rock Band quickly became a smash hit among hardcore and casual gamers alike when it was released last November. Harmonix, the developer of the full-band rhythm game, have impressively kept their promise to deliver new downloadable content every single week since the title’s release.
Despite their dedication to viewing Rock Band as a music platform rather than a single game, Rock Band 2 is here. Offering a whopping 84 new tracks (64 of them on the disc) and a whole boatload of new features, it definitely packs a whole lot of punch for the price. Although the PS3 and Wii versions and full instrument bundles won’t be available until mid-October, the Xbox 360 version has already been released.
The most significant overhaul has been given to Band World Tour. The career mode that was formerly only available as local multiplayer is now playable with any number of players (including solo), both locally and online via Xbox Live. The gameplay of the tour is essentially unchanged - earn money and fans playing song sets in order to play larger and more prestigious venues - but the increased number of special events makes it much more exciting. You might be approached by a film director about making a music video, or asked to sponsor a product, or things like that; all in all, it helps to make you feel like you are actually part of a band instead of simply playing song after song.
In addition to touring, your band can also participate in local Challenges and online Battle of the Band competitions. A challenge is, simply enough, a set of songs that you must complete. Beating a local challenge unlocks more challenges. This is the closest replacement for the solo mode found in Rock Band 1 and the Guitar Hero series; instead of playing through tiers of songs, you can pick your favorite instrument (including bass, a welcome addition from RB1) and play through increasingly difficult solo challenges. Local challenges are machine-generated based on what songs you own.
If you have purchased the pack of The Who downloadable songs, for example, you might see a Who Challenge show up. It sounds like a cool idea, but to be honest I wasn’t very enthralled. The basic instrument challenges are the fastest way to unlock songs, but the extra challenges seemed like they were just thrown in. It’s nice that Harmonix included them, but I personally didn’t feel they really added to the experience.
Battle of the Bands, however, is a new feature that adds a great level of replayability to the game. Rather than simply competing against your previous scores in the local challenges, you are playing for fame and glory on the Xbox Live leaderboards. Harmonix updates the game daily with new BotB challenges, and you can compare your best scores with your friends and with the entire Rock Band community.
Some challenges are based on getting the highest score, so having a 4-person band is a necessity, but others are set up so that even solo players can compete. Some Battle of the Band challenges are particularly wacky, such as one recent one that dictated you play a particularly difficult guitar solo on expert and build up the longest chain of continuous notes that you could. As long as Harmonix continues to update these BotB challenges with a regular frequency, they will go a long way towards ensuring that Rock Band 2 is still enjoyable for a long time to come.
There are a lot of other small tweaks in Rock Band 2 that fix the various little niggling problems that plagued the first Rock Band. A character is no longer limited to playing a single instrument, which makes swapping out profiles and setting up the game much easier.
You can also pick characters for computer-controlled musicians, so you can still see your full custom band play on stage when you are playing solo. The song selection interface has been completely revamped, and now mirrors the Music Store interface: selecting a song shows its album art as well as difficulty ratings for each individual instrument and full band. A small icon next to each song title indicates whether it is from Rock Band 1, Rock Band 2, or has been downloaded.
There are a few new clothes you can purchase for your characters, and the on-stage graphics have gotten a small bump in quality. While the game interface has hardly changed at all, graphically speaking, hammer-on and pull-off notes are now more easily distinguishable from normal notes. Similarly, many songs now feature hammer-on and pull-off chords. When playing Band Quickplay, you can also now create set lists of up to 99 songs, letting you play through all of your favorite songs without having to return to the song selection screen in between. Also new is a drum trainer mode, which allows you to learn actual drumming technique in a series of lessons.
Minor changes aside, the real meat of Rock Band 2 is its new song list. It comes with 64 songs on the disk, plus a voucher to download twenty free songs that will be released by the end of the year. The on-disc library is incredibly varied, including everything from Guns ‘N Roses to Modest Mouse to Beck to Bob Dylan. Harmonix clearly made a great effort to really showcase a diverse song list, and they have succeeded. Additionally, the upper-tier songs in RB2 can get incredibly difficult, easily surpassing the hardest RB1 songs on Expert guitar or drums. Many hardcore players complained that Rock Band was not difficult enough when compared to Guitar Hero 2 or 3, so it’s nice to see that Rock Band 2 steps things up a notch.
If the 84 included tracks and hundreds of downloadable songs are not enough, you can choose to transfer over all but three of the songs from the original Rock Band for a mere $5. It’s frustrating to have to pay for what you already paid for, but the low cost and convenience make it well worth the cost. Between the two track lists and the massive library of downloadable content (all past and future DLC is intercompatible between the two games), Harmonix is touting that there will be over 500 Rock Band songs by the end of the year, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
When you buy Rock Band 2, you are getting two things: a completely new set of songs and a collection of sundry features and fixes; 84 songs for the MSRP of $60 is still a heck of a deal, even before factoring in the other additions. While this game is an obvious ploy to draw attention away from the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour, it also cements Rock Band’s position as a solid leader of the genre. Above all else, Rock Band 2 is polished.
All of the sequel’s fine-tuned tweaks and changes result in a truly robust and full-featured experience. Where Rock Band was ground-breaking and innovative, Rock Band 2 perfects the full-band rhythm game experience.
Vastly improved interface, much higher difficulty ceiling than its predecessor, completely revamped Tour mode features more robust online play, 84 new songs for only $60.
Twenty of the “included” songs must be downloaded at a future date; local Challenges aren’t particularly interesting.
Fans of the original Rock Band will probably find Rock Band 2 worth it both for the large new tracklist and the numerous engine improvements, while newcomers to the series will enjoy one of the most polished music game experiences to date.