The Beatles: Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 (yes, they really did release the Wii version in the UK) are RPGs. Honest. Oh, all right, they’re actually music games, you’ve defeated me with your piercing logic, but they do have some RPG elements.
All three games share the basic push-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music basic gameplay; you can just launch in and play on your own or in a band with friends for fun, or you can play competitively, with each performance gaining a number of points and awarded a rating out of five stars. All three games also offer some sort of extended gameplay mode.
The Beatles: Rock Band features a story mode; those of you who like to play amateur detective may be able to deduce from the title of the game that it’s the story of the Beatles. In this mode the songs are arranged chronologically rather than by difficulty and inextricably linked to famous venues like the Cavern Club and Abbey Road studios, through which you progress linearly. You’re always represented as your chosen Beatle, with garb and instrument appropriate to the time, and have no way of affecting the story; you can’t decide to split the band up in 1968 or keep it together in 1970. It’s a bit like an early laserdic game, one of the ones that basically just played a series of sequences and forced the “player” to push the right button at the right time to keep it going. It makes a lot more sense when pushing the buttons is quite fun, though, and in the case of The Beatles the story is the music, which is the gameplay. As a linear story there isn’t a great incentive to play through it more than once, though there are some bonus bits n’ pieces (mostly photographs and some audio and video clips) for either compulsive completionists or Beatles fanatics.
Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 have career and tour modes respectively that start with that RPG staple, character creation. Name your band, pick a logo, and create the band members. Rock Band 2 is the more traditionalist, allowing you to select your face, hairstyle, physique etc., then handing you your starter gear of a tatty t-shirt, jeans and a basic instrument; Guitar Hero 5 is more akin to City of Heroes or Champions, offering a massive range of outfits to select from and customisable instruments down to the pick-guard colour and knob configuration (Matron) on your guitar. Both games then despatch you to various venues, and hand out cash as well as points scores and star ratings for playing songs.
The Guitar Hero 5 career is fairly structured. There isn’t a story as such (some of the previous games had little cut scenes, usually of a generic small town band becoming global megastars as you progressed with the odd digression into rock heaven/hell), you’re turned loose into a series of venues, broadly arranged in increasing difficulty, each with five to eight songs. Future venues, and songs within venues, need to be unlocked but it’s a fairly swift process with a degree of freedom, not the strictly linear progression of the first few Guitar Hero games or The Beatles. On top of the usual five star rating each song also has a challenge, as I outlined previously, giving plenty of goals for the achievement-centric, offering a further three stars to collect plus various costume and character unlocks.
Tour mode in Rock Band 2 has the strongest elements of development or progression. Starting out clad in an old t-shirt with $100 to your name, the money you’re awarded for successfully completing songs is vital for expanding your collection of clothes, instruments and accessories. You pick a home city for your characters and the band, and initially have access to a limited selection of small venues in nearby cities; as you play, you can compete in challenges to unlock vehicles, allowing access to venues further afield, and bigger venues as you become more successful In addition to cash rewards you earn fans for performances, giving a measure of success, and you can even hire a member of support staff like a promoter or merchandise vendor. You could almost remove the playing-along-to-songs bit and still be left with a tycoon-style band management game.
While not quite meeting all four of Bioware’s pillars of RPG (“you’ve got exploration, you’ve got progression, you’ve got combat, and you’ve got storytelling”) it’s interesting to see cross fertilisation of mechanics across game genres. Next stop, a proper guitar-wielding Bard class in an MMO! Or maybe a dual-wielding mace class using a drum set for the input, I can think of someone who’d be ideal for that…