Category Archives: plastic instruments

The end of laughter and soft lies

So Activision are shelving the Guitar Hero franchise, a move that doesn’t come as a great surprise. Since that last post of mine I picked up Guitar Hero 6: Warriors of Rock when the full band bundle briefly dropped to £60, probably to clear some warehouse space at GAME and Amazon; the hardware is nice, especially the drum set which is the main reason I’d picked the bundle up, the set list has some good stuff in it, but like Rock Band 3 (Pro Mode apart), it’s Yet Another Guitar Game.

A few of the Slashdot comments highlight lack of innovation as a key failing in the Guitar Hero franchise, but I’m not really sure how many avenues they had. I can’t think of another game genre that sprang into existence so fully formed; course there were gradual improvements over the course of the series like use of master tracks for songs instead of the “As Made Famous By” cover versions, adding drums and vocals, and general tweaks for a better game experience, but the core mechanic of pushing-buttons-in-time-with-music has remained constant. Graphical improvements are far less relevant than for most games, with the players focused on those coloured dots coming down the screen. They tried a head-to-head PvP battle mode in Guitar Hero 3, it didn’t really work (the good old “see who can get the highest score” method has remained the main area of competition for the more dedicated). Band Hero tried a more pop-oriented set list, I’m guessing they didn’t shift a whole lot of units as the Warriors of Rock bundle I got from Amazon, once the outer sleeve slipped off, was in a Band Hero box with the game itself swapped over. There were artist-specific games for Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen, but I guess the number of fans of the artists who hadn’t really thought about music games before didn’t make up for the number of music game fans who weren’t big enough fans of a particular artist to get a specific game. Working real rock stars into the main games meanwhile caused legal headaches, and though I can just about understand people getting annoyed about Kurt Cobain singing Bon Jovi, I’m slightly less convinced that No Doubt’s lasting artistic integrity was irreparably damaged by having them perform songs by those no-talent hack Rolling Stones. Speaking of real artists, The Beatles Rock Band made a brief dent on mainstream coverage, but doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect on the music game genre as a whole, even with the biggest band in history and a phenomenal amount of care and dedication from Harmonix. We’re still waiting on the real guitar that will connect to Rock Band 3 in Pro Mode, though signs are positive that it will actually be coming to the UK, and for a not entirely unreasonably price compared to the US price if the pre-order information at Andertons holds up. I’m still pretty keen on picking it up, but I’m sure I’m part of a pretty small niche.

With the historical focus on DLC that Harmonix have had with the Rock Band series, I’d hope they can continue profitably with their scaled-back team; I wonder if Guitar Hero could possibly have continued in a similar vein, releasing “track pack” style expansion discs to simply add songs to previous games, but that doesn’t seem to be in keeping with Activision’s mega-franchise strategy. Ah well; it’s been a good run, and I’m sure it’ll be back in some rebooted form eventually.

Warriors of Rock Band 3

I haven’t posted about music games since the E3 Guitar Hero/Rock Band coverage as there are many better sources of news (Plastic Axe, for instance), and tales of Guitar Heroism don’t make for fascinating reading (“… so I pushed the red button, then the green button, then the red button again, then the red *and* yellow buttons, and then I was supposed to press the orange button but I missed and pressed the yellow button…”) The triple whammy 12 months ago of Guitar Hero 5, The Beatles: Rock Band and Rock Band 2 within a short space of time was really the saturation point for me, combined with a smidge of DLC and imports from previous games they gave me more than 300 songs to be working through on guitar, bass, drums or vocals, which is Quite A Lot. I’ve been dabbling on and off, especially when a particularly nifty bit of DLC comes along (like Flight of the Conchords, woo!), getting a few more dollars or trying for a few more stars in the various tour modes and challenges, but the white light and white heat of hot-rocking excitement has cooled to a comfortable numbness. Can the big guns rekindle the flame with Guitar Hero 6 (aka Warriors of Rock) and Rock Band 3 now out in the UK (yes, even the Wii version, simultaneous with the 360 and PS3 releases and the same week as the US instead of 14 months later)?

“Not really” seems to be the answer, both personally and nationally. The impact of the biggest new feature of Rock Band 3, “Pro Mode” featuring (more or less) real keyboards, drums and guitars, has been somewhat lessened by delays, lack of availability and price (£70 for a keyboard, £110 for the button-based Pro guitar that’s in short supply if available at all); the peripheral I’m really interested in, the Squier stringed guitar, has only just got a release date (March 2011) and price ($280, plus it needs a $40 MIDI controller) for America, no word for the UK (I’m hoping they don’t just switch the $ for £, if they release it at all). Without Pro Mode Rock Band 3 is pretty similar to Warriors of Rock, Yet Another Guitar(/Drum/Vocal) Game, slightly spruced up from the previous instalment, a bunch of new songs but not necessarily a vital “must buy” unless there’s anything on the setlist you’re really desperate for.

I decided to hold off on Warriors of Rock and let it drop in price a bit, and with sales turning out to be somewhat disappointing it’s already getting cheaper. Without the Squier I was in two minds about picking up Rock Band 3 straight away as well, but a free Doors 3-pack of songs available for the first week of release clinched my order, putting me in pretty select company with 294(!) other Wii players (I’m not sure if the figures are bricks and mortar shops alone, but any way you slice it those aren’t brilliant release weekend sales).

Rock Band 3 is… like Rock Band 2, but a bit better. Particularly welcome on the Wii is SDHC support and the ability to export tracks from previous games, only Rock Band 2 and Green Day Rock Band at the moment but we’re keeping our fingers crossed that they might manage to license Rock Band 1 and Lego Rock Band as well. An extensive series of achievements (or goals, as they are in RB3) offers plenty of incentives for those into that sort of thing (I need to lure three others along for “Bohemian As Intended” for playing Bohemian Rhapsody with a band of at least four). Graphically the note tracks and lyrics are all perfectly clear; the band members seem to have taken a slight backward step since Rock Band 2, especially when you’re trying to design a female character. I’m not sure if they’re bungeeing into the Uncanny Valley, but I had to drop the female bass player I’d whipped up as her strange zombie features freaked me out; it’s hardly an issue during songs as you’re fixated on the note track anyway, but the between-song tour vignettes were a bit peculiar.

I’m not really sure about keyboards; I suspect they could be fun on some songs, but maybe not £70 of fun, I’ll try and have a go on someone else’s to get a better idea. Maybe if the peripheral comes well down in price it would more of a possibility for an impulse buy. It’s the Squier guitar that, for me, has the potential to really elevate Rock Band 3, so I’ll be looking out for some more reviews and concrete information next March to see how well it works.

Looks like Bill Harris was right with his obituary for music games, despite Activision’s pledge the the Hero franchise will return. I think they might be heading the way of the flight sim: once ubiquitous, now sometimes dragged out for some casual multiplayer fun but mostly limited to a handful of enthusiasts with piles of expensive specialist hardware.

Guitarmageddon, Round II

Mods vs Rockers, Punk vs Prog, East 17 vs Take That, musical history is littered with bitter conflict between violently opposed groups of fans, and the console age has added Guitar Hero vs Rock Band to the list. Pitched battles between gangs wielding plastic guitars, savage drumstick beatings, microphone cable garrottings, none of these things have happened, but some people have been quite cross on the internet and made some rather strongly worded forum posts castigating the rival franchise, sometimes even with multiple exclamation marks to really drive the point home.

Rock Band was the first full band game, of course, and has a formidable library of downloadable songs (over 1,100 apparently); Guitar Hero by contrast have released more individual game discs, drawing accusations of pumping out lazy sequels, milking the franchise etc. Were I to be a US-based XBox 360 owner I’d probably be firmly in the Rock Band camp, but seeing as the Wii version of Rock Band 2 took over a year to make it to the UK, arriving after Guitar Hero 5, I’m pretty evenly split between the two, though I’ve since found that Rock Band’s ever-growing array of downloadable content gives more reason to head back to it.

As E3 kicks off, the two titans are once again squaring off. I can’t recommend Plastic Axe highly enough, it’s a really excellent site and there’s a whole stack of exciting news there as details of Rock Band 3 emerge. Harmonix are picking up many of the nifty features of Guitar Hero 5 like making it easier for people to drop in and out of playing, change difficulties on the fly etc. They’re improving the song sorting and selection, plenty of general quality of life issues to make it a better experience. Those alone would be welcome.

They’re also adding a whole new instrument, keyboards, with a full two-octave controller with MIDI-out. To go with that is a “Pro” mode; it looks like at the easier levels you can mash one of a bunch of keys grouped into the usual red/green/yellow/blue/orange colours, but in Pro mode you’re pretty much playing the actual notes of the song.

They’re extending Pro mode to the drums as well, with three cymbals to be added to the four-pad drum kit and an optional second pedal for hi-hat/double bass. A MIDI adapter will also allow players to connect their own MIDI keyboards or drums to the system.

Most exciting for me, even the guitar gets Pro mode in the form of two new peripherals. You can use existing controllers in normal mode, but for Pro there’s going to be a digital option, a 102-button(!) fret-simulating guitar with six individual “strings” to strum, and a Fender Real Actual Guitar-y Guitar with some added tech to feed back your finger positioning to the game. I’ve been tempted many times to have a crack at learning the guitar properly, but I don’t think I’d have the motivation to sit down with Burt Weedon’s Play in a Day (and certainly not enough to actually go out of the house for lessons or something), this could be just the thing.

There’s also going to be a new Guitar Hero game, “Warriors of Rock”. It’s going to feature… Gene Simmons doing some narration. Oh, and a new peripheral too, with the amazing feature of… being able to take the sides of the guitar off, and put different pieces on instead to make it look like a slightly rubbish axe.

I really did like the previous Guitar Hero games, and Warriors of Rock sounds like it’s going to be fun enough as Yet Another Guitar Game, but hardly bringing much new to the genre. About the only chance it might have had is if it took Harmonix another year to remember where the UK is, but the press release promises “Holiday 2010 in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other territories”. Alas, poor Guitar Hero; I knew it, Horatio.

I’ve got blisters on my fingers!

After a vigorous evening of highly scientific testing with Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2 I’m ready to present my paper Upon The Differences Between The Second Full-Band Plastic Instrument Based Entertainment Software Released By Harmonix And Neversoft, and my neighbours are ready to call the local council regarding a noise abatement order.

Guitar & Bass
There isn’t much difference between the two games for guitar and bass gameplay; hit the five coloured buttons and strum, collect “star power”/”overdrive” in certain sections with a whammy on held notes for a bonus, tilt guitar to activate. I slightly prefer the circular “gems” on the note track of Guitar Hero vs the rectangular blocks in Rock Band, but I suspect that might just be a case of being more used to the Guitar Hero games; the other visual thing on the note track is that Rock Band adds some swirly background colours when in overdrive that I found slightly distracting, though not to the point of missing notes particularly.

Each game has a slight nuance; I quite like the Rock Band solo sections that offer bonus points depending on the percentage of notes hit, and in Guitar Hero hammer-on chords and open notes on the bass work quite nicely, but overall it doesn’t make a massive difference. I declare… A DRAW!

Though mostly playing guitar and bass, I do like to flail around like a madman now and again. And also play the drums, ah! There’s a more obvious difference between the two games here, Guitar Hero 5 continuing the World Tour setup of three drums pads (red, blue, green) and two cymbals (yellow and orange) compared to the four drum pads of Rock Band that represent different drums and cymbal as needed.

Playing Rock Band with the Guitar Hero drums I haven’t had any major issues, as most songs so far have been based around red being snare and yellow being hi-hat, which maps naturally to the GH drums. It does feel slightly odd sometimes with the blue pad often doubling as a cymbal (the orange cymbal of the GH kit can be used in addition to the blue pad, but I’m usually having enough trouble remembering to hit that pedal thing at the right time to worry about anything else), and a couple of songs seem to go a bit crazy and mix the drum mapping up even more, but I’ve generally been doing fairly well on the same Hard level I’ve been playing in Guitar Hero 5. I’d turn to a rather better drummer for a more considered view, though.

Aside from the pad layout the basic gameplay is again pretty similar (“HIT PAD WITH STICK FOR POINTS!”), though there’s a difference in star power/overdrive activation: in Guitar Hero at any point you can hit the yellow and orange cymbals at the same time to activate star power, in Rock Band the game leaves you a space for a drum fill, following which you can hit the green pad to activate overdrive. In theory the GH method sounds better, giving the player full control of when they want to bring star power in for either a score boost or to help out for a trick section, but in practise I’ve found I’m usually a bit busy actually hitting the proper notes to take time out and kick star power in; if I try and go for it, I almost always end up missing a few notes, resetting the score multiplier and slightly defeating the object.

With the overdrive activation counterbalancing the occasionally odd pad layout, I declare… A DRAW!

I try not to inflict what could very loosely be termed my “singing” upon the world in general, but I have caterwauled along to a few songs in both games. Once again with the broadly similar gameplay, words appear on screen and you attempt to vibrate your vocals chords in such a manner as to produce a sound wave of a frequency in keeping with what the game’s expecting.

I could make a half-decent stab at quite a few World Tour tracks, but Guitar Hero 5 is either less forgiving or I’ve got worse (or the songs are harder), as even on Easy mode I’m not putting in very good performances; in Rock Band 2 on the other hand I’ve hit 100% in a couple of songs (though perhaps its Easy mode is closer to Guitar Hero’s Beginner). Rock Band 2 also has percussive sections, where the singer hits the microphone in time to the music a la tambourine or cowbell, which is quite welcome, especially in songs with lengthy instrumental sections; in Stranglehold on Guitar Hero World Tour you could sing a couple of verses then wander off, whip up a light salad, clear excessive leaves from the guttering and construct a rudimentary pot from clay while Ted Nugent noodled around on guitar. Guitar Hero sometimes counters the boredom with “freestyle” sections, where, as the name suggests, you can freestyle (hiphopopotamus style) and apparently gain points for fitting in with the general pitch and rhythm of the song, but I’m not entirely sure much of the rock oeuvre lends itself to going “shooby dooby bop bop do ba ba” at random intervals.

This would’ve been a victory for Rock Band 2, then, but it blows it with the overdrive activation. In Guitar Hero 5 you can activate star power by tapping the mic, or more usefully pressing the A button on the Wiimote at any time. In Rock Band 2, you have to wait for an appropriate moment (when you’re not supposed to be singing), and… shout. Or go “woo!” or something. I’m quite self conscious enough about singing at the best of times without needing to draw extra attention to the whole business. At least the rock-tastic nature of most of the songs means it isn’t quite as daft as in The Beatles: Rock Band (“here comes the sun, do do do do, here comes the sun, and I said… right let’s activate Beatlemania YO LONDON ARE YOU READY FOR THE SUN LET ME HEAR YOU WOO!”), but it’s also not terribly precise. I’ve taken to coughing to activate overdrive (*ahem*, sorry, don’t mind me, just overdriving here), but being able to push a button at any time is a much better idea, leading to vocals being… A DRAW!

Musical Selection
Very personal, this one, you’d need to decide for yourself. There’s some cracking songs in both games, and as per usual they’re introducing me to some interesting new stuff, none of which I’ve (really) hated. Yet. After careful consideration, I’d have to declare… A DRAW!

Downloadable Content
While not strictly speaking DLC, Rock Band allows users to export most of the songs from Rock Band 1 to play in Rock Band 2… on the 360 and PS3. Not for the Wii, unfortunately, partly no doubt because Rock Band 2 came out before the Wii had SDHC support, limiting it to 2Gb cards. Guitar Hero 5 does support SDHC, and you can download some of the World Tour and Greatest Hits content if you have those games (only around half the set list in each case, though), which just claws back enough points to stop it being utterly obliterated in this category.

In terms of actual DLC, Rock Band already had a massive head start of a back catalogue when Guitar Hero World Tour was released, and though Neversoft have been churning out three songs most weeks for Guitar Hero World Tour and now 5 the gap keeps opening with Harmonix regularly adding 10 or more Rock Band tracks, it’s really no content (especially as the crown jewels, in my opinion, of World Tour DLC, the Hendrix tracks, are the only ones that can’t be used in GH5).

The only potential fly in the ointment was for us poor old UK Wii users; the music store wasn’t available at release (fair enough, it took a couple of weeks for the Guitar Hero 5 store to be available), and we had the promise of “over 250 songs available on disc and for download by early 2010”. My suspicion was that there’d be a gradual trickle of songs over the next couple of months, but in fact the music store turned up last Tuesday with a veritable Texas Flood of hot rocking action, 170-odd songs to choose from. While that’s only around a quarter of the total library, it’s a damn good start made damnably gooder by the fact that one of those songs is Still Alive by GLaDOS and Jonathan Coulton, and damnationally goodest of all, it’s free! Naturally this renders Rock Band 2 an instant triumph and furthermore great success, so I declare the winner to be ROCK BAND 2!

Finally, the career modes. I touched on these a bit previously, very generally Guitar Hero 5 being a more linear progression through difficulty with achievement-centric challenges for each song, and Rock Band 2 being a sort of RPG-ish development of your band travelling around the world earning money and fans. Both games allow you to branch out from the on-disc songs, which is very welcome, Guitar Hero has an open challenge or two in every venue for which you can pick any song, including DLC and imported songs, and Rock Band 2 venues have a variety of gigs options including choosing your own setlist.

As well as picking your own songs Rock Band 2 offers various mystery setlists, which have all the usual advantages and drawbacks of randomness. On the plus side, if the 100-odd songs on offer lead to paralysis of indecision when it comes to deciding what to actually play, you can let the console decide for you. On the downside, the console is deciding for you, and might like to have a laugh and finish off every sodding set with SODDING RATT.

Overall, I really couldn’t pick between Rock Band 2’s money and fan accumulation and Guitar Hero’s challenges, I suspect they’ll both keep me coming back for as long as I’m interested in either. Yup, I declare… A DRAW!

Get both games, buy whatever DLC appeals, and LET THERE BE ROCK!

Story, achievement and progression

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…

Goin’ down… all the way

If you were contemplating a holiday to the Hell region I’d advise taking a nice warm jumper, as early reports reaching us suggest it may have frozen over. In unrelated news, Rock Band 2 is actually coming out in the UK for the Wii this Friday, though I’ll remain skeptical until I’m actually strumming along to Norman Greenbaum, as the not-entirely-accurate “available in April” announcement is still there…

Just to put a slight crimp on the party, though, we’re not going to have the entire back catalogue of DLC available at launch, with “over 250 songs” (out of the 700-odd) “available on disc and for download by early 2010”. Probably makes sense; I imagine people are more likely to buy a few songs each week as they become available rather than going on a massive spending spree in one weekend. It’s still going to be terribly galling, though, if it takes a while for us to get some of the top-notch DLC on the way, like the Electric Six pack featuring that favourite of flying Viking kittens, Gay Bar, ten Queen songs later in the month, and, of course, the greatest news in the history of time ever, Flight of the Conchords coming to Rock Band.


Is this the great battle of the plastic-instrument-game end times? In the red corner, Guitar Hero 5. In the blue corner, The Beatles: Rock Band. Released within two days of each other (in the UK, a couple of weeks in the US), which is the best? There’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

(There’s an idea… Note to EA and Activision: why let hip hop artists have all the fun? With all that effort spent creating a digitised Fab Four, plus Metallica, Aerosmith and assorted other Guitar Heroes, relive the glory years of Marvel vs Capcom with a Rock Band vs Guitar Hero beat ’em up! RINGO FLYING DRAGON PUNCH! SPINNING LARS JUMP KICK!)

Actually, other than the release dates, the two games aren’t really going head-to-head, there are two battles going on here: Guitar Hero 5 vs Rock Band 2, and The Beatles vs The Awesome Power of Hyperbole. Like the opening paragraph.

Starting with the more straightforward, Guitar Hero 5 is the second full-band Guitar Hero game after World Tour (counting Metallica and Greatest Hits as “expansions” rather than main releases), and with Rock Band eschewing full sequels in favour of downloadable content it goes up against last year’s Rock Band 2 (or, for European Wii owners, next year’s Rock Band 2, not that I’m going to keep harping on about that or anything). Guitar Hero 5 doesn’t do anything too radical, but generally spruces things up from World Tour: there’s a single loading screen to skip rather than having to furiously mash the green button 27 times to actually get to the game, the gig venue lists are clearer, the old favourite characters are back with unlockable outfits (despite “create a rocker” being almost as fully featured as the Champions Online character creator, the console interface is pretty clunky when working through hundreds of possible outfit options). The whole song list is open for quick play from the start, and it’s much easier to jump straight into playing, swap players and difficulties without having to backtrack through assorted menus, and, if you have the peripherals, you can have any combination of four instruments allowing for that four-drummer version of Ring of Fire you’ve always wanted to try.

As well as making things much more accessible, Guitar Hero 5 throws in something for the more achiever-centric in the form of Challenges. While playing in career mode each song has an additional challenge for either one of the instruments or the whole band, such as the guitarist whammying notes for a certain duration, the bassist up-strumming a certain number of notes, or the band maintaining a score multiplier. Challenges have Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels of success, offering a potential extra three stars over the main song performance, and they unlock extras as you go.

Song-wise it’s the most mixed bag yet, there should be something for almost everyone, but by the same token it’d be pretty unusual to find someone who loves everything. I’m finding it good so far, and enjoying being introduced to some interesting new stuff (the strength of a disc full of songs over DLC) as well as playing along to classics. There has been one sour note, though: “Bring the Noise 20XX” isn’t a patch on Public Enemy’s original or the version with Anthrax; Zakk Wylde’s riffing is fine in itself but doesn’t fit around the lyrics at all, most disappointing and puts a right crimp on my Chuck D impressions, but still. GH5 also emulates a welcome feature from Rock Band, the ability to import songs from previous games and DLC compatibility, albeit with a lower percentage of songs being transferable (only 35 songs from World Tour and 21 from Greatest Hits so far, possibly with more to come later). I haven’t been able to test this yet, though, as the European Wii music store hasn’t been available over the launch weekend. Annoyingly the only six songs of World Tour DLC that you can’t use are the Hendrix songs, the biggest chunk of my DLC library, but the Hendrix estate has always been strict on licensing conditions with those songs, and those songs only, always using the Hendrix avatar in World Tour (not present in GH5). Speaking of avatars… I’m sure you’ve heard the fun and games over Kurt Cobain being a playable character, which I can’t say bothers me nearly as much as some other people; John Lydon’s advertising butter, Iggy Pop is flogging insurance after all.

Overall, then, a solid development of the series, well worth picking up for anybody with a set of World Tour instruments unless you really can’t stand the bulk of the song list.

The Beatles: Rock Band is a slightly different kettle of fish. Or the same kettle, but with different fish in it. From the purely pressing-coloured-buttons-in-time-to-music perspective it’s fine; technically I believe the only thing it really adds to the genre is three-part vocal harmonies, but that’s not really the point. The point is it’s The Beatles, in the Beatle-iest game ever made (admittedly there isn’t really much competition there). Where the Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica games had songs from other artists and were generally structured as games, with a loose story following some of the band’s major gigs but the songs themselves arranged by difficulty, The Beatles: Rock Band includes only Beatles songs, 45 of them (with more coming as DLC), arranged chronologically. I previously linked to a New York Times article that goes into the care taken over the production of the game, with clinking-teacup ambience added to fragments of studio chat for the in-game Abbey Road sessions; glorious dreamscapes kick in when playing the later songs, transporting the band out of the studio. It’s all very lovely.

There are slight quibbles, from both a Beatles and Rock Band perspective. From the former, it’s undoubtedly a sanitised version of history with no acrimonious break-up, the band always playing together, Ringo on the drums (even if McCartney played them on the song in question). From the latter, the sanctity of the material means you play the songs as they were, no drum fills, no whammy, and no audible effect when you kick in overdrive/”Beatlemania”. Neither seems a particularly major loss to me, though.

The attention to detail is superb, but it’s generally just a slightly more specific evolution of band-centric games rather than a revolution (number nine) in the genre; for a die-hard Metallica fan the opportunity to play the motion-capped band at Tushino Airfield in Guitar Hero: Metallica is probably as appealing as a die-hard Beatles fan getting the opportunity to play Shea Stadium. A more significant difference is that from the very beginning guitar games have been pitched at hard rock/metal fans, but The Beatles: Rock Band has a different profile and target market, potentially spreading the joy of plastic instruments (Matron) further than ever before. In newspapers and the music press, TB:RB is sneaking out of the “Games” ghetto into the wider “Arts” sections, with predictable results; there’s the usual barrage, occasionally in the reviews themselves, always in online comment sections, of “learn a real instrument” from people labouring under the illusion that players labour under the illusion they’re really in The Beatles. Newsflash, folks: the (vast overwhelming majority) of plastic instrument players no more believe they’re actually playing music than somebody playing a racing game with a steering wheel and pedals believes they’re a Formula 1 driver moving around a track. Enough of that before I get cross.

Veering too far the other way and declaring the game of massive cultural importance also seems wide of the mark; it’s possible TB:RB will introduce new players to gaming who’d never thought about it before, but just as World of Warcraft’s massive subscriber numbers don’t seem to have translated into a a similar upsurge in interest in other MMOGs, and Wii Sports drove sales of the console itself but not so much interest in other Wii games, I’m not sure it’ll have a more lasting effect. Last week’s games charts saw Guitar Hero 5 at number one followed by Colin McRae: Dirt 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylym, with The Beatles: Rock Band in at number four; the hefty cost of a console plus instruments might well be putting a dampener on totally new gamers rushing to pick it up, or it may just be a slow burner.

For myself, at the risk of being branded a Partridge-esque Beatles phillistine (“I’d have to say my favourite Beatles album is… The Best of The Beatles”) my collection doesn’t stretch much past old taped copies of the Red and Blue compilations, which in a way is what the game represents too, so I’ve been really enjoying it. I’ll have to find some non-gaming Beatles fans to see their reaction to it sometime.

I’m going to tell you how it’s going to be

I have indeed got The Beatles: Rock Band (despite the lack of Wiimote waggling “bed-in” mini game), and been Fab-ing it right up; Guitar Hero 5 then turned up last night in what’s widely being referred to as “The Point That Even I’ve Hit Plastic Instrument Game Saturation” (“Though I’ll Still Get Rock Band 2 For The DLC” (“If They Ever Release It For The Wii In The UK” (“Which Is Looking Increasingly Unlikely”))).  I had a quick blast through the first venue, which includes the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (mostly playing the piano part on guitar, quite tricky for a first tier song).

Somehow, overnight, my subconscious decided the two games would make the perfect mash-up when combined with an 80s video tape commercial, and this morning I woke up from an animated skeleton singing the Scotch advert song, itself of course based on the heavy Bo Diddley beat Stones version of Not Fade Away, to the tune of Taxman, with the Beatles doing harmonies:

I’m going to tell you how it will be
With Scotch’s lifetime guarantee
Tape want you want both night and day
And re-record not fade away, re-record not fade away, re-record not fade away…

I tried to work out what it might mean, but Freud’s Traumdeutung is strangely quiet on the subject…

Wii Can Work It Out.

So Zoso, being the fake plastic rock junky that he is, has recently purchased the Wii version of The Beatles: Rock Band. Actually, he has progressed a large part of the way through the game, and so in a KiaSA exclusive we can now confirm that you don’t, in fact, get to a point in the game where you break up with the rest of the band and then spend the rest of your days waggling your Wiimote in bed with Yoko Ono.

So I guess he won that bet.

The Noble Axe

A couple more bits of Guitar Heroism/Rock Banditude: firstly Melmoth pointed me towards Plastic Axe, a most splendid looking blog for all things polymer-chain guitar related that also hosts “The Vault”, an ambitious project to track all the songs available to virtually rock out to across the various Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Rock Revolution games.

Then I was catching up on Twitter, and noticed Simon Mayo had posted: “Anyone any good at Guitar Hero? Will be playing on air later. But will have the virtuoso skills of @ruskin147 to rely on.” Tuning in to his show, it possibly had the best line-up of subjects ever: Andrew Roberts talking about The Storm of War, a new World War II history that sounds most interesting, then Ross Noble and Chris Addison talking about various tours and DVDs, and finally a segment on Guitar Hero with editor of Metal Hammer Magazine Alexander Milas, International Music & Licensing Manager for Activision Blizzard Sergio Pimental and BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones.

Ross Noble, it turns out, is an Expert level Guitar Hero player, or at least was until he had to go cold turkey for fear of it taking over his life, so there’s definitely a constituency of plastic-guitar wielding comedians (Noble and Richard Herring for starters). The show should be available for a week on the “Listen Again” link (Wednesday 26th August), or there’s a half hour podcast of the Ross Noble/Chris Addison segment that’s really worth a listen not only for Guitar Hero, but also the sure-fire smash hit replacement for Big Brother “Weed or Not Weed”.