Rock Band Preview

"Guitar Hero is basically one feature within Rock Band," an Electronic Arts rep told me, with more than a little confidence, at a recent press event. Them's fighting words--and this fall, gamers will decide the outcome of the fight. The next Guitar Hero game, now developed by Tony Hawk creator Neversoft, will go head to head at retail with Rock Band, the ambitious four-player cooperative rhythm game from original Guitar Hero developer Harmonix Music Systems.

Of course, Harmonix is more than Guitar Hero. Over more than a decade, the company has helped cement the vertical scroll gameplay mechanic common in the music genre. Its Sony-published PS2 games Frequency and Amplitude were critical hits, and it produced the Karaoke Revolution games for Konami. All of that considerable experience is being rolled up into Rock Band, which allows players to recreate a group consisting of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.

I had the opportunity to play through a few songs, accompanied by fellow journalists as part of a full virtual band, sampling tracks such as Nirvana's "In Bloom," David Bowie's "Suffragette City," and The Who's epic "Won't Get Fooled Again." It is immediately apparent that, with Rock Band's zoomed-out focus on the band as a whole, Harmonix is free to draw from a broader range of rock music than has been seen in Guitar Hero, which lends itself mainly to tracks that heavily showcase the guitar. The studio has also clearly made use of its connections at new owner MTV Games, securing original master recordings for many of the tracks rather than cover versions akin to most of the music in past Guitar Hero games.

Much of the time when playing with four people, there is no static backing track at all--the music is generated entirely by the actions of the human players. This in itself adds a measure of tangible excitement to the game. In other cases, there are times when all four players drop out to just a prerecorded track, such as the extended synthesized buildup in the middle of "Won't Get Fooled Again," during which players must wait it out until their return. When the full band kicks back in, introduced by Keith Moon's thundering drum fills as drawn from The Who's original recording, it is a particularly satisfying moment.

Guitar and bass play basically identically to their Guitar Hero predecessors. Both use the game's Fender-licensed guitar peripheral, styled after the iconic Stratocaster axe. Workmanship has taken a marked step up from past games--at a distance, the attractive replica might be mistaken for a Strat, albeit one reduced in size. Fret colors are now displayed only on the edges of buttons, allowing the front of the fretboard to retain a more realistic apperance.

New to the instrument is a set of five fret buttons higher up on the neck. They control the same notes as the standard set of five, but are only used during solo passages and do not require strumming to activate. Also new is a reproduction of the Strat's five-way pickup selector. A bit of creative license was taken with its function, repurposing it as a real-time guitar effect selector, allowing players to switch between effects such as distortion and chorus.

The introduction of drums marks one of the most significant additions to Rock Band from the Guitar Hero games. The largest of the game's peripherals, the drum controller consists of four horizontally-situated pads hit with real drumsticks and a foot pedal corresponding to the bass drum. Onscreen, the four pads map to four columns which work just like frets, while the bass pedal is signified by a green bar spanning the width of the "fretboard."

Unlike the heavily abstracted guitar and bass peripherals, the drum peripheral is actually capable of imparting to players the fundamentals of the real-life instrument it mimicks. Though there are some unrealistic elements--pads frequently double up as multiple context-sensitive drum sounds, and the order of the drums is modified to erase the need for the "crossed arm" position used in real drumming--once you have moved up to hard or expert level on drums, you are using the basic skills that real drummers employ: understanding of rhythm and syncopation, independence of limbs, and internalization of a drum kit's different elements.

As a musician, playing drums in Rock Band feels far closer to the real thing than playing guitar or bass in either Guitar Hero or Rock Band ever has. I was able to jump straight into hard mode with only an initial moment of orientation--if anything, the most difficult aspect was keeping myself from giving in to instinct and treading off the beaten path displayed on the screen. As if anticipating that kind of situation, Harmonix elected to keep complex drum fills unnotated, providing brief windows for players to thrash around on the kit before returning to the main groove.

Harmonix is building on its Karaoke Revolution gameplay by adding phoneme detection to the vocal aspect, meaning that singers will have to hit both lyrics and note pitches to score well. Melody is conveyed using a similar system to that of Karaoke Revolution or SCE London Studio's Singstar, with a scrolling horizontal line at the top of the screen that raises and lowers relative to pitch.

With four players cooperating, a player or two may very well fail out during the song. Rather than end the track or excluding that instrument for the remainder, failed players reenter the song as soon as a bandmate builds up his or her combo meter and deploys Rock Band's equivalent of Guitar Hero's point-multiplying star power.

Even with only a few songs announced, Rock Band's track list is shaping up to be impressive. Original master tracks already confirmed include Weezer's "Say it Ain't So," Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," The Hives' "Main Offender," and the aforementioned songs from The Who, David Bowie, and Nirvana. Cover songs include Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" and Mountain's "Mississippi Queen." Recently released screenshots of the game also suggest the inclusion of The Ramones' "Rockaway Beach."

Rock Band will clearly be a formidable multiplayer experience when it ships for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later this year complete with online play. Harmonix has already spoken on a Wii version, and has even hinted as a Nintendo DS game, though EA has not yet officially announced either. With proven guitar-based gameplay and the already impresive new drum and vocal integration, Harmonix is sitting pretty to be an intimidating opponent to the next iteration of its former series.