Thoughts on The Beatles: Rock Band

By Nick Breckon, Sep 08, 2009 6:31pm PDT I've never been what you'd call a "Beatles Fan." My parents didn't play the White Album on summer trips. I never had a friend that pushed Sgt. Pepper's into my hands. I didn't own a bird named Ringo, and I never had a snake named Yoko. I've gone through life oblivious of the intricacies of the thing, nodding my head knowingly as people spoke reverently of the group. "Oh yes, The Beatles. That was a good one."
So it was odd to find myself anticipating The Beatles: Rock Band with the kind of frothy fervor I'd normally reserve for a space strategy game. The one aspect of the music genre that continues to excite me is the prospect of discovering new bands by way of my need to justify the expense of my plastic instruments. Purchasing $10 albums seems excessive, but put that same music in a $60 game, and now I have a great excuse to make use of my $300 drums. Video games.

In that respect, it's a disservice to say that only Beatles fans should investigate The Beatles: Rock Band. As someone that missed out on Beatlemania, the game not only works as a collection of Beatles Rock Band songs, but also as a brief education in the chronology and evolution of the band's music. It's also really fun.

Harmonix's decision to throw away the standard rhythm game progression in favor of a historical "story" mode was a brilliant move. Each block of four to seven songs is broken up into specific eras, all set in a beautifully crafted location, beit historical venue or abstract dreamscape. For instance, story mode kicks off with "Twist and Shout" in Liverpool's cozy Cavern Club, and ends in Abbey Road Studios with "The End." The presentation couldn't possibly be more fitting, and for once tangibly adds to the Rock Band experience.

There's a certain kind of charisma that this game exudes. It's not just a track pack, or a cheap one-off promotion. It's a full-throated celebration of a great band, but it's done in a very honest, light-handed fashion. The tone of Harmonix's game matches the spirit of the music so well that it's as if, in a drug-induced moment of mid-60s precognition, The Beatles themselves collectively designed it from scratch, scrawling out a design document on napkins between jam sessions.

While there are no in-depth documentaries or extensive special features to be found, bits and pieces of Beatles history are littered throughout. Short, sharp cutscenes introduce each tier of songs. Archived inter-band chatter plays before and after each track. Unlockable historical photographs serve as the main incentive to earn higher star scores, and each has a fairly lengthy trivia blurb accompanying it. On the gameplay side of things, The Beatles does suffer a bit for its rigid recreation of the original songs. There are no drum fills, and hitting a pad before a song starts results in silence. The guitar's whammy bar has no effect on pitch, and the rock-out endings from Rock Band 2 are understandably absent. In that sense, some of the immersive touches from previous Rock Band editions are missing.

But all of that is made mostly irrelevant by the game's unique elements, the vocal harmonies being the most important addition. Up to three people can sing at once, but even when playing alone, the harmonies prove to be a fantastic iteration on the Rock Band formula. It's a real challenge to break free from the melody and sing the backup notes, but when you manage blend into the group, it can seem far more immersive than the standard melodious mimicry. The feeling is akin to being a part of an actual band, rather than singing along to a song on the radio.

The drum charts are also rather satisfying, particularly on expert mode, a difficulty level that may be more approachable than ever to those that strove to hit the mark in previous games. Ringo's beats aren't the most complicated ditties, but there are enough mid-song variations to keep things fresh and interesting, and the notes feel appropriately placed. Due to the nature of the music, lead guitar can be a simple bore on some tracks, but McCartney's bass parts often make for some challenging clacking.

The disc's lineup of 45 songs is a solid one, and while I was left wanting more, I'll be gladly paying for it. The rest of Abbey Road hits on October 20 for $17, with Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul coming in November and December, respectively. Though this will end up being a pricey compilation, the quality of the presentation--and, frankly, the music--is worth paying a premium to attain. And I didn't know my Help! from my Helter Skelter a month ago.

Beatles fans will buy this game regardless, but anyone on the fence, anyone that isn't sure whether they've listened to enough Beatles to justify a buy--especially those that already have access to drums or microphones--should think twice before passing. For someone like me, The Beatles: Rock Band offers a fun, convenient primer on Beatlemania; it's the Cliff Notes version of The Beatles. If you've ever happily sung along to the first few bars of A Hard Day's Night, but still don't know the tune to Paperback Writer, consider it well worth a purchase.

The Beatles: Rock Band hits the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii on 9/9/09.

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