Monday, September 22, 2008

Rock Band 2 Thoughts

So, Rock Band 2 came out. When I really stop and look at what this game is and isn't, I find that it's a classic tale of "two steps forward, one step backward". There are some new things in this year's version of Rock Band that are exciting and enjoyable, while at the same time there are some things that are either bad additions or bad subtractions. I would say it all evens out to some degree, but is that enough to consider the game a solid sequel?

To me, the two greatest achievements for Rock Band 2 are:
1) DLC and Rock Band 1 songs are transferrable.

This is almost unheard of in terms of how much content Harmonix allowed us to transfer over. Add that to the fact that the process is seamless in its transition. Yes, 3 songs were lost, but for a very small price you will never need your Rock Band disc again. Hats off for this.

2) Band World Tour is online and solo.

Hey, now I can play with friends online and have some sense of purpose! This opens the door to a lot of good things, such as, playing the Endless Setlist with friends online, maintaining full band scores via Rock Central and making custom playlists. It was a feature sorely missing in Rock Band, and it's nice to see that they addressed this. Being able to do this all solo is also a nice touch. Throw in the ability to play your tours online and offline and it all works pretty nicely.

Challenge mode adds replay value, but isn't without its problems. For one, you don't have to do the challenges on any specific difficulty level. This totally cheapens clearing through some of the more difficult instruments. Also, after doing a few of these, I actually think dealing with the pre-determined setlists just to unlock more of them is more monotonous than the 5 song per tier format of before. The fact that it's an attempt at something different is applaudable, as are the custom challenges that appear based on the songs you own. Challenge mode certainly doesn't take anything away from the game, but I'm not convinced it adds all that much either.

The Drum Trainer is a nice addition but feels more like an entertainment section than a training tool. I've had a blast trying to beat my old BPM scores on certain beats and fills. Some of the fills are very fun to play and the trainer can be addicting. Still, I expected a little more in terms of actual 'training'. Since this is their first attempt of it, you have to take it with a grain of salt, but what would be great is a trainer that actually analyzes what you're doing wrong and gives you some options on beats or fills to correct the problem. I'm still very glad that they put this in the game though.

Now to my list of complaints.
1) No Vocal practice mode.
You knew this was coming. I won't elaborate.

2) Vocal difficulty and talkies in general.
Again, this was coming. Everything seems to have gotten a difficulty bump up except for Vocals which have been considerably stripped down. Harmonix wanted to make Vocals more accessible, and they have, but the entire disc was FC'd in 24 hours. Pitch detection is just too friendly now, forgiving huge mistakes and still awarding you full points for a phrase. Talkies are mostly fixed, which is great...and bad. The talkies that work are literally so easy that you can say anything and get credit for them. Really this is just pushing the needle to the other extremity and shows very little effort on their part. This extreme is better than the other, but because the difficulty was already not enough, this doesn't help a whole lot. Speaking of little effort, One Way or Another is broken. Nice job on the Quality Control.

3) Awkward subtractions.
One is that now drum fills can't be heard by anyone other than the drummer. This sudden drop in the drum beat every time a fill comes up is just obnoxious. It wasn't broken the first time around and needed no attention. Another is that if a band member leaves, or you wish to add another, you have to quit the session and make a new one. This is a rather large step back.

4) Bad additions.
The music video backgrounds are horrendous. I'll say it once more for good measure, horrendous. The idea is great, but in a game that is so visually dependant, this seizure-enducing craziness is just awful. Hyperspeed, which I used to love in GH2 and GH3 has one mode and it's way too fast. There were times that I knew the charts and still couldn't keep up with the 4 notes on the screen that I could see. The new score tracking system is also puzzling. The quickplay list shows your top score for each song, but doesn't take into account what instrument it was on and how many people were playing. So, unless you want to go to each score individually on Rock Central and keep track of them that way, use ScoreHero and save yourself the frustration. Also, in order to keep your character's career score right, you must play Band Quickplay by yourself. Otherwise your character will only maintain scores through WT and Challenges.

5) Missing features.
Jukebox Mode? Choose a venue? The latter is especially important given the music videos that I spoke of above. Jukebox Mode was something that a lot of people looked forward to. I really liked the idea of being able to make a setlist and just have the game play them while I do work. Now, not.

The best thing going for Rock Band 2 is that it's still Rock Band and the basic formula hasn't changed much. There are some good and bad things about this year's game, but in the end the game is still Rock Band, and that's not a bad thing. The game itself is a 84-song pack for $60, which by DLC cost-standards is a bargain. Still, the game's shortcomings make it feel just that; a large DLC pack.

How I score it:
Gameplay: 7/10 - The core mechanic is still there, but noticable issues detract from the overall experience. A sequel should never take things away from an original, and it happened more than once here.
Graphics: 9/10 - The game looks essentially the same, which is fine. The game runs smoothly with no problems. The music video backgrounds are this side of terrible though.
Audio: 9.5/10 - Songs and instruments sound great for the most part and since this is a sound-driven game, Harmonix didn't disappoint.
Overall: 8.5/10.

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