Crispy Gamer

Rock Band (Xbox 360)

Rock Band is being called the "ultimate party game." I would take it one step further -- the game is a party in a box. It's the ultimate concession to your non-gaming friends and the apotheosis of social play. It lets adults live out the equivalent of their superhero fantasies and will invariably further Guitar Hero's good work of introducing the kids to "real music." In the future, we may just reminisce about how Rock Band and games like it radically changed the ways that music is sold, marketed, appreciated and experienced. But in the nearer term, we'll likely be soothing our wallets; all these big ideas aren't coming cheap, at $170 dollars for the kit itself plus a periodic sprinkling of bucks as the library of downloadable tracks continues to grow. But it would be churlish to put a price on a musical revolution, wouldn't it?

Before the good vibrations reach roller-coaster velocity, however, one thing bears mention: Rock Band's had something of a rough debut. Simply put, there's a decent chance you'll pull some broken toys out of the large, expensive box. EA appears to be adequately responding with replacement hardware for the afflicted, but it's a downer nonetheless.

In any case, Rock Band is much more than the next logical step from Guitar Hero, Harmonix's (as of yet) most enduring contribution to the annals of interactive rock. Indeed, when the most imaginative of pretend-rockers got their hands on their first plastic guitar controllers, a game like Rock Band was at best a distant, whimsical fantasy. But lo and behold, here we are; by invoking the powers of MTV and Electronic Arts, Harmonix has done the unthinkable: They've skipped the Drum Hero stop altogether, collared SingStar on the way, and spawned by crossbreeding the highest expression of your rock 'n roll fantasies.

Included in the box are a Fender Stratocaster guitar controller (which you'll use for both guitar and bass parts), a drum kit with four plastic heads and a kick pedal for the imaginary bass drum, and a USB microphone. The guitar connects to your Xbox 360 via USB, and the package comes with a hub so that everything can fit into place.

If you've played Guitar Hero, then you'll be in familiar territory here. The guitar and bass parts of songs have notes scrolling down a vertical chart that's divided into sections that correspond with each colored fret button on the Strat controller. As notes reach the bottom of the chart, you have to hit the strum bar and hold down the corresponding fret buttons to play them. If you hit the successions of special, glowing notes, your Overdrive meter will fill, and once it's half full, you can tilt your guitar upwards to increase the number of points you get for hitting each note.

Drums work the same way. Each note corresponds to one of the kit's heads, which, depending on the song, could serve as a snare, tom, hi-hat or cymbal, with horizontal orange lines in the chart representing bass drum kicks. Overdrive elements are more or less automatic in the drum parts. You hit the glowing notes to build the meter up, and activate it by nailing sectioned-off drum fills scattered throughout the charts. Would-be drummers will need a decent measure of rhythm and coordination if they want to tackle the higher difficulties, however, as the level of abstraction here is notably lower than in the guitar parts. To paraphrase Harmonix, you may as well pick up a real drum set if you're killing the tracks on expert difficulty. In contrast, seasoned guitar heroes will likely find the guitar and bass parts pretty easy; for everyone else, they'll curve just right.

The vocal sections play lot like Karaoke Revolution or SingStar. The lyrics will scroll across a horizontal portion of the screen, with lines representing the pitch of each phrase. Each song's actual vocal track will play in the background, though you can adjust their levels in the options. You activate Overdrive by improvising whenever a glowing yellow field scrolls across the vocal chart -- you can bellow, hoot, howl or simply blow into the microphone to trigger it. There are also little rhythm sections sequenced into some of the songs, which simulate the vocalist's percussive contributions. You can simply tap the mic against your hand to play these, but if you have a tambourine or set of timbales, all the better.

While you could embark on a Solo Tour for every instrument except bass, Rock Band was built expressly for the Band World Tour mode, which allows up to four players (if you have a second guitar controller for bass, of course) to create rocker personas and attempt to take the world by storm. It's ostensibly your typical career mode, but it's made all the more engrossing given the added social dynamic. You start out in your band's home city and play a series of gigs that can range from a single song to an extended marathon of jams tied together by genre, theme, region or what have you. The more gigs you play, the more fans you get, which further opens up the world at your disposal. Soon enough, you'll be ditching the funky-smelling van for a real-deal tour bus. You'll know you've made it once you've earned a private jet.

Just like in the real thing, expect some bickering between your virtual bandmates; while you can cut someone some slack if you're not too hot on a single track, expect tempers to fly when you feel like indulging your inner guitar deity in the presence of a bandmate who isn't keen on stomaching a five-song set of classic rock standards. You might want to tread carefully, though: Since you can't do the Band World Tour online, you might have a difficult time replacing alienated band members. Apart from the hardware problems, as a matter of fact, this is the most disappointing aspect of the game. Hopefully, Harmonix will see fit to patch this in, and thereby unite the world through rock. To be fair, you can jam on any song with a full band via the Internet, as well as engage in a couple of competitive multiplayer modes. You just can't go all the way, which is a definite downer.

So, about those broken instruments... The most common complaints seem to be about the guitars -- particularly, problems with the strum bars registering more than one note input per strum, essentially rendering the guitar parts of songs unplayable. Also common are Overdrive issues: Afflicted instruments are unable to activate this crucial gameplay feature, no matter which direction they're tilted. There are also lots of reports of cracked bass drum pedals, and USB mics with faulty sound detection.

Both of the guitars I used in my review Rock Band (which, in the interest of full disclosure, was provided to me by EA) have gone out -- one has the double-strum problem, and the other won't register Overdrive. The latter seems to have been defective out of the box, as I only started using it after the first guitar went out on me. The first guitar was used primarily on the solo tour mode on medium difficulty, though I did mess around with downloaded songs on it quite a bit. All told, I must have played about 100 songs on it before it went out. Judging from the complaints on the official boards, however, the problems don't discriminate based on platform; people are reporting issues with both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 versions of the hardware. I guess I just got lucky (or unlucky, as it were).

EA is honoring the 60-day warranty on the hardware and is providing a couple of solutions for players with busted peripherals. You can either file a complaint and have them mail you a box in which to send back your guitar or allow them to a place $100 hold on your credit card and have them ship you a replacement outright. They'll remove the hold once they receive your busted guitar. From the looks of it, though, you're out of luck if your instrument fails after the 60 days.

Will these problems dim Rock Band's star in the long term? I doubt it. Rock Band seems poised to become a genuine cultural phenomenon. The 60-odd-strong track list -- which runs the temporal gamut, and is sure to feature at least a couple of songs that appeal to the most persnickety of hipsters and old fogies -- just keeps growing with downloadable content. At the time this review is being written, several have been released, notably (to me, anyway), a couple of threesomes priced at $5.50 featuring some great tracks by The Police and Black Sabbath.

So why the middling rating? I simply can't, in good conscience, recommend Rock Band without reservation given the hardware problems. The package isn't cheap, and neither is it going anywhere. If you're OK with the possibility of your instruments giving out, however, then by all means -- you'll have a great time -- just knock on wood that you don't get a faulty set. Without a doubt, though, the more prudent course of action would be to wait until all the manufacturing kinks are ironed out, because there isn't a force known to man more destructive than a rock star fantasy that goes unfulfilled.

This review is based on a retail copy provided by Electronic Arts.