digital_hackery (2008-02)

Debut Hit

Digital hackery

Rock Band wins the rock â‘nâ’ roll rhythm game war

by Dave Prince

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. It has been five weeks since my last review of a music-based custom-controller-enhanced rhythm game, and I made the grave error of betting on the wrong horse.

Not that Guitar Hero 3 is a bad game, mind you. Neversoft, in retrospect, simply lacked a certain perspectiveâ"the same perspective I lacked back when I claimed that GH3 was the best thing since girls. Harmonix, original developer of the Guitar Hero series, knows the genre inside and out, and, perhaps more importantly, they knew what it would take to kill off their own creation.

And how did they do that? Itâ’s simple, really. All they had to do was spend years setting up the battlefield according to their own rules, hide a few aces up a few sleeves, up the ante without telling anyone, â“kindlyâ” let the opponent move first, and then bring to bear a user experience that dwarfs the competition like the Sunsphere dwarfs that cheap plastic disco ball I have hanging from my rearview mirror. Neversoft certainly didnâ’t bring a knife to a gunfight, but Harmonixâ’s counterattack ranks somewhere in the â“tactical nuclear strikeâ” range.

Rock Band, to grossly oversimplify, is vast in ways that usually are reserved for games that target that guy from South Park who hacked World of Warcraft. From the fully functional character-creation system onward, the gameâ’s simple premise gives way to a depth that draws you in and leaves you with a strange feeling of kinship toward fantasy-football fanatics and those people who spend hours wondering what they should wear to Karaoke Night.

Speaking of karaoke, Rock Bandâ’s cruxâ"the one simple principle to which everything else in the game gravitatesâ"is that people like to make fools of themselves in groups. The game relies upon its multiplayer experience, even going so far as to have the bulk of the game-play be multiplayer-only (unless youâ’re one of those freaks of nature who can sing and play an instrument at the same time). Rock Bandâ’s crowning achievement is its Band World Tour mode, in which two to four players crowd into someoneâ’s living room, create persistent musicians, argue over band names, play a few practice rounds, then embark on a near-endless quest for those quintessential rock staples: fans, wheels, endorsements, and money. Iâ’ll leave the objective judgments on whether this mode is an accurate translation of the tour experience to professional musicians. But after the third time I caught myself yelling at my friendsâ"not because we were doing anything so simple as losing as much as because I was carrying the band and they were leeching off my successâ"I realized just how engrossing Rock Band can be.

(By creating World Tour modeâ"an addition to the genre unparalleled in extending game-playâ"Rock Band also serves the unintended purpose of measuring the character of its players. Bad friends, no matter how much they dislike you, will still come to your house and play your fancy new game. They might even call you at all hours of the night to see if you want to play. Good friends, however, will realize that you just spent $170 on molded plastic and a DVD and will actually bring their own food.)

Donâ’t believe what you read, then (unless youâ’re reading me or, in some cases, my cohorts): Rock Band is no simple exercise in hand-eye coordination and rock-music memorization any more than playing the drums is about synchronized stick-waving. Rock Band is about a more socially-acceptable form of what generations of Poindexters sitting by themselves in the back of high school cafeterias with Dungeons & Dragons books or Magic: the Gathering cards or Dance Dance Revolution whatevers have known about for years: near-total fantasy immersion. Just because your magic guy or girl from Pretend Land happens to be a Level 12 Jon Bon Jovi doesnâ’t make you exempt. Between your Rock Bands, your text-messaging mp3-playing cell phones, and your tech-supported computer-driven e-mail-centric MySpace-surfing-when-the-boss-isnâ’t-looking workplaces, youâ’re all nerds now in one way or another, and weâ"uh, they, YOU SHUT UP I SAID THEYâ"have assumed control.


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