Monday, July 07, 2008
Rock Band 2: Why now?
Give me a choice between Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and I'll take the former every time. This despite the countless hours of entertainment the first two GH games gave me. That was the past. Now? Activision has ruined Guitar Hero. I don't know how to put it more plainly than that.
(Bill Harris does know how to put it more plainly, laying out in exquisite detail the destruction of the Guitar Hero brand.)
I'll grant that when Harmonix was at the GH reins, they still pinched off a stinker, but that one had "contractual obligation album" written all over it. Besides, by that point, they were hard at work on a much better game: Rock Band.
In the meantime, Activision had dished off Guitar Hero development to Neversoft, a company that knew a little something about running quality brands into the ground. (But let's be fair to Neversoft: The first several THPS games, which they created, were freakin' fantastic.)
This resulted in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, a game which was pleasant enough in its own right, but lacked the secret sauce that made its predecessors so great. Ultimately, it seemed that its developers weren't trying so much to replicate the feeling of playing these songs, but were trying to shoehorn them into a traditional skill-based gaming style, in which harder equaled better.
Most troubling was what GHIII seemed to portend. Instead of focusing on the music, the developers added features like the gimmicky boss battles, which no one enjoyed. Inevitably, the sideshow became the main attraction, and we were treated to Guitar Hero: Aerosmith Edition, which I have not played, and the full-on belly-flop of Guitar Hero: On Tour, which I have.
In the meantime, Rock Band came out and just pushed music. Each week, new tracks were available for download -- not costumes, not backgrounds, just songs. Some songs appeared in both games. In each case, the song was harder to play in Guitar Hero, and more fun to play in Rock Band.
Insult Swordfighting reader Iroqouis Pliskin actually asked the folks at Harmonix. It's not just how Harmonix draws up the note charts, although that's a big part of it. Song choice is also crucial. Their emphasis is less on pushing new, hot tracks. and instead "reflects a curatorial esteem for musicianship," in Pliskin's words. (Not that this excuses that bland new Motley Crue song.)
Strangely, with Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero 4 poised to do battle this fall, it's Guitar Hero that seems more innovative, and not because they're stealing Rock Band's idea (except they're putting the cymbals above the drum pads, so it's, like, totally original). No, they're including a create-a-song feature, the first really good idea the series has had since the original, and the logical next step. I don't know how well it will work, but I know I want to try it.
By contrast, Rock Band 2 will have one feature it really should have had the first time around, and everything else new has only been hinted at. Maybe you'll be able to import tracks from your iPod. Everything else seems evolutionary. Improved peripherals are fine, online World Tour is helpful, and other than that we haven't heard much. (In fact, after paging through Google Reader, I'm not even sure if I've hallucinated the online World Tour functionality.)
My question: Does any of this stuff warrant a sequel? Particularly a full-priced sequel, to be released less than a year after the original? I'm not sure I follow the logic. Rock Band's DLC is a financial juggernaut. People are quite happy to keep forking over a few bucks for new songs. Much of what Harmonix seems to be promising for the sequel could probably be implemented on the software side via downloadable updates. Improved peripherals are welcome, but they hardly seem to justify the sequel treatment as would new instruments (I'm dying for some keyboards over here).
I'm afraid Harmonix might be applying an Activision-like squeeze to their property -- releasing a new game not because the world is ready for one, but because it's another calendar year and that's just what you do, dammit. Rock Band wasn't cheap, at about $170 for the game and all its controllers. Will the sequel also cost that much? What does that say to people who bought the game last year, expecting it to serve as a platform for years to come? Yes, I'm aware that both games will likely support future DLC. But by definition, Rock Band 2 will have to have exclusive new features, no?
Harmonix has earned the benefit of the doubt several times over. It's possible, even likely, that there are some terrific surprises in store. Still, one thing I never felt when the original Rock Band was announced was even a semblance of doubt. Rock Band 2 seems like too little, too soon.