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.


Daniel Purvis said...

My wish? That EA would simple RELEASE ROCK BAND IN MY COUNTRY.

And, EA have yet to even put forward a valid excuse as to why the title doesn't even feature on release lists.

In this regard, Guitar Hero 4 is already looking like a dead-set winner, providing Activision see Australia worthy enough to receive the blessing of it's games.

PS. I have Aerosmith for review but I take it as a blessing that my guitar-troller is actually busted for some unspecified reason (it simply won't sink with the Xbox 360). I'm considering pulling a Maxim and reviewing the game without ever having played it.

"It's Guitar Hero, with mostly Aerosmith songs. Run DMC saves the day with their collaboration on Walk This Way, otherwise, see my review of Rock the 80s for comparison, of course, Aerosmith features less pink and more spandex, which is just as bad."

Watcha think?

Mitch Krpata said...

I don't even have a reaction to learning that you can't get Rock Band in Australia. That's obscene.

I think that sounds like a great review, similar to when I attempted to review Lego Indiana Jones without playing it (sadly, they just had another person review it instead).

Anonymous said...

Interesting commentaries. I never really caught the Guitar Hero bug but have maintained a steady interest until Rock Band came along and greatly interested me with its diverse set of music.

While the latest Guitar Hero is looking to out innovate the competition (which is fantastic) I think that there are still limitations with the "rock music" label that may obstruct it from being top of the music genre.

Much like Daniel Purvis points out; considering that Rock Band is yet to hit the full PAL market (with an overpriced Xbox 360 set only available in Europe), I am imterested to see if Activision can swoop in on this opportunity.

Also it begs to be seen how Rock Band's full PAL release will affect the release of Rock Band 2. By the time the full release of Rock Band hits Australian shores, Rock Band 2 will shortly become available stateside.

Do we demand compensation? Hell yes we do!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi mitch!

thanks for giving my blog a shout-out in your writeup. I believe that harmonix will introduce several sane and incremental changes in the new Rock Band, and I have a general level of confidence that they mean to follow through with the "platform" concept for the game, finding ways to expand the content of the game continually beyond adding discs. On the other hand, I think that the in-game content creator being added to the new GH game may be a game-changer. Depending on what its users manage to eke out of the system and how Activision manages the sharing, you could see a potentially limitless free stream of new content being created in the future.

I think it'll be a moot point for people who already own a set of instruments that commit them to one game over the other, but I see this as a really important development

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