Wednesday, September 09, 2009

It's not called "Rock Band: The Beatles" for a reason

My review of The Beatles: Rock Band is up now at This is probably Harmonix's strongest work in terms of presentation, and I understand that the music of the Beatles is highly regarded in some circles.

Still, it seems like there's no way to talk in a measured way about this game, or the band, without coming off like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl. When I say on Twitter that I'm not a huge fan of the Beatles, I mean exactly that. I'm not taking a veiled dig. I have a couple of their CDs. I find many of their songs to be terrific. And yet I don't make an emotional connection with almost anything they've done, not like I do with my very favorite bands. Therefore I say I like the Beatles. But I am not totally sold on a music game that features only them.

Maybe I buried the lede, too, because the real issue I see is that Rock Band has been the catalyst for introducing people to new bands, and new ways to experience music. This game is more about elevating the Beatles over the player. That's no small distinction. For example, I've developed a habit of delivering a drum solo at the beginning of every Rock Band track -- just a little wailing away while the song cues up. It's a way of making the songs mine. You can't do that in The Beatles. Hit a drum pad before the song starts, and nothing happens, because that sound isn't on the original recording. There goes your live performance feel. (I should say that they did a great job with the audio of shrieking teenaged girls, though.)

More important, it's the game's way of making sure that you don't dare mess with perfection! I'm not a huge fan of that attitude. Past -- and, technically, current -- Rock Band games are about engaging with the music on an equal level. This game, though, is a ball-washing of the highest order. Maybe the Beatles are more deserving of such treatment than any other band, but I don't think any band deserves that treatment. Not now that I've seen the alternatives.

There I go, sounding like I didn't like the game. I liked it a lot! I like the Beatles! I had a lot of fun with this game, and I look forward to playing it more in the future. I am just suspicious of claims of divine authority.


Garrett Martin said...

All points are valid and good. If people have gotten overheated it's because the reactions to this game at either end have been so extreme.

I never considered the lack of personalization in B:RB, if only because I've never found it to be an important component to Rock Band. It's not really something the series does well, at least not musically. Drumming is a little open-ended, but everything else is locked down tight to the master tracks.

Mitch Krpata said...

And to be fair, it's not like anybody's slagged the review or anything. It's more a sense that I have that by not genuflecting to the Beatles, I'm insulting them.

I guess another question of the personalization would be: wouldn't people want to create their own avatar to play with the Beatles? (Or, again, import their RB or RB2 avatars.) Why isn't that an option? These games have been about wish fulfillment in the past. In general, customizable avatars aren't all that important to me, so I don't want to go too far with it, but Chris Dahlen hit on the same thing in his much more laudatory review for P4K: "Sure, it's a cliché that most videogames make you save the world, but at least in those games, you know you're needed. I've never felt less important in a game than this one."

Garrett Martin said...

Yeah, I usually don't care about avatars, either. When I do make one it rarely looks like myself. But wouldn't it be weird to see three of the Beatles playing along with some random guy, especially if he was wearing a skeleton costume and playing a goat guitar? I'd think being a Beatle fulfills more wishes than playing with a Beatle. Denny Laine played with McCartney for years; who wants to be that guy?

Mitch Krpata said...

Right, I'm not necessarily suggesting they go the purely silly Guitar Hero route. But there's got to a middle ground.

How great would it be if Pete Best were an unlockable character.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I'm not a huge Beatles fan. I currently own none of their CDs and the only one I've ever owned and would consider owning again is Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That said I am still excited about Beatles Rock Band simply because it is music I know and like.

While Rock Band 2 definitely has other music I care for, from the likes of Rush, The Who, and Pearl Jam, I am not a fan of most commercial rock or heavy metal.

And Rock Band and Guitar Hero both tend to focus on either commercial rock (Bon Jovi!) or heavy metal (Metallica!), and what interesting indie or alternative music they offer is hardly worth playing over and over again for me.

So the Beatles is something familiar and that makes me happy.

Until we get the bands I really love; Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Yes, and others; this will have to do.

Gary A. Lucero said...

And as far as user created avatars are concerned, I'm personally glad to NOT have to worry about it this time. The game will be more of a pick up and play experience, and will focus on the music more than customizing it.

I wouldn't want every RB game to be this way, but if they ever created a Neil Young Rock Band, for example, I'd want to see all the band configurations he's had and I would want to be able to control specific characters.

It might be cool to be "added" into the band, but that isn't a necessity for me.

Mike said...

Glad to hear what you have to say, I've been curious. I've been wholly ignorant of the game for the most part, aside from seeing ads while standing in line at GameSpot the other day. Yesterday, though, I heard a promo on NPR for a daily that was going to cover the game in which it was referred to as "the video game event of the year" and I said out loud "huh, really?"

I just don't see why Guitar Hero Aerosmith or Metallica weren't launched with the same zealous fervor. As you said: I like the Beatles, but I don't live for them and by not falling all over anything they've ever done I feel like I'm somehow disgracing the name.

Mitch Krpata said...

I'll just admit this here: I like Metallica more than I like the Beatles. And I liked GH: Metallica a smidge more than I like TB:RB, even though you have to give the presentational edge to Harmonix. The heart wants what the heart wants. (I would be all over a Pink Floyd Rock Band game, as well.)

But talking about individual bands just underscores the main point: any one of these products is weakened when it focuses on a single band to the exclusion of all others, even when that band is the Beatles. I would love the opportunity to roll through the Beatles' catalog with the katamari that is my Rock Band tracklist. I think it's really too bad that I can't.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I suppose you're right. I suppose it should all just be DLC and they could include some prerolled avatars.

But in the world of big business, licensing, etc., that's just not always possible.

It still pains me that Warner Bros, Neil Young's record company, is at war with Harmonix and Activision and so the likelihood I'll ever see his music in either RB or GH is pretty damned slim.

Mike Schiller said...

On a somewhat related note, I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed that the Governor of Massachusetts chose this game to elevate above all others as the inspiration for a gaming holiday called "Video Game Innovation Day". I mean, neat for Harmonix, which seems like a great group of developers, but if anything, it's a step back for the series if we're talking about innovation.

It's hard to criticize Harmonix for the concessions they made here, because they made them in service of a singular goal -- a band "get" that very recently seemed impossible. Still, that doesn't mean we as players should accept those concessions without criticism -- so far, you and Dahlen seem to have done the best job of measured critiques without the weight of hype. Nice work.

Nels Anderson said...

"... proverbial turd in the punch bowl ..."

I guess that's some east coast proverb I'm not familiar with.

Honestly, I'm in the boat as you Mitch. I'm alright with the Beatles, but the great ebullience so many manifest is kind of weird.

Granted, it's hard to tell how many of these restrictions come from Harmonix and how many came from whoever is representing the Beatles. And having seen the resurrected Kurt Cobain crooning You Give Love a Bad Name in the latest GH, I understand why partitioning some things might well be out of respect.

garion333 said...

As a fairly avid Beatles fan, I'm willing to give this game a lot of leeway. That said, I've been placing the blame for the constraints in the game on Apple and not necessarily Harmonix. The fact that a Beatles game was made is pretty much a miracle and Harmonix probably had to live with whatever crazy requests Apple had (kind of like Tool with GH:WT). Certainly Harmonix reveres this music, but I think that they had their hands tied for how far they were able to take things. Or so I gather from my limited knowledge of the behind the scenes action.

You probably read it, but the NYT article last month is a great source for what I'm talking about:

Decide for yourself.

Sinan Kubba said...

I'm with you Mitch, and I think you were very fair in your review, compared to other reviews which have equated the Beatles' inclusion with mandatory awesomeness. TB:RB being "walled off" from RB2 is of far more relevance to me. Admittedly, I'm not the biggest of Beatles fans, but I'd like to think that wasn't relevant either.

Alex Denham said...

Oh man, reading these comments has sold Pink Floyd: Rockband to me. When is this happening? Oh, wait.. :(

Chris Dahlen said...

I dug your review Mitch, even though I think your score's a little low. ;)

It's funny to switch back to Rock Band 2 after playing through Beatles: RB 3-4 times. I prefer playing Rock Band with my customized all-girl terror punk band, but compared to a game with nothing but Beatles hits, the standard RB tracklist feels like one of those K-Tel cassettes from the '80s - lots of great stuff, but there are plenty of songs you have to slog through.

As for the next full band game, I'd love to see Pink Floyd. Alex, you gave a frowning face - have you heard anything about such a game officially being nixed? The BBC just ran a piece where Nick Mason said that he didn't think much of Guitar Hero, but he would consider doing a band game anyway because, basically, it would make a lot of money.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Wouldn't Roger Waters and David Gilmour have to stop warring in order to sign off on a Pink Floyd RB game?

I for one would not buy a Gilmour only PF:RB game! But then I'm a huge fan of Waters' solo efforts.

I know they did reunite a while back but I'm not sure if it's an actual truce or not.

The other problem with a band like Pink Floyd is the keyboards. It would be kind of odd to just ignore them, woudln't it?

I would personally love to see Yes represented in RB but they rely so much on keyboards and so many other instruments, it would likely be a disaster!

Gary A. Lucero said...

My personal complaints about Beatles Rock Band:

1) It's too difficult. Most of the guitar and bass parts are too difficult for me at medium difficulty. Songs in RB2 weren't nearly as challenging, IMO.

2) Lack of money and fans means your only rewards are pictures and videos. As someone who likes, not loves, the Beatles music, I feel like my only reward for playing the game is being able to hear the songs. There should be more.

3) Last but not least, the final chapter has some horrendously bad music. Hearing John Lennon talk about wet dreams and pulling up your socks might be find for a boxed set made for the hardcore, but shouldn't this have a more general appeal? To be honest, most of that last chapter pretty much ruined what was otherwise a very charming game.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your premise Mitch.

If the game has a message, it's telling you to form a band, not that The Beatles are gods.

Point 1) You feel like you are as good of a drummer as Ringo Starr, drummer for one of the biggest bands in history, and his drum lines make intuitive musical sense while not being boring.

Point 2) If you learn to sing harmonies, your real life band can now play around 12 more genre's than you could before you started playing beatles rock band.

Point 3) The beatles themselves started out playing covers. They covered girl-group songs. You know what's a lot like that? Playing Paramore tunes in Rock Band.

Mitch Krpata said...

Oh man, if you only knew my secret love for playing Paramore songs in Rock Band.

We are certainly agreed that any game that fosters a greater love and appreciation for music has done a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I came off a bit harsh Mitch, but I did find the game's message to be more democratic than you did.

Also, yeah, I like girl-groups :P

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