Unless you've been locked in a cave for the past year or so, you've probably heard about Rock Band. The game capped Boston-based developer Harmonix's six-year journey to hip the Western gaming world to the allure of rhythm-based games. While Harmonix's efforts with the original Guitar Hero games may have cracked the door open in the States, Rock Band drove a tour bus through it and beckoned your friends over to make themselves at home. The game sold incredibly well last Christmas, especially considering its hefty price tag and music shop's worth of peripherals. Rather than rest on its laurels, however, the ambitious developer is prepping Rock Band 2, a proper sequel, to hit stores next month. How do you follow up a game like Rock Band? We decided to find out by digging into a new, work-in-progress version of the Xbox 360 game to take an exclusive hands-on look.
If you've played the original game, you should be right at home with what Rock Band 2 has to offer. You'll still find the same basic top-level modes--Quickplay, Tour, and Training--along with extras and the music store. Quickplay offers four further options--Solo Quickplay, Band Quickplay, Tug of War, and Duel--that let you duke it out with frenemies far and wide. The game has been tweaked to offer more customization, so you'll be able to switch instruments on your custom characters and adjust song lists.
Probably one of the biggest additions to the Rock Band mix is in the Tour mode, which now lets you do offline and online touring. As before, you'll create a custom character to represent you in the game. However, this time out, there are a number of new options to customize your character's appearance courtesy of new tattoos and some refinements to the editor. Our favorite tweak is the ability to change the instrument your character plays; we lamented the lack of this option in the original game. Once you start playing with your virtual band you'll find that there's a lot more to do here, even though the mode still has the same, somewhat linear style of the original. As always, your basic goals are to play music in different venues, win fans and notoriety, open up new venues and modes of transportation, and take your music global. But the sequel adds a lot more to the mix. You'll find different set list challenges at each venue, as well as customizable set lists you can make for yourself. Most importantly, you'll find gigs to play that yield vehicles you can use to begin your trek round the world.
A new factor on your road to fame is crew staffing: You'll now be able to hire different staff to come along on your tour. Your first hire will be dear old Mom, whose unwavering support ensures she's always around to be hired. It's an interesting system, because your staff choices yield different bonuses to your group as you play, like more fans per gig. The trade-off is that some bonuses appear to also have drawbacks; for example, the same bonus may give you more money per gig but will also lower your number of fans. Our version of the game featured 14 potential hires, which ran the gamut from mom to a tattoo artist or a publicist.
Besides extending your career in Rock Band 2's Tour mode, you'll find new band-centric challenges to test your skills. While in Tour mode you'll be able to make your way across the globe performing, or take a break and try the Challenge or Battle of the Bands submodes. The Tour Challenge mode features seven sets of locked challenges that you'll open up by clearing them. The first set, labeled Local Upstart, features six challenges that you'll have to work through. The challenges require one to four players depending on the focus; the vocal warm-ups challenge can be soloed by a singer, but the drum warm-ups require a larger group with a drummer, and so on. Each challenge gets progressively tougher and offers a fun, bite-size bit of action. Cooler still is that some challenges are generated based on the content on your hard drive, so you can expect album-specific challenges to pop up. Battle of the Bands will offer Harmonix-posted competitions for you to take part in and prove your skills. The mode seems destined to set folks up for an eternal cycle of defending your score--for instance, you'll be pinged when one of your records has been topped, encouraging you to go and set a new one.
In addition to the proper game modes, RB2 sports some very cool little touches that seem to reflect Harmonix's listening to the original game's vocal fan base. New tutorials have been added to the mix, the sexiest of the bunch being the drum trainer, which actually works as a proper introduction to real drumming. You'll be able to adjust the beats per minute and tempo to get a feel for how it all works in the game. Although you won't become a drum virtuoso after going through the trainer, if you go through the different tutorials, you should significantly reduce the amount of embarrassing flailing that happens when nondrummers try their hand at the game. A cool A/V touch is built right into the game's new guitar peripheral and radically improves the calibration process for the game on HDTVs. On top of all the technical bells and whistles made to smooth out the game experience, a new Jukebox mode lets you play along with your own music.
We tried the game online with Harmonix and were suitably impressed by how the system worked out. One of the nicest touches is the flexibility that's being built into the band creator. Unlike in the original game, now you'll be able to set up a band with alternates that you can swap as needed, ensuring you won't be held hostage if one of your main bandmates isn't online or if someone needs to be replaced for poor performance. The system seems to work out just fine, although we're still not fans of the work involved in trying to get a band together offline with everyone using profiles. The process isn't as smooth as we'd like it to be, but we do appreciate a new confirmation system that's been put in place to keep the one person who will inevitably keep hitting the Back button from bogging everything down by kicking the group out to the Start menu.
The visuals in Rock Band 2 haven't undergone too dramatic of a change from its predecessor. There's been the obligatory fine-tuning of what came before, which is what you'd expect. However, more thought has been put into camera angles, filters, and presentation aesthetics. The end result is more dynamic visuals that have a more artistic look to them, making it all closer to what you'd see in a music video.
Audio, understandably, is a big part of the Rock Band 2 experience, and Harmonix is bringing a lot to the table thanks to some neat new features. The game's on-disc soundtrack is a broad mix of tunes that span different eras in rock, but you'll also be able to import all your music from the original Rock Band. If all that weren't enough, Harmonix is planning to release 20 additional tracks (all free) in the fall. Aside from the in-game music, you'll hear many of the familiar sound effects in menus and a pleasing mix of ambient audio that changes to suit the crowd's mood as you play.
Based on what we played, Rock Band 2 is definitely shaping up to be a worthy follow-up to the original game. While the game may not have quite the visceral impact the original did, there is an impressive array of features and refinements that should please fans. The addition of the online World Tour mode and the promise of new challenges well after release give RB2 a strong appeal. The backward compatibility with the original Rock Band's songs and hardware are cool as well. Odds are if you were into the original game, you've had this sucker preordered for a while now. Whether fans will get just the game or splurge for the new hardware too will be interesting to watch; although being able to use your old gear is great, the new peripherals are pretty slick. Rock Band 2 is hitting in shifts this fall, with the game being released on the Xbox 360 in September and on the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Wii in October.