Guitar Hero was just a jam session compared to Harmonix's next effort, Rock Band. We got to try an early version of the ambitious new rhythm game at an Electronic Arts press event in advance of E3. (EA is merely distributing the game to retail; Harmonix and new parent company MTV are handling the actual development and publishing duties.) As rhythm game fans are no doubt aware, Rock Band will flesh the core Guitar Hero concept out into a full band experience, featuring lead guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. In other words, Harmonix is basically blowing the doors off the original formula it helped create a couple of years ago. EA had prototype guitar and drum controllers, a microphone, eight demo songs, and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon on hand at their event, and for some strange reason, we felt compelled to spend all our free time at the event glued to the Rock Band Demo kiosk. Let's just say it wasn't the free beer that kept us there.
Of course, you've been clamoring for Rock Band's set list as much as we have, so here's what Harmonix had to show at the demo: The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," David Bowie's "Suffragette City," The Hives' "Main Offender," Weezer's "Say it Ain't So," Nirvana's "In Bloom," Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," and Mountain's "Mississippi Queen." Even better? All but the last two of those songs will appear as original recordings by the artists themselves in Rock Band. Harmonix is leveraging MTV's enormous record-industry clout to ensure that as many original recordings as possible will appear in the game; purportedly, the only songs which will be covered in a studio are the older ones for which no master tapes have even survived.
On the gameplay side, Harmonix hasn't messed with what's already worked in multiple Guitar Hero products. Mechanically, the two guitar players in any given song will see the exact same fret-board-based five-note patterns they're familiar with. The drummer will see his patterns in the middle, between the two guitar tracks, and this track will show only four notes, to correspond to the four pads on the drum controller. A solid line will appear on the drum track indicating when you need to hit the bass drum pedal. Finally, the song lyrics will run along the top of the screen, using a style similar to those you've seen in numerous Karaoke Revolution and SingStar games before, and singers will get to hit the mic with their hands to approximate a tambourine or cowbell in some songs. If you were wondering how Harmonix was going to fit all this gameplay onto a single screen, you'll see in the screenshots that there's still plenty of room left over for denim jackets, mohawks, and flaming frets in between all the gameplay interface elements.
If Harmonix hasn't shaken up the gameplay model that made Guitar Hero great, it's certainly bolted some interesting new mechanics onto that model. Like in Guitar Hero, you'll build up a points multiplier as you play without missing a beat, and this time around the bass player can achieve a 6x modifier, compared to 4x on the other roles, because bass can get a little dry sometimes. Harmonix is specifically emphasizing Rock Band's multiplayer action with some of these new features. For instance, sometimes you'll hit a "unison phrase" section of a song that will require all players to perform perfectly for the duration of the phrase to nab a big score bonus. Luckily, all players can select their own difficulty levels before a song, but if one of your bandmates fails out of the song, you'll be able to bail them out by pulling off exceptional performance.
You'll actually get to go off the rails from time to time in Rock Band and freestyle a little. Singers will encounter sections where they can sing (or shout) whatever they want for big points (the louder the better, of course). Similarly, drummers can play their own fills during preset sections of the song. But the best of these features, from what we saw, was the wild full-band flourish that happens at the end of a particularly rollicking song. You know how a good band will draw out the end of a big song and improvise for a few bars before pulling off a huge simultaneous finish? Yeah, you get to that in the game. Everyone will flail on their instruments (or scream into the mic) as the points rack up and the song finishes with a big bang. Hey, we saw it work brilliantly in action--this is going to be a half-decent party game, we're pretty sure.
Harmonix is going all-out to extend the Rock Band experience beyond your own console. For starters, you'll be able to create your own rocker by choosing from tattoos, ripped jeans, piercings, and various ridiculous hairstyles. You can use that custom shredder in the game's four-player online mode, but even better, you can join up with some friends to create a persistent band that you'll all belong to, even on the Harmonix Web site. Our favorite part, though, is that the game will generate custom loading screens and band T-shirts based on the custom appearances (and presumably, on the silly name) that you've come up with for your characters and band.
So about those controllers. As we mentioned, the devices EA had on hand weren't finalized, but the new Fender Stratocaster-style guitar controller and the drum kit were looking quite solid. The drums are no-frills--you've got four pads and a pedal. But the guitar blew us away. Unlike the previous Gibson controllers used with Guitar Hero, Rock Band's guitar isn't immediately recognizable as a toy; it basically looks like a miniature Strat. The colors and styling are extremely consistent with the real thing, and there are some nice nods to detail, too. The five-way tone switch on the body actually works, letting you subtly adjust the sound of your guitar in-game. The fret buttons aren't colored on their face--you just get a small colored bar on the edge of the neck instead--which preserves the authentic Stratocaster look. Easily our favorite new feature, though, is the addition of a second set of fret buttons right up next to the bridge for wailing during the most enormous solos. Clearly there are people with a hand in this game who know how to rock with deadly efficiency.
Needless to say, we're extremely excited about the direction Harmonix and MTV are taking with Rock Band. It's not putting the rhythm genre on its ear the way Guitar Hero did, but it's evolving that initial concept to such an extent that it's practically a new experience anyway. Stay tuned for a whole lot more to come on the game next week at E3 and in the months leading up to the game's release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year.