Before you think about picking up Ultimate Band, there are two things you should know. First: there’s no need to purchase expensive plastic instruments, instead you’ll use your Wii Remote, Nunchuk, and imagination to mimic the instruments on screen. Second: although other full band rhythm games create the illusion of playing a song by tying notes to your button presses, Ultimate Band does not. So while you'll wave or wiggle your remote in time with a song, making a mistake will not affect the music. These two differences are what will make or break the game for many. This isn’t Rock Band or Guitar Hero—but you’ll still have a moderately good time as long as you overlook a few control issues
The story follows a band of your creation as it works its way through the Rock Dome tournament to become the best band around. Because this is a Disney Interactive game for the Wii, the cutscenes and dialogue have a wholesome and cheerful vibe. It may only serve as a means to usher you to your next set list, but the story's Hannah Montana-type enthusiasm is enjoyable and should please younger fans and families.
The Career mode is structured in rounds of three songs per venue. You'll have to achieve a set number of awards before moving on to the next venue and eventually to a round-ending band battle. Performing well will sometimes earn you extra awards, but because you are forced to replay songs with different instruments it's a tedious system and hurts the pace of the game. Playing songs involves waving the remote and/or Nunchuk, strumming the remote like a guitar pick, or swinging it like a drumstick in time with the music. The margin of error is wide and the default difficulty is easy, so as long as your remote is moving, you’ll usually hit the notes correctly. On the hardest difficulty, the game adds in the C and Z buttons on guitars and asks for more complex maneuvers from the other instruments.
Your band is made up of four players: the lead guitar, the bass guitar, drums, and the frontman. Each position uses the remote and the Nunchuk to replicate the feeling of playing the instrument, though some are more satisfying than others. All of the instruments have a number of arbitrary remote twirls and clapping gestures that are distracting and out of place, but the lead guitar and drums come the closest to making you feel like you're playing an instrument, especially on the hardest difficulty. The bass guitar controls are similar to those of the guitar, but instead of using the C and Z buttons to switch between frets, you have to tilt the Nunchuk, which doesn't work correctly most of the time. As for the frontman, since you'll get no points for singing into the remote, your job is to hype the crowd by performing a number of ridiculous moves. You'll punch your fists, wave your arms, and clap your hands, all in time to the music. Not only will you look silly doing this, but you'll also feel completely disconnected from the songs because many of the gestures don't fit with the music. Unfortunately, since the Career mode forces you to replay many of the songs before moving on, you'll end up playing the frustrating bass or frontman parts at least a few times.
Ultimate Band includes a couple of twists on the scoring formula of other full-band rhythm games, and for the most part, they help keep you alert while involving you in the scoring process. Anytime you find yourself with a down moment during a song, you can sneak in a flourish move by holding a directional button and flicking the remote or Nunchuk. The flourish moves are outlandish and fun, ranging from a guitar smash to a backflip off the drum set. Stacking flourishes is a great way to multiply your score and keep your hands busy when your instrument isn't featured. If you can wiggle the remote and Nunchuk in time with the music, you'll unlock the ability to perform a grandstand. During a grandstand, the notes are hit automatically while you try to quickly match a number of onscreen gestures to score extra points. It's an interesting mechanic that has the potential to help you achieve huge scores, but the game has a difficult time recognizing some of the gestures. The unreliable gesture recognition is frustrating when your score determines whether you'll have to replay the song for more awards.
Ultimate Band has just under 40 songs, all of which are covers sung by the same two people. You'll need to progress through the Career mode to unlock all the songs to play in the Jam, Battle, and Practice modes. The music selection features a few well-known songs by bands like Weezer and The Killers, as well as a bunch of lesser-known acts and oldies, and a few stinkers. Instead of trying to hide covers with soundalikes, Ultimate Band embraces them, and it does so in an interesting way. Changing the gender of your frontman will change the voice singing your songs, which can lead to some entertaining remixes. For example, hearing your male frontman screech his way through Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" is painful, yet hilarious, while listening to a female rendition of Maroon Five's "Won't Go Home Without You" isn't so bad, given Adam Lavigne's already high voice. In keeping with the family-friendly theme, any objectionable lyrics have been carefully edited out, and gender-specific songs, such as "Fell in Love With a Girl," are tweaked to fit the gender of your frontman. The blasphemous lyric tweaks and censoring spit in the face of music purists, though parents mindful of what their children are playing may appreciate what Disney has done here. The covers have a nice polish to them and usually do an adequate job of re-creating the original sounds. A variety of chimes, claps, and rings emitted from your remote accompany your onscreen progress, but the tinny speaker doesn't sound good against the music, and the clap sounds are often out of sync.
The presentation in Ultimate Band is great, with scrawny characters that wouldn't be out of place in a Disney cartoon movie. You can purchase new hairstyles and clothes from the store and deck out your band members in all kinds of cool rock apparel. The band members animate fluidly during performances and closely mimic playing along with the music being played. The attractive venues range from skate parks with skateboarding fans jumping across the stage, to the rock dome perched high above the city. The shiny fret boards and meters that populate the screen during gameplay obscure most of this of course, unless you're playing solo.
Ultimate Rock Band's finicky controls, easy difficulty, and lack of connection will likely turn away Rock Band and Guitar Hero veterans, but families just entering the rhythm genre will find this a sufficient introductory experience.