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The Beatles: Rock Band Hands-On

We sub in as one of the Fab Four in our first hands-on look at the music game featuring the legendary Liverpool quartet.


If you could choose to jam out a song or two with the Beatles, which songs would you choose? You'll be able to choose for yourself in Harmonix's next major music game project, The Beatles: Rock Band. Announced several months ago, the game has had its proper debut here at E3 2009, including a raucous unveiling at yesterday's Microsoft press conference (complete with appearances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) and an E3 demo premiering today at Harmonix's stage set up on the show floor, built as a convincing replica of the Abbey Road studios. We were first in line to check out the stage show, ask some questions of game developers, and play the game for ourselves.

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First up: the demo. After taking a seat in the demo area, complete with a proper stage and very comfortable chairs, the curtains opened to reveal a band made of Harmonix employees who, after a brief introduction, launched into "I Saw Her Standing There," which happens to be the first song on the band's debut album Please, Please Me. It was the first of three songs played onstage by the band, and the song takes place in the Cavern Club, a Liverpool club where the Beatles first got their start. The Cavern Club is one of five historical venues that will be part of the game, three of which were shown off today.

The second song, "Taxman," was played in the famous Budokan arena in Japan, the locale where the band made its Japanese debut in 1966. Taxman isn't just a showcase for Paul McCartney's active bass playing; it's a great showcase for the three-part harmonies that were a huge part of the Beatles' sound, and also a big aspect of the gameplay in The Beatles: Rock Band.

Before the third song was played, game producers talked about the split career of the Beatles. In the first part of their career, they were the biggest touring band in the world; as the band matured, however, it stopped touring altogether, instead choosing to focus on the process of making music in the studio and using countless innovative techniques to make those albums audio experiences. That change in direction posed a particular challenge for the Harmonix art team. It wouldn't make sense, after all, to have the band playing late period songs in the Cavern Club or Shea Stadium.

The solution? So-called dreamscapes, which are essentially visual reimaginings of famous Beatles songs. In the case of the third song played during the demo, the George Harrison-themed "Here Comes the Sun," the dreamscape features the band starting off the song in the Abbey Road studios (complete with accurate instruments, such as Paul's Rickenbacker bass). As the music continues, the scene shifts out of the studio to the band playing atop a hill in a summer setting, far away from the screaming fans and pressures of international fame, until eventually as the song reaches its climax, the sun slowly rises above them. It's an effective transition, one that makes sense in accordance with the Beatles' mystique and also serves as a chance for the Harmonix art team to flex its creative muscle.

After the three-song demo, we had a chance to speak with Josh Randall, project leader on The Beatles: Rock Band. Our first question was about the inclusion of three-part harmonies, which might pose a challenge for novice players. Randall said that the Beatles game will have a practice mode--much like the drum trainer in Rock Band 2--that will help singers identify harmonies that they might otherwise have trouble spotting. Similarly to how the drum trainer works, the vocal tutorial will let you loop specific sections of a song and even play tones from a particular harmony line that you can sing along to over and over.

While three-part harmonies are available to the Pauls, Johns, and Georges out there, you won't be required to nail them in order to have a great time in the game. In fact, a single vocalist can choose to fly solo with the song, or for a real challenge, players can jump on to vocals and try to sing and play at the same time, much like the Fab Four did. At the end of a song, the game will measure which harmony part a particular singer stuck to the most. If you can execute the three parts, however, you'll get a bonus point modifier (known in the game as "Triple Fab") that will reward your vocal prowess.

During our time with Randall we asked him about the possibility of sharing songs between The Beatles: Rock Band and the other versions of Rock Band (long story short: The Beatles game is a stand-alone product that won't support song-swapping either to or from The Beatles: Rock Band), the possibility of customization (players won't be able to customize their favorite mop top), and the process of remastering the original Beatles catalog for the game.

The 45 songs that will be included on the disc will be unlocked right away for Quick Play fun, though there will be a career mode to play through, and the process of bringing those songs from their humble tape beginnings to their current audio glory was an involved process. As Randall told us, the original masters featured stereo mixes that put instruments in sometimes strange places in the mix (such as the drums in the far right). These mixes wouldn't necessarily work for gameplay, and as a result, the game mixes for The Beatles: Rock Band will be completely unique for the game, separate from the remastered version of the Beatles catalog that will be released this September.

As for our hands-on time with the game, we managed to get two songs in: "Back in the USSR" and "Taxman." For the former, we played guitar and had a great time whipping out Paul McCartney's (not George Harrison, as we learned today) wiry solo in the game. For "Taxman," our chore was to try to reconcile the game's busy bass line with the just-as-active vocal parts and harmonies. It's a fun song to be sure, but the moment Paul McCartney changed the bassline in the second verse, our singing and playing performance took a steep nosedive. Sorry for anyone who witnessed it.

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When The Beatles: Rock Band was announced, producers promised a trip through the band's entire catalog accompanied by a visual production that perfectly complemented the music. We can't say for sure that they've fully nailed that goal yet, but we certainly like what we've seen so far. Considering that the game will have plenty of post-release full-album DLC (the first being Abbey Road, naturally), we look forward to taking the long and winding road with the game. Stay tuned for much more on The Beatles: Rock Band in the coming months.

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