Rock Band 2
If you've not yet jumped into music games, Rock Band 2 is the best reason yet to join the party.
360, (PS3, Wii, PS2)
MTV Games, EA
This year's music game update from Harmonix, MTV Games and EA adds more than just a number. The sequel now includes an online World Tour mode, a drum trainer, a 'no fail' option, and to top it all off Rock Band 2 really puts itself out there as a platform rather than a simple iteration.
Visually, you may see minimal difference between Rock Band and Rock Band 2; since the game is basically about scrolling note charts there is only so much that can be done to upgrade the visuals. Still, Harmonix has added some great new camera shots as well as making the camera feel more dynamic when your band is rocking out on stage. Add to this some new animations and some great new filter effects and you have some improvements to an already great presentation.
As a music game, Rock Band 2 is ultimately about the music and the gameplay. Note tracks are more difficult this time around, but this increase in difficulty is implemented well so that the notes never feel out of place or random. Each song is now rated by individual instrument difficulty, making it easier to identify which songs offer this increased challenge. So if you can't pass a song on medium guitar maybe you can switch to bass and get the job done. Of course any challenge can be offset by turning on the no fail option, which lets you play any song on any difficulty level without failing. This option only works in select modes and disables things like leaderboards and achievements, but it keeps the party rocking no matter how rhythmically challenged your bandmates may be.
There are some new modes to play with as well. One of the most interesting is the Battle of the Bands feature. This community focused feature challenges you and your band (although there are solo challenges) to perform certain songs or setlists and achieve a high score. Your performance is rated and ranked on a leaderboard against your friends and the entire community. The challenges can change daily, hourly, weekly or whenever Harmonix decides to shut that challenge off. This ends up being a clever and addictive way to get people back into the game, week after week to compete, in much the same way the leaderboards of Geometry Wars 2 does.
Battle of the Bands ends up being a fun and addictive way to get people playing all types of songs and challenges, and really does up the ante in terms of community involvement in the growing space of music games. It's not all about competition though; for aspiring rockers there's a drum trainer mode that will teach you several common beats and also how to stay on beat while playing the fill sections found in the songs. This mode is a great deal of fun as well as helpful, and given some of the challenging songs in the game the extra practice will be appreciated by most.
Also new this year is the ability to play your world tour online. This is great news for people who simply could not find enough friends to come over and form the band of their dreams. Now people can take their rocker online and jam out in theirs or anyone else's band. Better still, your rocker is no longer tied to an instrument, and is instead an equal opportunity rocker.
Another change allows you to play your world tour solo, which means you no longer have to play a particular group of songs on a set difficulty to unlock the next tier. This has the added effect of making the whole experience more unified and fun. Perhaps the only downside is that the excellent World Tour mode from the first game remains largely unchanged. Many of the venues are the same, and progression takes place just the same as it would in the first game. It doesn't sour the experience completely, but eventually it can start to feel a bit like déjà vu.
But it's all about the music, right? Well, that tends to be a matter of personal preference. The songs range from Bob Dylan's Tangled up in Blue, to the Muffs' Kids in America, to Judas Priest's Pain Killer. No doubt Harmonix went with the 'something for everyone' approach, and ultimately it works. Sure, there will be some songs you will not want to play, especially over and over again, but with no fail mode and some different and challenging songs, Rock Band 2 succeeds in bringing the noise no matter what your taste in music happens to be, thanks to its sheer variety.
Undoubtedly the greatest triumph here is how much this game feels like a platform (think iTunes) than it does a sequel. The game gives you a generous 84 tracks on the disc (with 20 more to download for free in the near future). Add to that seamless integration with any and all DLC tracks you may have purchased. Finally, if you owned Rock Band 1 you can pay a mere 5 dollars to re-license all but three of those tracks and turn those into DLC (360 and PS3 only). This means that all of your tracks from the first game are integrated into the second without a hitch. In other words, your Rock Band 1 will become a coaster as Rock Band 2 offers the largest library of available songs without having to swap discs.
Add to that some great new modes, a varied track list, a no fail mode, and you have not only a great game with great music, but an excellent social experience and the beginnings of a true platform for content delivery that could make Rock Band 3 a non-event for those with consoles connected to the Internet.