Saturday, March 20, 2021

Start a Band, Rock the World: A Rock Band Retrospective

After Activision acquired RedOctane and the Guitar Hero franchise in 2006, Harmonix was purchased by publisher MTV Games for $175 million.  In 2007, Harmonix released Rock Band.  The game was a critical and commercial success, and it sparked an immediate rivalry with Guitar Hero.  Soon, kids of the 2000's were arguing over which game was better, very much like how kids argued over Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat the decade prior.

Before exploring the series, we need to discuss the hardware.  Rock Band set itself apart from Guitar Hero by having its own instruments for guitar, drums, and microphone.  Fortunately, instruments made for Guitar Hero are compatible with Rock Band, so you don't have to fork out extra money.  I own Guitar Hero guitars for the Wii and 360 respectively and use them for both franchises.  For Rock Band 4, I own the Fendor Stratocaster guitar made for the game.

Unlike Guitar Hero guitars, Rock Band guitars have 10 rows of buttons, five at the top and five at the bottom.  During solos, the bottom row buttons may be pressed without strumming.  It's a well-built peripheral, but the only issue is the strum bar.  Whereas the strummer on Guitar Hero guitars makes a click to provide feedback, the one for Rock Band is silent.  The lack of feedback is off-putting for those who only use Guitar Hero guitars, but you get used to it.

Now, onto the first Rock Band.

Rock Band (2007)

Comparing Guitar Hero with Rock Band is like comparing apples to oranges.  Both offer hours of fun, rhythm-based gameplay, but whereas Guitar Hero emphasized extravagance and style with each passing entry, Rock Band focused on, well, being a band.  It also put a bigger emphasis on social interaction via the inclusion of drums and microphone.

When you have four people jamming away, it livens up the atmosphere and emphasizes how fun rocking out is.  Playing solo is fine, but you're missing out on what makes Rock Band the game it is if you don't have at least one other person playing with you.  Having different instruments encourages experimentation.  If you weren't the best on guitar, try drums or singing.

Rock Band offers multiple modes, including career and quickly.  Career is similar to Guitar Hero's career in that you make a band, start from the bottom, and work your way to the top.  Instead of choosing pre-made characters, you create your own.  Customization offers a handful of options for you to create your ideal virtual self.  Earning money from gigs lets you buy clothing and other apparel to dress your character with.

Rock Band's gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the rhythm genre.  Playing guitar involves strumming notes as they scroll down.  On the drums, you need to hit the correct colors as well as press the kick-pad at the right time, often in conjunction with other notes.  Singing is like karaoke.  You sing along with the lyrics and at the correct pitch.

On the left side of the note chart is the rock meter, which indicates how well you and the others are performing.  Underneath the score counter is stars.  Instead of being told at the end how many stars you earned, the game keeps track of your progression in-game.  Using overdrive or hitting the whammy bar helps speed up star progression.

New to Rock Band is the big rock ending.  Big rock endings let you jam away to earn as many points as possible before playing the closing notes.  These count towards your stars, so if you're lucky, you might cross over to either four or five stars, like it did for me on a handful of occasions.

Hitting glowing notes or singing glowing lyrics fills up Overdrive, this game's version of Star Power.  When the meter is full, activate it to boost your multiplier and help yourself or others from failing.  Plus, you may earn extra overdrive energy while overdrive is active, which is a great way to keep the high combo going.

Rock Band is the perfect game to play with friends, loved ones, exes, and 
drunk roommates.

Compared to the sequels, career is straightforward.  You travel the world, playing setlist after setlist.  There are no encores, randomized setlists, or bonus challenges.  The only break from the beaten path is an optional gig in Rio that unlocks bonus tracks.

Rock Band isn't as difficult as Guitar Hero either, which is good and bad.  On the one hand, there aren't any sudden difficulty spikes like in Guitar Hero II or 3.  It gradually scales in difficulty as you get deeper into the campaign.  The lower challenge pushed me to play on Expert, and it's now the only difficulty I play on, regardless if it's Rock Band or Guitar Hero.

If a song is giving you trouble, there's practice mode.  Unlike Guitar Hero, track speed is adjustable before or during gameplay.  The downside to the lack of difficulty is the first Rock Band isn't terribly difficult.  Some of the later tracks like "Enter Sandman" or "Highway Star" might give you trouble, but its small potatoes compared to tunes like "Institutionalized."

Visually, the game looks nice.  Some of the animations look questionable, but the overall graphics are solid.  I like the loading screen images showing your band relaxing or goofing off, or the ones where your band's name is plastered on tour buses and albums.  It helps give the game personality.  Rock Band is also stylistic.  The game makes inventive use of shadows and lighting, sometimes warping the colors or muting them to make the experience as surrealistic as possible.

Now, for the fun part of any rhythm game review, critiquing the setlist.  The setlist is good.  It's a nice mixture of contemporary rock, classic rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, and punk, and I prefer it over Guitar Hero III's setlist.  For every "Gimme Shelter" or "Here It Goes Again," there's a "I Think I'm Paranoid" or "Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld."

Most of the tracks are original recordings, but a handful are covers, and these are terrible.  They sound worse than the ones in the original Guitar Hero titles.  Wanna hear nails on chalkboard?  Try listening to the game's rendition of "Tom Sawyer."  However, one thing I appreciate about the sound design is how the crowd sings along with parts of the song if you're doing well.

Rock Band is a good game.  It's a bit simplistic and lacks some features found in the other entries, but unlike the first Guitar Hero, it isn't a shallow experience.  There's plenty of fun to be had and it's worth checking out.  The more acceptable learning curve might be seen as a benefit to those who found Guitar Hero too taxing.

Final Score: 7/10

Rock Band 2 (2008)

After Rock Band's release, both franchises competed for consumers' attention.  Harmonix supported the first game with DLC, providing gamers the opportunity to add more songs to the library.  In late 2008, the competition between Guitar Hero and Rock Band reignited when Rock Band 2 released in September, followed by Guitar Hero: World Tour in October.

Rock Band 2 is an example of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  On first glance, it's identical to its predecessor, but many mechanics and modes have been polished.  For example, career mode.  Instead of offering separate career options for single-player and multiplayer, it's unified into one mode.  This makes it easier to form a band and keep track of who's playing or not.  You may now assign stand-ins for any vacant spots.

Career progression is modified.  The focus is still about starting small and working your way up, but it's how you do it is what's different.  Instead of only playing setlists, you travel the world and play at venues. In doing so, you not only earn cash, but stars and fans.  If your band is going to get anywhere, you need stars and fans.  Another new feature is challenges.

Before starting a song, you may be presented with an optional challenge.  Challenges come in many forms.  You may be asked to play a song and earn four stars or higher as a wager for extra money.  A gig could turn into a benefit show, where you'll earn plenty of fans for performing, but no cash.  Though optional, these are a great way to earn rewards, and some of them are a good test of skill, like playing a setlist without using overdrive.

The rhythm gameplay is the same, but with some tweaks.  Before a song starts, you may choose your difficulty and whether you want to play guitar or bass.  In previous games, Rock Band or otherwise, when you chose a difficulty, you were stuck with it.  Switching to another difficulty meant starting from square one.  The added flexibility is a welcome change.  Is a song kicking your butt on Expert?  Bump it down to hard, or switch to bass and give it a go.

Rock Band 2: More of the Same and Proud of It

One addition which falls short is the manager system.  Once you garner enough attention, you may hire a manager.  Managers provide opportunities like bonus gigs, more cash, or more fans.  A good concept, but the difference is negligible.  You can hire a manager who promises more money and still make 20 bucks for a four-star performance.

Otherwise, the gameplay is great.  The various nips and tucks help make the experience more satisfying.  The revamped campaign provides a better sense of progression and incentive to take risks with the new challenge system.

Not much has changed graphically.  It looks a tad more polished than the first game, but not by much.  It even re-uses some loading screen images and tips from the original.  However, the visuals retain that eclectic art style that made Rock Band unique.

Meanwhile, the setlist is excellent.  With more tracks than before, chances are you'll discover a lot of new favorite artists.  The soundtrack features obvious choices like Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses, and Disturbed, but there's music from Squeeze, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, Talking Heads, the Mighty Bosstones, and more.  Twelve years later, and I'm still finding new tunes.

If it isn't clear, I love Rock Band 2.  For me, this and Rock Band 3 are as good as it gets when it comes to the rhythm genre.  The gameplay is polished, fine-tuned, and expanded upon in all the right areas.  There is a misstep or two, like the manager system, but the good outweighs the bad.  Rock Band 2 is a game that gets better and better anytime I play it, and it's a great title worth your time.

Final Score: 8/10

Rock Band 3 (2010)

By 2008, rhythm game fever had reached its peak, and when the bubble burst, it burst hard.  2009 was flooded with new entries from Guitar Hero and Rock Band, especially the former.  Six Guitar Hero games came out, while Rock Band had three entries.  These were The Beatles: Rock Band, the handheld spin-off Rock Band Unplugged, and Lego Rock Band.

With all the games and DLC being put out, it was hard for people to keep up.  Oversaturation led to declining sales, and in 2010, Activision only released one Guitar Hero and a sequel to the underrated DJ Hero.  On the other hand, Rock Band decided to get ambitious with Rock Band 3.

Rock Band 3 is an excellent companion piece to Rock Band 2.  It retains what made the previous entries great but expands upon the band concept by introducing a new instrument and doubling as a platform to learn how to play real-life instruments.

Introduced in Rock Band 3 is the keyboard, which may be played traditionally or in professional mode.  Professional mode lets you play music as if you were playing with real instruments.  If you're playing drums, you need to hit the cymbals in addition to the colored pads.  A MIDI adapter lets you use a real guitar instead of a plastic one.

Harmonies, first introduced in The Beatles: Rock Band, make their return.  This allows two more people to join in on the singing.  Multiple tutorials are available to teach you how to play instruments.  Even with the emphasis on playing for real, Rock Band 3 is still a great game to play.

Instead of career, there are road challenges.  Road challenges are mini campaigns where you and your band travel around, earning as many stars as possible to achieve bronze, silver, or gold.  Bonus challenges return and act as a way to earn spades.  Spades act as extra stars and are obtained by doing things like playing sections of a song accurately or deploying overdrive a certain number of times.

It's similar to Guitar Hero 5.  The difference is each venue provides options for what type of setlist you want to play, plus the challenges aren't instrument specific like in that game.  Fans are earned for completing road challenges or in-game achievements.  When you have enough fans, more road challenges are unlocked.  Performing good unlocks instruments and clothing to customize characters with.

All of the keyboard-based DLC music is still available to download, so hop on Ebay, get a keyboard,
download some Billy Joel, and you're good to go.

The rhythm gameplay is tight and polished.  Menus are streamlined to the point you may turn off modifiers in-game and calibrate instruments on the fly.  Anybody can drop in or drop out at any time, and the instrument track rewinds a few seconds when un-pausing the game.  Little details like this make Rock Band 3 the most streamlined, focused entry in the series.

Rock Band 3's graphics aren't as cartoony as before.  Characters walk the fine line between realistic and stylish, and it works.  The third game ups the surreal factor.  The lighting and visuals get so hallucinogenic I started wondering if I was tripping on drugs.  On Wii, the visuals take a nosedive.

Rock Band 2 on the Wii preserves everything the HD version had.  Aside from a lower resolution, it's the same game.  Rock Band 3 does the same, but the graphics have taken a hit.  Everything looks soft and there's an indescribable motion blur present during gameplay.  Bandmates constantly disappear and reappear, and the audience members look like they came from an N64 game.

The music is quite good.  Even the ones with keyboards are fun to play.  There's a couple of missteps, like War's "Low Rider" and Foreigner's "Cold as Ice," but the track list is solid.  Besides, they have "In a Big Country," and that gives the music an automatic A in my book!  Unfortunately, the crowd doesn't sing along and only cheers, cheers, and cheers till your ears bleed.

Rock Band 3 is a superb game.  It's just as good as the second one, but the addition of professional mode and a new instrument to the already tight gameplay gives it an edge over its predecessor.  Even if you don't want to learn how to play guitar, this is a fantastic game with a lot to offer.  It has Primus, and if that doesn't sell you, I don't know what will.

Final Score: 9/10

Rock Band 4 (2015)

In 2011, Activision announced Guitar Hero and its spin-offs were put on hiatus.  Harmonix continued supporting Rock Band 3 and released a spin-off in 2012 called Rock Band Blitz.  However, in 2013 the studio announced they would stop releasing downloadable songs and marked the occasion by making Don McLean's "American Pie" the final track to be released.

Things went quiet until 2015.  Activision and Harmonix announced they were resurrecting Guitar Hero and Rock Band respectively.  First, there was Guitar Hero Live, a reboot featuring a new guitar controller, full motion video performances, and a music streaming service.  Next was Rock Band 4, which didn't try to reinvent itself like its rival.

This is the part where I discuss the game; however, the last time I played it was four years ago.  I was underwhelmed and to be honest, I didn't give it a fair shake, especially since Harmonix still supports the game with DLC and updates.  I plan on revisiting Rock Band 4, and there's a strong likelihood my stance on the game has changed, we'll see.


As a kid, I liked Guitar Hero, but as an adult, I like Rock Band.  Unlike Guitar Hero, Rock Band was consistently solid with each entry.  Rock Band didn't rely on gimmicks or celebrities to sell their games, they focused on playing music and having fun with friends.  The music selections were diverse, often utilizing musicians that weren't as well-known.  I think the series is partially responsible for my open musical tastes.  It's great to see the series still has a dedicated fan base, and should Rock Band 5 ever be announced, it'll introduce a new generation to great music.

To see my Guitar Hero series retrospective, click here.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

From Zero to Hero: A Guitar Hero Retrospective


Back in the 2000's, Harmonix made a name for themselves with rhythm-based titles like Frequency and Amplitude.  Their gameplay made them a hit with the critics, and word of mouth led them to become cult classics.  Meanwhile, hardware manufacturer RedOctane wanted to make a game with a guitar controller after seeing the success of Konami's Guitar Freaks in Japan.

This led to a partnership with Harmonix, and the result was 2005's Guitar Hero.  Guitar Hero was both a critical and commercial hit.  Non-gamers were appealed by the idea of being able to rock out to music's greatest rock tunes, and for five years, rhythm games dominated the market, until the genre died from over saturation and declining sales.

For now, let's go into the closet, dust off the plastic instruments, and journey back to the late 2000's with a retrospective on Guitar Hero and its many sequels.

Guitar Hero (2005)

Guitar Hero
 is the one that started it all.  While it is a basic experience, it's important for taking the idea of being a guitarist and making it fun.  The first Guitar Hero offers career, quickplay, multiplayer, and tutorials.  Career is self-explanatory.  After naming your band and choosing from one of eight characters, you play to become the ultimate rock star.

Using the plastic guitar, you strum the notes as they scroll down the screen.  Four difficulties ranging from easy to expert increase the amount of notes to play and buttons to use.  The guitar has five colored buttons.  These are green, red, yellow, blue, and orange.  On easy, you use the first three buttons.  On medium, you use four, and on hard and expert, you use all five buttons.

It's simple to learn, difficult to master.  A rock meter on the right keeps track of how well you're playing.  If you're doing good, the notch goes green.  If it's on yellow, you're doing alright, but if it's red, there's a likelihood you'll fail the song and need to restart.  Your score and current multiplier are on the left side of the note chart.

When you see star-shaped notes, that's a chance to earn star power.  Star power doubles your score multiplier and lets your character wow the audience with a gravity-defying guitar trick.  It's also a lifesaver if you find yourself teetering into the red.

Performing well earns you cash.  The higher your rating, the more money you earn.  Cash is used to unlock new characters, guitars, and making-of videos.  The bonus songs feature tunes from at-the-time contemporary artists, as well as musicians who are also Harmonix employees.

While shredding is fun, it's not perfect.  While the game introduces the core idea we know and love, it lacks a lot of refinements and improvements found in the sequels.  For starters, there's no calibration.  If you don't own an old-school TV, it's impossible to play the first game on an HDTV proper.  Secondly, doing hammer-ons and pull-offs is archaic.

From Guitar Hero II and onwards, hammer-ons are done by strumming the normal note then tapping the white note following it.  In Guitar Hero, hammer-ons are done by strumming the normal note then tapping the white note while holding the note you strummed.  I thought I was missing hammer-ons because of no calibration, but it turns out I was doing them wrong.  It's an outdated system that makes playing harder than it should be.

Guitar Hero is also shallow.  Career is nothing but playing setlists.  With only six venues, it's a short game.  Multiplayer is a basic one-on-one where you and a friend trade riffs.  The biggest sin is the lack of a practice mode.  There are tutorials and that's it.  While Guitar Hero is not too challenging, some of the later songs like "Bark at the Moon" or "Ace of Spades" are a bit taxing.  Combine no practice mode with a clunky hammer-on system and expect to have a tough time.

Guitar Hero's cartoonish art style gives the game personality.  The characters are modeled after different rock styles and have their own special animations when star power is activated.  The locations are also diverse.  You start off in the basement of someone's house, then move on to clubs, a theater, an outdoor venue, and finally a giant arena.

The setlist features a decent variety of well-established artists and lesser-known acts.  Judas Priest, the Ramones, Sum 41, Queen, and Blue Oyster Cult are featured, but instead of using the original recordings, they're covers.  This makes since you are playing in a cover band.  Some covers are better than others, but I appreciate the effort put into them.

While the first Guitar Hero has its importance, it's tough to recommend.  Many features like practice mode and the ability to play encores are missing.  You can't play the game proper on modern televisions since it lacks calibration options.  It can be fun and there's some great tunes to rock out to, but newcomers will want to jump to the second one.

Final Score: 6/10

Guitar Hero II (2006)

Guitar Hero was a success, going on to sell 1.53 million copies in its lifetime.  Knowing Activision, a sequel was greenlit.

Guitar Hero II blows the original out of the water in almost every way.  Improved gameplay, practice mode, calibration, and featuring music by Buckethead is one of a few reasons why this sequel is so good.  It takes what the original did, fixes the problems, introduces some new ideas, and comes out as a satisfying product.

Career mode is the same as before.  After naming your band and choosing a character, you set out to become the biggest name in rock.  Instead of playing a series of setlists, career has a proper sense of progression.  Little vignettes after each venue show the band traveling cross country in different vehicles.  First, in a risky-dink truck, then a van, then a bus, and so on.

Each venue has four songs to play.  Once completed, you close out the gig with an encore. Like in the first game, the better your performance, the more cash you earn.  Money unlocks an assortment of goodies, including music, characters, guitars, and alternate outfits to dress your rock star with.  Three new characters were added to the roster, including Lars Umlaut, Eddie Knox, and Casey Lynch.

Gameplay has many quality-of-life improvements.  Hammer-ons aren't annoying to play.  After you strum the note, you tap the follow-up note without holding the previous button.  This turns hammer-ons into a hassle-free mechanic.  Introduced in the sequel are triple notes.  These are only in Hard or Expert and require the player to press three buttons at the same time.

Guitar Hero II
 is more challenging.  Many of the songs on the track list will gladly open up a can of whoop-ass.  People who say "Through the Fire and Flames" is hard have clearly never played the second game.  "Institutionalized," "Psychobilly Freakout," and "Misirlou" will test your skills and cramp your fingers.  Because of the increased difficulty, you need to think a little more about when and where to use star power.

Fortunately, the newly added practice mode lets players practice songs giving them a hard time.  You can tweak the song speed and choose which sections to play to figure out the best way to beat the song.  As they say, practice makes perfect.

Guitar Hero II retains the original's cartoony, rock art style.  Characters' clothing and personalities reflect their musical tastes, and the venues are diverse, ranging from high school gyms to Stonehenge.  The soundtrack is a step up from before and is an excellent selection.  Personal favorites include "Surrender," "Rock This Town," "YYZ," "Last Child," and "John the Fisherman."  There's even music from Strong Bad of all things.

Guitar Hero II is a solid sequel.  It plays better, has a diverse selection of modes and music, and is an all-around great experience.  It's harder, yes, but the inclusion of practice mode mitigates the frustration.  It set a foundation later entries would refine and expand, but if you ask me, this was the series at its best.

Final Score: 8/10

Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (2007)

In late 2006, Activision purchased RedOctane and the Guitar Hero series.  Harmonix had been planning a third entry, but it was scrapped after the deal.  Before parting ways, the studio developed a 360 port of the second game featuring new songs and DLC, as well as Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, an 80's-focused re-skin of the second game.

Guitar Hero Encore is a great idea, but the execution is half-assed.  It retains the excellent gameplay, but despite its title, it doesn't take advantage of the premise.  With only 30 songs, six characters, and not much else, this game is wasted potential.

At least the setlist is good.  The selection encompasses a lot of genres prominent during the decade, including new wave, hair metal, glam rock, and punk.  The redesigned characters look nice, though the other bandmates didn't receive the same makeover, neither did the venues.

Overall, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s is best skipped.  It isn't bad, but it doesn't do the decade justice.

Also, why is the solo in "Bang Your Head" absent?  Inexcusable!

Final Score: 5/10

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2007)

After acquiring Guitar Hero, Activision handed the series to Neversoft.  Neversoft was known for the Tony Hawk games, as well as the under appreciated western Gun.  The developers stated they were fans of Guitar Hero and would play the games during downtime at the office.  When Guitar Hero III released in late 2007, it did so to critical praise and monumental sales.

This third entry adheres to what worked and doesn't change much.  Keeping in tune with previous games, you name a band, pick a character, and rock your way up.  The difference is the presence of a story.

In career, the band makes a deal with a shady music manager who promises fame and fortune.  As they rise in popularity, their manager forces them to sell out, but they refuse.  It turns out they made a deal with the devil and are sent to hell for trying to break the contract.  Trapped in hell, they must rock to survive.  The minimal story serves its purpose and is amusing for what it is.

Gameplay is still about strumming notes and earning as high a score as possible.  Yet, minor adjustments were made.  A note streak counter appears next to your multiplier and keeps track of how many notes you've played.  During the story, you'll face off against rival guitarists in the all-new battle mode.  Battle has you and the opponent using abilities to try and take down each other.

Power-ups are acquired by hitting notes successfully.  They include increasing the difficulty, doubling the number of notes, or breaking a guitar string.  It's a fun addition, and the later encounters require you to save up powers if you want to deal the most damage.

However, you only fight three guitarists throughout the campaign.  The game is called Legends of Rock, so why not have more battles?  When you beat an opponent, they become available for purchase in the store. Returning favorites like Axel Steel and Johnny Napalm are joined by newcomers Tom Morello, Slash, and the Guitar God.  The Wii and PS2 version omit the Grim Ripper and Guitar God; instead, you can unlock an Elvis impersonator or a robot.

The game's graphics opt for a realistic/grungy look reminiscent of Neversoft's Tony Hawk titles.  The change in style works and all the characters resemble their Harmonix originals, they're just not as cartoony.  Venues are littered with background details like a police captain who watches the performance in the penitentiary level, or the giant monster cut-outs duking it out in the Tokyo level.  Unfortunately, character animations for star power are not as exaggerated.  They either tilt their guitar around or stomp in place while little visual effects emanate from their guitar.

On Wii and PS2, those visual effects are absent, so it makes the star power movements more lackluster.  It also looks a lot rougher compared to the HD version.  Growing up, I was only familiar with the look of the lower-resolution versions, so I was shocked by how well-detailed the 360 version was when I got it a couple of years back.

This next statement might be controversial, but I don't like Guitar Hero III's setlist.  It's not a bad selection; on the contrary, the music is good and features a lot of familiar faces like Foghat, Alice Cooper, Guns and Roses, and Slayer.  That's the problem, the songs are to recognizable.  Previous Guitar Hero's and even Rock Band excelled in the music department because they featured a great mixture of familiar and unfamiliar tunes.

Part of the thrill was not only playing the songs you loved but discovering new favorites.  The setlist feels like one of those music collections you find at Wal-Mart.  It's the tunes you know and love, but you've heard them a thousand times before.  I do like the bonus tracks you unlock.  It's not every day you get to play Spanish rock, French rock, and even Swedish metal.

Despite my gripes, I like Guitar Hero III.  It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and sticks with what worked.  The guitar gameplay feels tight, and though opinions may differ on the music, there's a lot of fun to be had.

Final Score: 7/10

Guitar Hero Aerosmith (2008)

2008 is when Activision began milking the series as much as possible.  While its rival Rock Band stuck with putting out DLC on a regular basis, Activision released three Guitar Hero titles.  One of them was Guitar Hero Aerosmith, a game centered on the bad boys from Boston.

Similar to Rocks the 80s, Aerosmith is built off the Guitar Hero III engine, but while the former was re-skin, this has effort put into it.  The game is a trek through the band's history, starting with their early days performing at Nipmuc High School, and following their career up until their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.   Interviews featuring the band bridge the gap between venues.

If you're unfamiliar with Aerosmith, this is a good 101 on their career.  They discuss their rights, their lows, and their comebacks.  Their conversations are humorous but also insightful.  The game brims with personality, and Guitar Hero is perfect for the band.  The only issue is the finale, which features an unnecessary guitar battle with Joe Perry.  It felt like the developers needed a way to shoehorn this mode from Guitar Hero III into this spin-off.

Gameplay is the same as before, but career has been slightly modified.  Before playing as Aerosmith, you need to play two non-Aerosmith songs with the band from previous entries.  They decided to tack on a third guitarist to the group, odd considering most of the non-Aerosmith tunes don't feature a rhythm guitar part.  After you beat them, you get to play the Aerosmith music.

On 360, the game is slick and stylized.  The venues are over-the-top, fitting well with the band's persona.  All the band members did motion capture, so they display their trademark moves and even use unique instruments pertaining to the song being played.  For example, Joe Perry rocks a talk box when playing "Sweet Emotion."  The Wii and PS2 versions are another story.

While the characters look fine on the HD version, they look terrifying on the less-powerful systems.  Everyone moves with the gracefulness of malfunctioning animatronics at an amusement park.  It tries to recreate a lot of the same camera work and movements, but it's all so janky and wobbly.  Steven Tyler looks like a demonic monster ready to swallow my soul with his gaping maw of a mouth.  The other bandmates lack texture and are so poorly animated, it's not even funny.

Aerosmith's library of music is well-represented.  All the favorites like "Mama Kin," "Walk This Way (both the original and Run DMC version)," and "Dream On" are present.  The omission of their more pop-focused efforts is understandable, but the lack of "Last Child" and "Dude Looks Like a Lady" isn't.

The non-Aerosmith side of things is more forgettable.  There are a few highlights, like the songs by the Cult and the Clash, but it suffers the same problem Guitar Hero III had in that a lot of it is stuff we've heard ad nauseam on the radio.

Guitar Hero Aerosmith is a love letter to Aerosmith and worth playing if you want to know more about one of rock music's best.  It's a bit easier than the mainline games since a lot of their tunes rely on hitting the same riffs, but it's fun.  Just make sure to get it on 360, that way you won't have nightmares about a low-res Steven Tyler trying to eat your head off.

Final Score 7/10

Guitar Hero 5 (2009)

In the second half of 2008, the rivalry between Guitar Hero and Rock Band would heat up with Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour.  In an effort to match its competitor, World Tour offered drums and microphone in addition to the guitar and bass.  While both titles sold like gangbusters, there was worry all these titles being released in yearly succession would lead to over saturation.

Cut to 2009, a.k.a. the Rhythm Game Massacre.  Every two to three months saw a new entry from Rock Band or Guitar Hero, especially the latter.  Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero Smash Hits, Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades, Band Hero, Guitar Hero: Van Halen... to say it was out of control was an understatement.  Amidst the clutter of releases was Guitar Hero 5.

Guitar Hero 5 streamlines a lot of its mechanics in an effort to be as accessible as possible.  You immediately notice the changes upon booting up the game.  Instead of going directly to the main menu, you can jump in and start jamming to whatever song is being played at the moment.  Intuitive menus make it easy to drop in and drop out, adjust difficulty, assign stand-ins, etc.

Career has also been overhauled.  Instead of playing to earn fame and fortune, the focus is on earning stars.  Stars are how you unlock content.  Instrument challenges like maintaining a note streak or activating star power multiple times provide ways to earn stars.  I like how career has been restructured.  It keeps the focus on playing music without making progression a hassle.

All the songs are unlocked from the beginning, so you don't have to worry about playing career to unlock that one song.  Rock Band 3 features a similar career structure of playing to earn stars in order to progress through the game.  The rhythm-based gameplay is the same as before, but it gives the player more freedom of choice.

As accessible as the game is, there are a few questionable design choices.  New to this game is the ability to play with any combination of instruments.  This means it's possible to have four guitarists, two guitarists and two singers, et al.  It's interesting, but the idea is a novelty.  I forgot this was a feature most of the time.

Guitar Hero: World Tour introduced special purple notes that can be played using the slider bar, and they are back for the sequel.  The slider bar lets you play sections of a song without having to strum, similar to the bottom row of buttons found on a Rock Band guitar.  The slider bar feels pointless.  It does little to change the flow of gameplay and I never bothered with it.  It would have made more sense if these sections let players freestyle their own solos a'la Rock Band 4.

Since Guitar Hero III, musical guests have played a prominent role.  From Slash to Ozzy Osbourne to Carlos Santa, real-life star power had been prevalent to the series.  Guitar Hero 5 features Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash, but in a strange move, they are playable characters that can be used for any song, not just theirs.

To say this is weird is an understatement.  It feels dirty knowing I can take these dearly departed musicians and have them sing Beastie Boys or lay down some licks on "Sultans of Swing."  Given the possibilities, you could even have four Johnny Cash's or Kurt Cobain's in your band!  If that wasn't odd, you can also play as your Xbox 360 avatar, and having a cartoony avatar jam along with realistic characters is just as jarring.

At least the game looks nice.  All the characters look great, it's well-polished, and the locations assault the eyes with the amount of eye candy onscreen.  However, they're also forgettable.  They're too exaggerated to the point I'd be hard pressed to recall any that stood out, aside from the one set in the trenches of the LA River.  By this point in the series, star power is an afterthought.  When activated, it saturates the screen with the color blue.  Did Sutter Kane make this game?

The setlist is equal parts awesome and bad.  There's some great choices, including "Dancing With Myself," "In the Meantime," and "American Girl," but for every good choice comes a bad one.  Why is "Play That Funky Music" on here, or "Sympathy for the Devil," a piano-focused song?  It feels like the developers were grabbing for straws when it came to the music.

Guitar Hero 5 is the best entry...from a gameplay standpoint.  It's accessible, easy to navigate, and provides players a lot of options in how they can rock out.  For all the good it does, there's a number of problems.  Some of the new options are pointless and the setlist is littered with choices that are as out of place as seeing Johnny Cash sing Iron Maiden.

Final Score: 6/10

Guitar Hero brought rhythm games to the mainstream and introduced an audience of people who didn't play games but loved this series, similar to what Ubisoft's Just Dance series has done.  However, there was too much in too little of a timeframe, and interest quickly turned to disinterest.  While Activision only put one Guitar Hero and a DJ Hero sequel in 2010, the damage was done.  in 2011, the series and its spin-offs were put on hiatus.

While I liked Guitar Hero as a kid, I prefer Rock Band as an adult.  Guitar Hero has its sentimental value, but after Activision acquired the property, they ran it into the ground and relied on gimmicks instead of fresh ideas to keep it alive.

An attempt was made to revive the brand in 2015 with Guitar Hero Live, but it too used gimmicks in the form of full-motion video performances and a streaming music platform littered with micro transactions.  Though the spirit of Guitar Hero lives on in the fan-made Clone Hero, I would like the series to make a proper return, one that kept the focus on what the franchise was about in the first place, being a guitar hero.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Why Licensed Games Deserve Better

On March 2, Aliens Fireteam was announced.  The upcoming co-op shooter is one of many games based on licensed properties announced over the last few months.  Currently, games based off James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Evil Dead are in the works.  While it's great to see our favorite film franchises receive new games, licensed games always miss more than they hit.

For every Goldeneye, Alien Isolation, or King Kong: The Game, there's an Aliens: Colonial Marines, Marvel's Avengers, and 007 Legends.  In theory, making a great licensed game shouldn't be a problem, especially with the technology game developers have access to.  History proves otherwise.

Unlike movies, video games aren't constrained by a runtime.  They can take the world and characters a film explores in two hours and expand upon it.  The best licensed games are the ones that take advantage of their source material to create something worthwhile, or even better, an original story.

For example, James Bond.  While Goldeneye 007 is considered a classic, I think James Bond video games hit their stride during the 2000's.  Agent Under Fire, Nightfire, and Everything or Nothing are solid shooters, but they're also original adventures.  Pierce Brosnan may get older, but his digital duplicate never will.

Best Bond game ever, fight me.

Another great example is Marvel's Spider-Man.  Its based on an established character, but it takes the 60-plus years of material out there to spin its own universe and new takes on familiar faces.  Newcomers can enjoy the story and be motivated to look into Spider-Man's history, while longtime fans will appreciate the nods the developers peppered in, like including multiple suits based on other incarnations of the web slinger.

However, most licensed games aren't like that.  Most are cash grabs that are average at best and poorly made at worst.  Movies are a business, games are a business, and companies will always find a way to make a quick buck.  The easiest way to do that is with a licensed game.

In the past, it was common for a high-profile movie to receive a video game tie-in.  The most well-known example is E.T. for Atari 2600.  Developed in five and a half weeks by Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari anticipated it to be a holiday hit.  While it sold 1.5 million copies, it didn't do as well as Atari hoped.  E.T.'s financial failure, combined with declining sales in general, led to the video game crash of 1983.

Though the industry bounced back, movie tie-in games never went away.  It reached a boiling point in the 2000's.  You had games based on the Polar Express, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Incredibles, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and more.  This isn't accounting for games based on already-released movies, like Fight Club and Jaws Unleashed.  There was almost a Taxi Driver game for Pete's sake!

Because the world was clamoring for a "Starsky and Hutch" game.

People were burnt out, especially those making them.  In my interview with Jon Knoles, he told me about how LucasArts was founded to make games that had nothing to do with Star Wars, but after the prequels were announced, that's what the company became devoted to.  It led to a creative burnout within the company, and its something I'm sure other studios felt.  It does't help when a licensed game leads to a studio's demise.  For example, developer Eurocom being shut down after 007 Legends failed critically and commercially.

The number of licensed games decreased during the 2010's.  They were still around, but not as prevalent.  You still had duds like the PS4 Godzilla game, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, and American Ninja Warrior, but we also had some great ones like the Batman Arkham series, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, and even Terminator Resistance.

The recent announcements got me thinking about licensed games, the troubled history, and what it takes to make a good one.  While originality trumps brand recognition any day of the week, licensed titles can be enjoyable, it just takes a little effort.

There are three rules I think game developers should follow.

1. Respect the source material...but don't be afraid to take liberties

When you're creating a product based on something people love, it's important to respect the source material.  At the same time, be creative.  Video games are about doing things you can't do in real life, so don't worry about accuracy.  If I'm playing as Godzilla, I shouldn't feel like a lumbering man in a suit slowly trudging through a set, I should feel like an unstoppable force of destruction whose fights with other monsters are spectacles of chaos and action.

2. Give Context

Not everyone who plays a licensed game is familiar with what it's based on, so do a good job at investing players in what's going on, even if they don't know who these characters are.  I already mentioned Spider-Man, but another great example is the Batman Arkham games.  They do a great job of doing its own thing while alluding to the expanded universe. Files, audio logs, and even solving riddles help flesh out the world of the Caped Crusader.  If you don't know who the Condiment King is, at least you'll know about everyone who has been Robin.

3. Be a Good Game

It's the easiest rule to follow, but also the easiest to mess up.  Games succeed or fail based on how enjoyable they are.  If the story isn't interesting, the gameplay is cookie cutter, and the visuals aren't good, you're going to have a bad time.  We still haven't broken free from the licensed game curse, and by now we should have.  We have the tools, we have the talent, all that's missing is the effort.  My hope is this new console generation gives us more great licensed games than bad ones.