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.


  1. Replies
    1. I mentioned briefly how Harmonix supported the games with regular DLC updates, but I should have elaborated on it. Also, I plan on reviewing Rock Band 4 proper, along with stuff like RB Unplugged, the Beatles Rock Band, etc. next year.

  2. Nice summary of RB history and your experience with the titles... Big Country in the RB3 setlist should earn an automatic A+ though. šŸ‘ Seemed like it all came and went in just a few years and now we are left rummaging value village for spare parts to keep the RB dream alive.