Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Beatles: Rock Band Review

The Beatles were inarguably ahead of their time. As fellow blogger Little Earl used to remind me often, nearly all modern pop music has it's roots in what The Beatles did. Psychadelia? Check. Hard Rock? Check. Electronica? Check. Perhaps the only thing The Beatles didn't invent was dubstep. Indeed, they really forged new musical ground that continues to be explored to this day. It's too bad then that The Beatles: Rock Band comes well after it's time. That is meant as a great compliment - let me explain.

The videogame genre that's come to be known as the "music rhythm" genre began with the original Guitar Hero back in 2005. It soon developed a cult following, and with the release of Guitar Hero II a year later, seemed to explode in popularity. It became the party game, with friends lining up to take their turn on a plastic guitar. Through this plastic guitar with brightly colored buttons, players were expected to play along with a song by hitting the corresponding colored buttons as they were shown on screen. It was an elaborate karaoke of sorts, providing the thrill of being a guitar god without having to actually deal with the incredible difficulty of actually having to master true guitarmanship.

Soon a competitor came along in the form of Rock Band. Now people could play as a whole band, with plastic guitars, basses, drum kits, and microphones. Rock Band was definitely a step forward and took itself ever so slightly more serious than the Guitar Hero series. It was also around this time that the music rhythm genre began to become oversaturated. More and more versions kept being knocked out to bring in more cash: Guitar Hero 80s edition, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (complete with virtual G&R Slash as a playable character), Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Van Halen. These were all quick cash-ins, usually with little to no input by the featured artists, often featuring songs that supposedly 'inspired' the artist (seriously, a Foo Fighters song in Guitar Hero: Metallica, WTF!?).

Finally, in 2009, came word that The Beatles had given the Rock Band franchise permission to do a Rock Band version of The Beatles. Only this time things would be different, the surviving Beatles (and Yoko, don't forget Yoko) would have direct control on what was to be featured and how it all would be presented. They even went so far as to insist that their name be featured before the familiar Rock Band title, and thus we ended up with the magnificent The Beatles: Rock Band.

It's such a terrible shame then that The Beatles: Rock Band (TB:RB) was one of the last specific-band music games to come out. If only it had been the first, all the other titles would have benefited greatly, because the design of TB:RB is fantastic. Everything about the game screams quality.

The art style is superb, with cartoony looking versions of the fab four that have a somewhat whimsical look about them, apparently crafted under strict guidance from Apple Corps. (actually the whole game seems to have been strictly overseen by them, whoever 'they' are). The presentation is fantastic, taking you on a chronological journey, starting you off playing in the Cavern Club, to the Ed Sullivan show and all places inbetween, ending up on the roof of the Apple Corps. rooftop. For songs recorded at Abbey Road the game has added in "dreamscape" venues, with abstract whimsical nods to various songs (watch this to get what I mean).

This chronological progression really lets you see how the band progressed musically. The songs performed in the Cavern Club feel much more raw and live than the later tracks performed at Abbey Road studios which feel much more processed and musically dense. This is all helped by the various photos and short movies that you unlock as you progress. Some, if not most of these short movies are never before seen snippets and outtakes from various performances, movies, and interviews, though Little Earl would have to be the final judge on just how rare these really are.

TB:RB feels more than just a game, it's like an interactive history lesson that lets you play along. I feel like I actually learned stuff about The Beatles that I didn't previously know (like how the white album doesn't have more than two songs in a row sung by any given member). Ok, it's not going to wow a true afficianado, but for someone uneducated in Beatles lore, it offers a terrific overview of what The Beatles were about.

 It's like an interactive history lesson that let's you play along

There's all sorts of little details that make this package work. Like when you pick a song to play, in the first few seconds before the song plays there's audio of the band warming up to play the song, with perhaps a few practice chords or John muttering to someone to turn an amp up. Or how between each musical venue a short montage plays showing you some famous scenes and audio snippets to show what the band was up to. Perhaps the most impressive is the opening to the game, with an amazingly done montage that takes you through the full gamut of The Beatles (seriously, I could watch this a hundred times and still enjoy it).

Overall The Beatles: Rock Band is superb package. I haven't even yet mentioned that the game supports not only the typical Rock Band staples such as guitar, bass, and drums, but the game allows for two microphones to be hooked up for vocal harmonies. My only disappointment with this game is that I wish it had been even more of a history lesson. As it is there's only something like eight short movies that you can unlock, I would have been fine with twice as much. But really, there's not much to complain about. It's just such as shame that this game came out  in late 2009 after the music rhythm genre had already reached saturation, which resulted in poor sales. If this had come out earlier it could have laid the foundation for all sorts of music-games-as-history-lessons. Imagine a Pink Floyd: Rock Band, or Nirvana: Rock Band. Instead the only thing to come out since is... Green Day: Rock Band, ugh. Well, one can dream, but in the meantime I've gotta get back to my game and see if I can earn my 5 stars on Helter Skelter.  5/5 Zrbo points.