I’ve been a loyal consumer of Harmonix video games since Frequency hit the scene for the Playstation 2 in 2001. At the time, we had become accustomed to rhythm games along the lines of the Parappa the Rapper series or Beatmania (and I guess Dance Dance Revolution should be included as well), and Frequency was something entirely different, where you were forced to multitask in order to control the entire song, not just one aspect or instrument. I was taken in by the game, and quickly became the in-house master at the GameStop I happened to be working at during that time. Frequency will hold a special place in my heart partially because it was the first place I (and probably quite a few others) discovered the band Freezepop, who I later went to see in concert approximately nine times in my sophomore year of college (Freezepop played a lot of shows in Boston during that time). It was followed up by Amplitude, the same basic concept perfected, which I also loved. Great games with a strong concept and great music. These guys certainly knew their stuff.
(Jump directly to my Rock Band 3 impressions.)
Of course, everything changed with the release of Guitar Hero, which was just as critically lauded as Frequency and Amplitude, but was also actually purchased by people. Lots of people. Small plastic guitars were everywhere. I should know, considering I had two. This was at a point in my life where I had just graduated college a semester early, and found myself back at home and virtually alone, as all of my friends still had one semester of school left. So I played Guitar Hero. A LOT OF GUITAR HERO. In my estimation, I didn’t have much better to do. Wasn’t reading comics yet, still read books and prepared myself for PhD applications (none of which actually worked out, but I put in enough due diligence that it wasn’t the fault of a Guitar Hero addiction), and played a lot of Guitar Hero. It was often exhilarating. I loved the feeling I got when I finally broke through and could beat “Bark at the Moon” on expert. When Guitar Hero 2 (which was, much like Amplitude, a perfected iteration of the first Guitar Hero) hit the streets, I devoured that one too. I felt the same way when I finally conquered “Free Bird” (which was especially frustrating when you would fail six minutes into the song and restart at square one). This was pretty much all I could ask for from a video game.
I think a lot of people were confused when Harmonix gave up the rights to the Guitar Hero franchise to Activision and Neversoft, and the game has become a pale shadow of what it used to be. I played Guitar Hero 3 and 5, and they were fine, but I always thought they were missing something. This must be at least partially because Neversoft’s development cycle is basically a full year behind Harmonix, which can’t help their ability to compete on an innovation scale. Rock Band came out just a month after Guitar Hero 3, which was basically just another guitar game, while Rock Band managed to create one of the most satisfying party experiences out there. Plus, I got that same feeling of elation when I finally managed to beat “Run to the Hills” on expert drums. By the time Guitar Hero stepped into the present with World Tour and finally added drums and singing, Rock Band was already fully established with a year of downloadable content. Rock Band had truly become a platform. And throughout it all, Harmonix made sure that their first priority was to keep things fun. One of the biggest mistakes Neversoft has made since taking over the franchise is shooting for the extreme difficulty angle at the top of their song tier, obviously as an extension of the success of “Through the Fire and Flames” from Guitar Hero 3 among die hards. This is, to an extent, not a huge problem. I love difficulty as much as anyone, and have already talked about those transcendent moments when finally beating a song.
But Neversoft pushed it to the point of absurdity. I never beat Guitar Hero 3 on expert. I could take on anything in the top tier without too much difficulty or star power strategy except Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” which I couldn’t get past the first major section. Ever. Still, to this day. The important thing to consider about this is that I gave up. I pretty much never give up on songs from Harmonix games. I’ve found that, as a general rule, the most difficult songs for Neversoft games are difficult because they are fast and the top tier of Harmonix games are difficult because they are intricate. I think this is a gigantic difference that will continue to tip the scales in the favor of Harmonix for me. Obviously, there are songs available as downloadable content and on the Rock Band Network that are just as crazy fast and seemingly impossible as the song choices from Neversoft. But these songs aren’t in the main game. You are freely able to ignore them. I can think of one (one!) song that snuck through to the main disc of a Harmonix game that arguably shouldn’t have been there in a way that violates their approach to on-disc difficulty. “Visions” by Abnormality from Rock Band 2 was a mistake. It’s not even as bad as “Raining Blood,” from the perspective that I’ve been able to beat it on expert bass consistently and expert guitar once. But the drums? Not a chance. Considering that the drums are my go-to instrument and this one song basically made it impossible for me to ever complete an expert drums endless setlist was disappointing to say the least. I know Harmonix got a lot of negative feedback on “Visions.” We probably won’t see anything like that on disc from Harmonix again.
A lot of the music game aficionado community seems to split on this, with the supposed ‘hardcore’ gamers flocking to the challenge of the Guitar Hero series, while the ‘casual’ folks stick with Rock Band. You can go ahead and call me not hardcore if you want; it’s not going to cause me to lose sleep or anything. But I know that I like to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that happens a lot more often with Rock Band games. It took me a long time to get my wrist speed to a competent level to beat “Run to the Hills” on expert drums. But I never thought it was impossible, and enjoyed the style of the song enough to keep with it. Compare that to Guitar Hero 5, which I admittedly bought on the back of one song (King Crimson’s “,21st Century Schizoid Man,” one of my all time favorites), and I once again reached that point where things like Jeff Beck’s “Scatterbrain,” and some of the other top tier metal songs weren’t even worth my time, because I wasn’t having fun even attempting to try to beat them. I don’t own Guitar Hero 5 anymore. Even with King Crimson on disc, I don’t miss it. It did some cool things, but not enough of them to make it really work as a cohesive game. It was missing something.
The point of this article was to talk about Rock Band 3, which streeted yesterday. Now that I’m 1,200 words in, I guess I should get to it then. Rock Band 3 is the best rhythm game ever made, and I’ve only put in about three, maybe four hours of actual play time, the vast majority of which was spent playing through the tour mode on expert drums. What pleasantly surprised me the most was the way that Rock Band implemented their own versions of the two things I thought Guitar Hero 5 did better than Rock Band 2 (the only real bonus of a dev cycle lagging a year behind), and managed to improve them further. One of the neat little things about Guitar Hero 5 was the way that each song in career mode had challenges that could lead to you getting extra stars. Each song had one, and they were instrument specific. For example, you might need to reach a certain note streak on a drum song, and there were three thresholds you could reach, allowing for the possibility of getting three additional stars on each song. Great idea, but the instrument specific part of it was (in my opinion) pretty stupid. Also, the Guitar Hero franchise introduced drum rolls as sustained notes (I first saw this in action in Guitar Hero: Metallica; I never played Guitar Hero 4 at all), which makes a lot more sense and charts a lot easier than trying to nail the exact speed of a roll like in the beginning of “Cherub Rock.” Gladly, Rock Band has taken these two ideas under its wing, and fixed them up in a way only Harmonix can do (they also seem to have taken on the ‘party shuffle’ mechanic from Guitar Hero 5, which I never used, and don’t actually know how it works). Challenges in Rock Band 3 are not instrument specific, and while they’re a bit more generalized in the ‘sustain overdrive as long as possible’ type vein, they don’t actually force you to constantly switch instruments if you’re not utilizing a full band, which is a welcome choice. The drum rolls also include notes inside them, giving a better sense of the speed of the fill than just a line, which allows for more accurate drumming. Thumbs up on both changes.
They’ve increased the options for character customization, which is a nice but admittedly cosmetic change. They’re not exactly at the level of, say, the Smackdown Vs. Raw games, that have entire websites devoted to created characters. The career mode has been revamped, and (though I haven’t played a lot of it), manages to both be more linear and more varied at the same time, if that makes any sense. Instead of hopping from city to city playing random gigs in venues, you actually go on uninterruptable tours that are abandoned if you try to play anywhere else. Each tour has a set amount of total songs you’ll need to play across various venues, and each venue gives you multiple options, ranging from an established set list of on disc songs to customizable and random sets, all of which usually have a genre or decade theme (3 random songs from the 90’s, for example). It’s much more straightforward, and you’ll never get into the situation where you’re jumping around from place to place trying to find things to do. I haven’t gotten to the end, and I don’t know how the endless set list factors into this, but I dig it. A lot.
Obviously, the biggest innovation is the keyboard. It makes perfect sense as the fifth instrument, and with the obvious inclusion of harmonies ported over from The Beatles: Rock Band, you can now theoretically have SEVEN people play Rock Band 3 at one time. I’ve put very little time into the keyboard so far; I tried a few songs on hard and just couldn’t get a handle on the timing of the thing yet. The one thing I can say is that I don’t particularly like the layout of the overdrive button. I understand that it’s designed for easy use when worn as a keytar, and the non-pro version of keyboards can be played with one hand. But the thing is, the non-pro version can also be played by two hands, with one on the lower octave and one on the higher, which is how, you know, pianos are actually played. Putting the overdrive button on the neck seems to make it range from incredibly difficult to impossible to easily activate overdrive in pro mode or when using two hands. Maybe I missed something in the design, and there are two overdrive buttons or something, but I don’t think I missed anything. Mad Catz is probably to blame for that one, and if that’s the biggest gripe I’ve got so far, I think I can let it slide. I know that keyboard parts aren’t backwards compatible with the oodles and oodles of DLC I’ve bought, which is an unavoidable consequence, but if we get even one Dresden Dolls song out of this new functionality, it will be worth it. Bring on the Brian Viglione drum charts!
I need to put more time into the game, and will be doing so over the next weeks/months/etc. Early prize for best song on the disc is Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” which I think is a top five all time drum chart for me, and is just deliriously fun to play. I’m also quite impressed with the full setup of Avenged Sevenfold’s “The Beast and the Harlot;” that band’s songs just port incredibly well to the Rock Band platform. Haven’t really come across a dud yet. So far, so good. And, for your reference:
The Alpha Primitive’s Top Five Rock Band Drum Charts:
5. The Police – “Next to You” (from Rock Band 1 disc) — This song is a great example of how polyrhythm can really spice up what would otherwise be a pretty straightforward punk song. That’s what you get with Stewart Copeland.
4. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” (from Rock Band 3 disc) — Best fills ever? Probably. Dave Grohl at his manic peak.
3. MuteMath – “Typical” (downloadable) — It’s complex, it’s funky, it constantly keeps you on your toes. The amount of variety in this song is stellar. Probably the single most underrated DLC available for the platform.
2. Dream Theater – “Panic Attack” (from Rock Band 2 disc) — It’s fiendishly difficult without feeling oppressive. There are so many little twists and turns in the labyrinthine drum track that would take me a very long time to perfect, but I still love the challenge.
1. Nine Inch Nails – “The Perfect Drug” (downloadable) — I remember when I used to eagerly await to find out what drum tier new downloadable content would be. I knew this one was coming, and I had no idea how they were going to go about charting it. When I found out it was tier 9 (the highest tier from the Rock Band 1 era), and bought it, I realized that they charted EVERYTHING. Playing the role of drum machine is awesome. I recently got good enough to regularly five star this one. It’s one of my favorite personal Rock Band accomplishments.
This post was written to the tune of Bitter Ruin’s We’re Not Dancing