Rock Band 2: Encore! Encore!

September 18, 2008

Last year Rock Band turned the music industry—and music video game industry—upside down. It became such a powerful delivery tool for music that artists began releasing their new singles inside the game before making them available to the public. It also made the music genre a group activity, and the text book definition of a party game. With these lofty standards to live up to, Rock Band 2 takes the stage, but is this encore worth applauding?

Much like the first release of a sports game, the first Rock Band included the bare minimum in the way of modes, but they were plenty when tagged onto the fresh concept. Players of all types are now used to the base experience, and Rock Band 2 doesn’t rewrite the tune.

The tour mode is much more flexible—allowing up to three other players to join you online or off and drop in or out at any time. Setting up the band is also a lot less painful since characters are no longer tied to a specific instrument, and you can finally play through the tour as a bassist. Other tweaks include challenges that will ask you to play sets of songs, shooting music videos, and hiring managers or promoters—all with the goal of gaining as many fans as possible. It’s like a band’s second album—the production is tightened up, but the overall sound remains the same.

The song library is comprised of over 80 master tracks, and no matter your taste, it’s undeniably stronger than the first game’s. The music casts a much wider net, and the selections demonstrate that there are some serious music lovers making hard choices behind the scenes. You also get 20 downloadable songs as soon as you crack open the case, and you can import all the songs from your original Rock Band disc for a licensing fee of $5. All downloadable content is available across both games, making for a list of songs so long that Harmonix has been forced to include sorting options. It’s an impressive thing to see when everything is loaded.

The final new key feature is online battle of the bands. Each day Harmonix uploads new challenges based upon artists, genres, and a variety of other themes. It’s up to you and your band to score as big as possible and upload your scores to a leader board. It’s a great way to extend the life of the game, as if it needed more longevity.

There are over a dozen new venues, but the majority is still made up of clubs and arenas from the first game, and the character customization is still limited, making it impossible to create yourself. Still, there are nice touches like a no fail mode for rookies or friends who have one too many, and a drum trainer to help players overcome what is undoubtedly the most challenging instrument to play.

When the final set list is scribbled down, Rock Band 2 has every bit as much staying power as the first. The music library is deep and varied, and while the world tour isn’t as upgraded as we’d like, online battle of the bands is much more addicting than you’d think.

Nothing has changed with the fundamental gameplay in Rock Band 2. There are no power-ups, no tweaks to how the band mechanic is handled, and the jump from medium to hard is still way too severe. It remains the layman’s Guitar Hero, with much easier tablatures, and some instruments that can be downright boring to play on some songs.

The big story is the new selection of instruments. The guitar’s strummer has been reinforced, the kick pedal on the drums is fortified by sheet metal, and all the instruments are wireless. The big question is if you already have the instruments from the first game--and they still work--should you buy the new ones? The answer is no. The drums pick up how hard you hit them, but the effect is far too subtle, and the truth is, telling the difference between these news pieces of plastic and the old ones isn’t easy.

The good news is that the feeling of playing in a band with your friends is still just as fun as ever. It’s been a year and it still hasn’t even started to get old. We’ve played Rock Band 2 for over seven hours straight with friends on more than one occasion. There’s no better proof than that.

If there’s one part of the game that received the least amount of improvement, it’s the graphics. You’ll see some new animations, and band members are meticulously animated for each particular song, but the overall look is predominantly the same. The cartoony art style has returned, but like most games in the genre, you’ll spend most of your time staring at the unending barrage of notes, anyway. The music video shoots could be interesting, but they’re basically the same each time.

With all master recordings, the audio quality is impeccable, and the mix between all the instruments is so good you’d swear that Rick Rubin is stuffed somewhere inside your console.

Rock Band 2 will be disappointing if you’re looking for drastic changes. Most of the upgrades are subtle, and you’re basically getting a ton of downloadable content at a great price. For our time and money, it’s worth every penny. The series has become the de facto party standard, and with this many new songs, it will be hard to knock it from the top of the charts. For existing rockers, we recommend just buying the disc, but if you haven’t already joined the tour then grab yourself a set up upgraded instruments, invite some friends over, and watch the magic happen.