Not Just Another Rock Band
It's impossible to consider the history of rock without discussing The Beatles--and now, upon the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, it'll be hard to recount the history of rhythm video games without acknowledging the group's band-in-a-box debut. Part of that is because…well…they're The Beatles.
Fans have long imagined jamming with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Grab a plastic axe, a pair of sticks, or a microphone, and strum, drum, and warble along to "Yellow Submarine" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" with your pals--what's not to like? All developer Harmonix had to do was duplicate its award-winning Rock Band shtick, and sales would be assured.
What's great about The Beatles: Rock Band is that Harmonix didn't go down that path. This game isn't just another play-along stroll down memory lane with a few phoned-in musical cues. What could have amounted to a simple stack of crowd-pleasers with a dusting of nostalgic glitter turns out to be an unusually stylish, collaboratively artful, endearingly sentimental tour de force. And of course it's a toe-tapping blast, too.
PCW Score: 100%
For more gaming news and opinion, see:
* "Rock Band: The Game" (video)
Play as the Fab Four
Whether your specialty is guitar, bass, drums, or vocals, you gain access to 45 tracks plucked from all 13 Beatles albums, including a few of the special versions found on the recent Cirque du Soleil collection, "Love." It's tough to grade the game's default selection--opinions about the song list will be myriad, and probably unshakable--but it seems to be a generous mix of popular hits and less-well-known material. Aside from a few songs that appear out of order to keep the sets balanced, the tunes are sequenced to bring you through the band's startling musical evolution, from the lads' heady boy-band days in 1963 Liverpool's Cavern Club to their final surprise performance on January 30, 1969, perched atop the roof of the Apple Corps building (the music company, not the computer one).
Made for More Than One
Unlike certain other rhythm games, the Rock Band titles have no lone "hero"--and that's especially the case for The Beatles: Rock Band. The group idea is intrinsic to the game's design. You can certainly solo through the history-minded Story Mode if you like, admiring the increasingly trippy visual dreamscapes that overlay the Abbey Road studio setting, or geeking over the "never before released" audio outtakes, but you'll be missing something vital. And that's just as the game should be, complemented as it is by feature firsts such as three-part vocal harmonizing.
Sing in Harmony
Instead of just one mic for the band, why not three? If you have three microphones (and three free USB ports--yep, you'll definitely need a separate USB hub), the game splits the Pitch Indicator into three colors so that you and your buddies can sing in perfect harmony (or try to, anyway).
As with prior Rock Bands, it's helpful to have a sense of a song's harmony parts going in, or at least an able ear for music, since the indicator can offer only a general sense of "too high" or "too low." That said, the color-coding is easy to follow, the lyrics are helpfully split into "lead" and "harmony" parts to minimize confusion, and the stave-like indicator never crowds the screen. The upside of singing in harmony? Double or triple "Fab" ratings that cough up scads of bonus points.
The cartoon and 3D-animated mélange that plays at the outset of the game is an absolute marvel, a triumph of visual design that's almost worth the price of admission alone. We've been explicitly forbidden from taking and displaying screens of it in our review, but I can say that I've never seen an introductory sequence as captivating as this one. Play it once, play it thrice. Play it for friends, play it for insufferably hard-core Beatles purists. It's an entirely worthy tribute to the international phenomenon that was the band.
Train With Ringo's Rhythms
Besides playing in the standard Rock Band practice and tutorial modes, you can pop into a special Drum Trainer to try out "Beatle Beats," aka Ringo's Classic Rhythms. Okay, technically speaking, Ringo had nothing on drummers such as John or Jason Bonham, but it's nevertheless gratifying to work through the drum beats and riffs that underlie some of the group's most notable material. Walled off, they don't seem like much, but played first without the rest of the band and then again with it--where they're absolutely essential--they offer insight into just how rhythmically savvy Starr actually was.
Not Quite in the Groove
The 3D avatars representing the Fab Four aren't the game's strongest point. The sets are flawless. The costumes are colored, pressed, and detailed to perfection. The stage positions are spot-on. But whereas it's easy to laugh off the black-eyed, tongue-flapping automatons standing in for glam-rockers in a game like Guitar Hero 3, it's slightly unsettling to watch John, Paul, George, and Ringo--correction, the cartoony abstractions approximating them--as they wobble along, sometimes with the groove and sometimes slightly out of sync. Once you're into the group's later material and the psychedelic fantasies overtake the stand-in-place head-bobbing and hip-swinging, it's less noticeable.
That said, the designers went above and beyond, nailing down the group's period-specific look and feel. They've left no trademark mustache, sideburn, or pair of tinted specs unturned.
Glimpses of History
Rounding out the list of rewards for acing three- or five-star performances (you get nothing notable for one-, two-, or four-star ones) are images and rare audio and video clips that you can either view along the way or watch separately later. The pictures come with optional text detailing bits of trivia, but don't expect any jaw-droppers. The real show-stealers are the audio and video clips, in particular a full copy of the rare "The Beatles' Christmas Album," spotlighting the band's goofier side. That item, along with several videos such as a rehearsal performance for "The Ed Sullivan Show" and outtakes from the band's initial U.S. visit, offers the sort of perks that will thrill Beatles nuts and fascinate new fans.
No Flashy Solos Here
One thing you won't find in The Beatles: Rock Band is complex individual instrumentation. The Beatles were never flashy players, so all of the challenge of the game is tied up in mastering tough fingerings with the odd grace note, or--preferably--in working with other players to unlock bonuses, such as simultaneously invoking "Beatlemania" (the game's equivalent of "overdrive," which yields point-multiplier bonuses). If you're looking for fancy solos, you want something starring Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, or Steve Vai--and it goes without saying that if you're not a fan of The Beatles' music, their rhythm-game debut probably isn't for you.
Get Ready to Rock
It's fitting that Harmonix chose to title the game The Beatles: Rock Band, not the other way around. The latter probably owes its existence in part to the former, as so much that came after the Fab Four does. Of course that hasn't stopped MTV from taking advantage of the name by readying a small arsenal of ancillary peripherals and offering them at boutique prices. Do you need replicas of Paul's Hofner Violin Bass and John's Rickenbacker 325 Guitar, priced at $100 apiece? Of course not. But if you dig The Beatles, picking up this game is a no-brainer. And if you've never played a video game (or a rhythm game) in your life, here's the one to start with.
For more gaming goodness, see:
* "Rock Band: The Game" (video)