This year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco is all about virtual reality. It’s all anyone will talk about. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. It’s equal parts exhilarating (The technology is amazing!) and weird (The public could still reject it!).
There’s really only one virtual reality game I wanted to see this week though, and I saw it: Rock Band VR. Regardless of whether Rock Band 4 eventually comes to the PC—it’s looking doubtful—this virtual version of Harmonix’s rhythm game will hit the Oculus Rift later this year.
And it’s weird. I expected the game to require the Rift, of course, but I didn’t know it would require the Oculus Touch motion controls, too. One of them, at least.
Let’s back up a bit. The game is less Rock Band and more Guitar-Hero-That-We-Can’t-Call-Rock-Band-Because-We’re-Harmonix. It’s a guitar-only game, with a guitar-focused soundtrack that requires only a single Rock Band guitar controller.
But in what’s perhaps a weird indication of what VR has in store for the future, Harmonix has custom-designed a piece of plastic to temporarily connect an Oculus Touch controller to your Rock Band guitar. The Touch controller hangs off the headstock and position-tracks the instrument’s position while you’re in the Rift.
It’s ingenious. It’s odd. It works great. It looks ridiculous. It’s (in other words) exactly what you’d expect from early-days VR.
It does work, though. Put on the Rift and you find yourself on a stage, hanging out with a bassist and drummer. My demo started with the curtain closed, asking me to turn on my amp (by looking at it), do a mic check (by speaking into the Rift’s microphone), and then getting the drummer to count us in. Then the curtain opened, the crowd of big-headed weirdos started cheering, notes appeared on a monitor at the foot of the stage, and I launched into the opening lick of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”
Luckily it’s an extremely-repetitive song, leaving me with ample time to glance around at the crowd, at my bandmates, and down at the rack of look-activated guitar pedals by my feet. It is, in effect, the next logical step for Rock Band. This is a series about making you feel like you’re performing. Now you’re...really performing. Sort of.
Is it perfect? No. The cartoony, big-head Rock Band art style is a bit strange transposed to virtual reality, and the current foot-of-the-stage placement for the note track leaves you with little time to admire your surroundings.
But Rock Band VR feels like the bold, forward-thinking step I’d hoped to get from Rock Band 4. Or like a logical extension of the first-person, live-action concerts in last year’s Guitar Hero Live. It’s about making you a participant, not just an observer. It’s wish fulfillment—something both Rock Band and VR are good at.
Questions remain, of course. The soundtrack, for one. DLC. How I’ll get that stupid plastic doohickey without buying yet another Rock Band guitar. And how long I’ll stay engaged with Rock Band VR as a guitar-only platform, though I understand the reasons behind the decision.
As far as VR demos go though? Virtual rock star makes a lot of sense. Look for the game to launch alongside Oculus Touch in the back half of the year—and look for the first video of someone accidentally smashing a plastic guitar through their TV shortly thereafter.