Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rock Band 2: The AV Club Hands-On Preview

Next week, the AV Club will run a special series on music and games, featuring the composers, musos, and nerds who are bringing the two artforms together. As part of the feature, we will have a spotlight on Harmonix, the developer behind such games as Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, Phase, and most recently the Rock Band franchise. And while I was there, I got a hands-on preview of the just-announced Rock Band 2, which is due out this September.

Coming only ten months after the first game, Rock Band 2 is an expansion, not a reinvention. Playing a song on Rock Band 2 feels exactly like playing it on Rock Band, and most of the features won't surprise the game's fans, who have been clamoring for the biggest punch list items since the first disc came out. But the feature list gives some insight into Harmonix and its strategy. The story of Harmonix is essentially the story of how a group of MIT-bred mad scientists and die-hard Boston scenesters created a rock and roll fantasy. In Rock Band 2, that fantasy is more refined: new community features and competitions give the player more ways to flash their chops. Yet it may also be a boon to real musicians, thanks to an in-the-works "indie initiative," and new tutorials that can actually teach you to play the drums.

First off, the career mode. Rock Band 2 cuts the solo world tour, and it makes the concept of a "band" more flexible. Any number of people, online or off, can join a band: you can play by yourself with three steady non-player characters of your own design, you can start a band with remote players, and you can invite people just to sit in with you. Your characters don't have to stick to one instrument, giving you the flexibility to jump from guitar to drums. And if you're just playing in a pick-up band at a party, a "party-safe" mode keeps newcomers from accidentally hitting the wrong button and backing everybody out when you're trying to start the song.

The path through the setlist is also more flexible. Instead of hammering your way through section after section, you can take on different "challenges" to unlock more of the setlist: you can focus on guitar-centric songs, or skip to the "decade" challenges. The songs on the disc will integrate seamlessly with the songs you've downloaded, making your '70s setlist longer and longer the more Rush tracks you buy. And you'll now be able to queue up your setlists, using an interface that's based on the Music Store UI. You'll also be able to play whole albums automatically in the right order, to save you the hassle of forgetting the tracklist halfway through Doolittle.

In the band world tour, you'll still compete for cash and fans, but you'll have more variables to play with. You can hire staff – promoters, your mom – to support your band or find new gigs. A risk and reward system will complicate the business end: hire a sleezy accountant and you may clear more money from a successful gig, or you may get robbed if you underperform. I couldn't tell how engaging this will be, and for detail, it can't compete with Shady O'Grady's Rising Star – but it gives spreadsheet wonks a few more tools to play with.

As soon as you have a band, you can take on other bands. On top of the regular lifetime leaderboards now visible at the official website, with Rock Band 2, Harmonix will start daily "Battle of the Band" challenges – like getting the highest score on Motorhead's "Ace of Spades," or competing in guitar-only or expert-only challenges. Your band plays against the other's score, and a meter flips between your custom-designed band logo and your opponent's as you try to knock them out. Sad to say that lead designer Dan Teasdale and myself, playing as Pitchdork, couldn't take out the Eccentric Kohlers. I blame Teasdale.

In addition to mixing up the leaderboards, Teasdale believes the Battle of the Bands mode will shake up the community. "It's pretty cool, the dynamics you see coming out," he says. Rivalries have already started between the bands at Harmonix. And they're also exploring other initiatives to improve the rudimentary features on the current site, and to look for ways to integrate with other popular networks.

Harmonix is also looking into merchandising options. While they haven't confirmed details, they're exploring a way to let you buy real-life posters and t-shirts bearing the name and logo of your imaginary band. This struck me as a funny yet not-so-funny idea: it adds an intriguing dimension to the act of pretending you're in a rock band. In Rock Band, you can pick it up for fun and laugh at the plastic toy guitar – but the longer you play and the better you get, the more invested you can become in your characters and your band. As Teasdale put it, "It's like getting people to roleplay without even realizing it."

As for the setlist, only ten songs have been announced publically, and it looks very strong. I can't even tell you the best song I played during my demo (though the Journey track rocked). But the rest will be announced "soon," according to Harmonix PR Coordinator John Drake. Here's the starting list:

"Ace of Spades" – Motörhead

"Everlong" – Foo Fighters

"Pinball Wizard" – The Who

"Panic Attack" – Dream Theater (JESUS, WHY)

"Any Way You Want It" – Journey

"Chop Suey" – System of a Down

"Kids in America" – The Muffs

"Give It Away" – Red Hot Chili Peppers

"Hello There" – Cheap Trick

"Pump It Up" – Elvis Costello

The record industry's new enthusiasm for the game shows in the list of stars, including some serious legends, and one get that really surprised me. And this time, all 80+ tracks use the original masters.

Harmonix has confirmed that all of the downloadable songs purchased for 1 will work with 2. They have not confirmed whether all the songs on the first disc will work seamlessly with the second.

Next up, hardware: Rock Band 2 has no new instruments – and during my interviews with the staff, I didn't hear any enthusiasm for branching out beyond the guitar/drums/mic system now in place. But there will be a new drum kit and guitar, both available as separate purchases.

The Rock Band 2 guitar has several refinements. According to Matt Boch, Creative Designer of Hardware, "We iterated maybe 25, 30 different strum bars. What we ended up doing is giving [it] a nicer, more tactile, less mushy feel. There's no click at present, but there's a vastly reduced travel." It also comes with an automatic calibration system with a built-in mic and light sensor, which looks neat and which you'll use exactly once, unless you work at Harmonix and go batty every time you have to set up a demo on a new screen and sound system.

The real upsell is the drum kit. If you're a serious drummer, you can buy the improved kit with a metal-reinforced pedal, quieter, velocity-sensitive pads, and wireless support on all platforms. The kit also comes with new additions and peripherals, which will be revealed at E3. And about the drums. Clearly, the addition of a drum kit marked a new direction for the franchise: while the guitar loosely simulates and abridges the experience of playing guitar, the drum kit is a drum kit, and the game represents an actual set of training wheels for up-and-coming percussionists. Rock Band 2 takes this a step further with the addition of an actual drum training program. I watched Teasdale demo this, and it resembles the game's practice mode, but with a large library of basic beats and fills: "Simple 8th Note Hats," "Robot Rock," "P-P-P-Panama!", "Upbeat Hats 1," and so forth, all playable on three kits – electronic, vintage, and "trashy." There's also a freeplay mode, where you can play drums over mp3's that you've ripped to your console.

Details on the Rock Band 2 bundle are not finalized, but the disc and the new instruments are all shipping separately, and the disc is backwards compatible with last year's bundle. So before you all go off and draw web comics about how your living rooms are filled with music crap, consider buying the disc by itself, and saving the new axe for later.

The last big point is the most controversial: the lack of support for making music in the game.

Rock Band 2 ships in September, and it will come head to head this fall with Guitar Hero IV, which has its own drums and a mic – and which will also help the players write their own songs using the game's peripherals. Penny Arcade's Tycho has argued that Guitar Hero IV has "outflanked" the Rock Band series by including this tool. It's too early to tell whether their user-generated content will yield surprises, or just fill a server somewhere with hours of noodling and shlock-rock. Nobody expected the turntable to become a musical instrument – but on the other hand, the turntable companies never had to tell DJs to start scratching records.

But while Harmonix has skipped user-generated content for the forseeable future, two of the team members dropped hints about a different initiative: a path to bring more indie bands onto the Rock Band platform. As Greg LoPiccolo, VP of Product Development, explained, "We have a very ambitious indie initiative that's cooking now. It's not really ready for any detailed announcement. But long-term, we see that as a significant component of the Rock Band universe, that gets used actively by the independent music community to debut new material. We think that it's an ideal way for people to explore new music."

This seems to fit Harmonix's philosophy: while the game brings everyone onto the stage, there's still a wall between users and musicians. Most of the staff at Harmonix are serious musicians. Supporting struggling bands is a no-brainer to them: many of them still play in a struggling band. And while we have no clue how the indie initiative will shape up, it indicates that Harmonix favors real bands over untapped amateurs.

But hey, if those amateurs are ready to start woodshedding on the drums, and paying their dues, and getting beer spat in their faces at the Abbey Lounge? Rock Band 2 has their back.

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