The Beatles: Rock Band
It's a surprisingly sunny July day in London, and journalists are excitedly filling the stools and sofas of Camden's trendy Barfly venue. The bar prides itself on showcasing musical talent in its formative stages, and in recent years has helped cement the reputation of bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay, and Oasis. Today we've clamoured inside to see the only band in history that's officially bigger than Jesus: The Beatles. The Fab Four have been reunited in videogame form, less than two miles from the ever-famous Abbey Road Studios, thirty-four years after they legally broke up.
And in front of their sharp, computer-generated suits and painstakingly rendered iconic haircuts are members of Harmonix and MTV Games, plastic instruments in hand, effortlessly performing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on Expert. Although they do have No Fail mode switched on. On the screen its 1964, and we're watching The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show: Ringo's up on a podium in the background, with Paul, George and John lined up in the front.
The journalists are silent, some taking notes, most looking enviously at the stage waiting to have a go. It's not exactly Beatlemania. There's still a genuine sense of shock in the crowd that the game ever got made. Extensive legal squabbles and numerous creative differences have kept The Beatles from even gracing the all-conquering iTunes, let alone committing themselves to an instalment of a popular videogame franchise.
And, amongst the crowd, there's a touch of cynicism. The average videogame buyer was unlikely to have been born in the year that John Lennon was tragically killed, and a music game based solely around one band will surely find it hard to capture the interests of today's attention-lacking gamers, let alone stand a chance against Guitar Hero 5. It doesn't even matter if it's the better game or not, after all: Guitar Hero: World Tour drastically outsold Rock Band 2, despite critical reception firmly favouring the latter. How do Harmonix react to such concerns?
They turn the game on, and invite everyone to play. One of the reasons that Harmonix were able to convince Apple Corps to approve the game in the first place, says MTV Games's Jeff Castaneda in an interview with us, is that it will "open up The Beatles to a whole new audience." There's a definite sense that Harmonix have complete faith in The Beatles: Rock Band, truly believing it capable of impressing those not familiar with the band just as much as serious fans. They're trying to attract people at both ends of the spectrum, though, by offering treats to the devout followers, such as being "able to hear The Beatles chatting to each other, joking around, and just flubbing notes and such. It's pretty amazing." He's talking about the banter that plays during loading and results screens. It's certainly a nice touch.
Of course, whether that unwavering faith is enough to sell copies of the game is another question. But, a couple of hours into the event, the cynicism had disappeared from the crowd. Or maybe the critics had all nipped outside for a cheeky cigarette. I don't know; I was too busy trying to play the game. And I'm not even a big fan of The Beatles.
The big new feature in The Beatles: Rock Band is the addition of three-part vocal harmonies. If you're prepared to hook up two microphones to stands and put them near the lead and bass guitarists - or, if you're feeling crazy, the drummer - you'll get three lines occasionally scroll across the vocal track. If all the singers hit their notes right everyone gets a bonus. It sounds simple, but it's a bit harder to pull off in reality, especially if you're not familiar with what to sing. But it's an irresistible prospect on some songs - "Here Comes the Sun" instantly springs to mind - and it makes a lot of sense considering the band in question. Whether or not you'll want three of your mates singing in the same room is another matter entirely.
The Beatles: Rock Band promises a treat for the ears, then, but it's also easy on the eyes. Visually, the vivid landscapes of The Beatles take us far away from the grungy blacks of Rock Band 2, and even the notes have been made more colourful. But where the game really drives up the saturation is in the 'Dreamscapes', colourful imaginations of the band's style during the Abbey Road years. They're so psychedelic I was forced to question whether Harmonix had put LSD in the coffee. The Dreamscapes form much of the second half of the game's career mode, with the first part focusing on the band's 'Fab Four' era and recreating famous performances from the band's illustrious career.
The tracks play spectacularly well. Harmonix, single-handedly responsible for popularising the music game phenomenon to begin with, are clearly masters of the genre. The note charts for The Beatles: Rock Band are not overwhelmingly complex - they're certainly not difficult for the sake of difficulty - but they're outlandishly fun. Lead guitar is suitably showy, bass players don't have to worry about creeping monotony, and drummers can continue to hit pads with targeted abandon. Harmonix are clearly on top form, and their notes are well-timed, nuanced and restrained.
We got to get out hands on ten songs of varying difficulty. "Back in the USSR", "Taxman", and "Octopus's Garden" were some of the harder songs we played, with "Day Tripper", "Get Back", "Here Comes the Sun", "I am the Walrus", "I Feel Fine", and "I Saw Her Standing There" not so challenging. Finally, we played "I Want to Hold Your Hand", one of the simpler songs on the set that, like all the others, was disgustingly good fun to play.
Although, potential concerns lead me to ask if there's the possibility that the ten songs from the demo have been cherry picked, and the other thirty-five songs won't be quite as good. The Harmonix representatives look at me like I've just suggested something unthinkable, like turning the game off and having a break. I shouldn't have asked: how could "All You Need is Love", which will be released as 360-exclusive day-one DLC, be anything other than fantastic?
There's also the expected assortment of various tweaks and adjustments that keep the whole game ticking. Most importantly, fellow lefties can rejoice: the new instruments are all symmetrical, and you can now switch on lefty flip from the difficulty select screen. No Fail mode can also be toggled from the same screen. The 'Tour' mode of Rock Band 1 and 2 has been abandoned, as Harmonix believed it to be a little over-complicated. And the game now counts you back into the gameplay when you un-pause the game. Which is nice. They're also supporting the Lips and Singstar microphones for 360 and PS3, respectively, which means there's a good chance you won't have to fork out for another two microphones to use the vocal harmonies. Oh, and they've unlocked all the songs for Quickplay mode from the start. Phew.
When Harmonix began with Guitar Hero, players were sold on the idea of becoming a rock star. With The Beatles: Rock Band, Harmonix are encouraging the player to take a step back and give a knowing sideways glance to the Fab Four. Instead of becoming rock stars, we're playing along with them. But Activision's ever-popular Guitar Hero 5 looms on the horizon, which demands an answer to the following question: if The Beatles are bigger than Jesus, and Guitar Hero 5 outsells The Beatles: Rock Band, just how big, exactly, would Bobby Kotick be?
We'll just have to wait and see. The Beatles: Rock Band will be released on 09/09/09, alongside deluxe editions of all ten of The Beatles' albums. You can also find our full interview with Jeff Castaneda right here.