The Beatles: Rock Band
But, what if you don't like The Beatles? Chances are, Harmonix must obviously reckon that most people are at least somewhat fond of the bigger-than-Jesus 60s supergroup. There are no other artists on display here, after all; no guest acts brought in to construct a more diverse song selection that the marketing team have explicitly designed to attract the biggest possible slice of the market. It's simply 45 songs by The Beatles. And that's a very good thing.
Harmonix are stitching together a detailed, interactive compilation album. Whilst all the songs, save one, are unlocked immediately in Quickplay mode, the core of The Beatles: Rock Band is an anthology of snapshots, flinging the player through the band's ten-ish year career in the game's Story mode at breakneck speed. You're transported from era to era, starting in the stylishly dingy cellar of Liverpool's Cavern Club in 1963 and playing Twist and Shout, Boys, Do You Want To Know A Secret and I Saw Her Standing There to plenty of adoring fans. This is The Beatles' boy band period in full swing, and the game relishes the fact by popping the band in their famous skinny suits and having them perform their famous bob as they play. Paul even shakes his head every time he sings a sustained high note. It's lovely.
The level of detail that exists in the game's visuals and presentation is immediately apparent. The subtle, balanced colour palette and gorgeous, stylised models exude an artistic flair that's often lacking in other music titles, former Rock Band games included. By not having to constrain themselves by shoehorning in customisation options, Harmonix's art team have been able to meticulously build every facet of the game's appearance and direction, creating gorgeous representations of the band and the extraordinary venues where they performed.
What's more, these songs play out with the nuance that Harmonix seem to so easily create. The Beatles are clearly the perfect band to bring out the best of the brightly coloured, scrolling notes: Paul's incredible bass playing, Ringo's legendary drumming, George's careful, subdued guitar work and John's exceptional combination of guitar and vocals (Lennon's vocals are the best, I say) combine to create an intricate, measured music game experience. Its production values are nothing short of staggering.
Gameplay wise, not too much has changed from Rock Band 2. There are a few tweaks to the menus, including the option to select lefty flip and no-fail from the instrument selection screen. The game also counts you back into a song after pausing. The main addition, song permitting, is three-part vocal harmonies - a vital element when considering the band in question. You'll need three microphones, and also stands if you're going to try singing whilst you play plastic instruments. Admittedly, this all adds up to quite a heavy financial cost. The game does, however, support the affordable and high-quality SingStar and Lips mics to help lighten the fiscal burden.
Set it all up and the experience is sublime, although your living room will basically look like a plastic instrument version of Abbey Road Studios. Vocal harmonies are a tricky beast to master, especially for players who don't generally fancy themselves as vocalists, but Harmonix have elected not to punish sloppy harmonies. There's a fat reward if you get it right, though.
After you've set up your three mics, two guitars and drum set and blitzed through the Cavern Club set you get to take Beatlemania to America, performing in The Ed Sullivan Show's iconic studio in 1964. Here you get to play classics such as I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day's Night. Moving to New York's packed Shea Stadium in 1965 you perform, amongst others, Ticket To Ride and Eight Days A Week. Then it's off to Tokyo's Budokan in 1966 to experience the band's final live tour and play a set including Drive My Car, Taxman and Paperback Writer. That's an incredibly diverse selection of songs already, and at this point you're not even half-way through the game.
Afterwards, The Beatles stopped touring live and retreated to the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London. Playing songs such as Yellow Submarine, I Am The Walrus, Hello Goodbye, Octopus's Garden and Here Comes The Sun in the smaller confines of the famous studio, then, would be a comparatively dull visual experience. It's here that Harmonix run wild with the trippy colours and wacky environments that the band created in this period with 'Dreamscapes', imaginary scenarios that catapult the band through wonderfully psychedelic environments. They're a real delight to behold.
Finally, to finish the game, The Beatles take to the rooftops of Apple Corps in 1969 to perform the famous rooftop concert. Working through the more subdued likes of Dig A Pong, Don't Let Me Down and Get Back is a fittingly cathartic moment, and as the game draws to a close so does this snapshot of The Beatles' legacy. It's a surprisingly touching moment.
Therein lies the game's greatest strength: no other rhythm game has ever come as close to crafting such an authentic, detailed picture of the band they're featuring. I've always considered myself a fairly knowledgeable chap when it comes to the Fab Four, but The Beatles: Rock Band made me realise that I know little of the band past the music. For a game that, at its core, has you do little more than scroll through 45 cherry picked tracks, that's an impressive feat.
When you're not playing you're learning, as Harmonix have raided The Beatles' audio and visual archives to lavish the player with titbits of knowledge at every opportunity. When a song loads the game plays audio of the band jamming, bantering and tweaking their sound. Fans of The Beatles will rejoice at being handed previously unreleased material: when we spoke to Jeff Castaneda at a preview event earlier in the year, he said this game was the first genuine opportunity Apple Corps had to release these archive recordings to the public. It's an impressive feat for Harmonix, and a real treat for fans. The game also hands nuggets of information in the form unlockable collectables, namely in the form of photographs which unlock when the player scores three and five stars.
But the game is intended as a celebration of The Beatles. The feuds, spats and walk-outs aren't documented in any form. The Beatles: Rock Band presents shiny, happy, vibrant versions of John, Paul, George and Ringo as history wants to remember them. It's not intended to be an extensive documentary, after all. Most people will be perfectly happy with this. If you're like me, though, your curiosity will be piqued and you'll immediately order a copy of Hunter Davis's fantastic, and in-depth, Beatles biography.
It would have been easy to slap a few Beatles tracks into the existing Rock Band 2 and call it a day. The marketing blitz that's accompanied the release of the game and the recently released remastered albums would have ensured big sales, after all. Instead, Harmonix have created a loving dedication to one of the greatest bands of all time. It might not set the Christmas charts on fire, but it will be a critical darling for years to come. And with Harmonix promising to make full albums available as DLC in the near future, fans will be playing their plastic instruments along with the Fab Four for a while to come.
You don't like The Beatles? You will after this.
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