Think of your favourite song, and what it means to you. Now imagine listening to that song ten times in one day. Okay, now imagine listening to that same track ten times a day, every day, for over a year. That’s what it must be like to work on a music rhythm game. If you work in a pizza shop you tend to get bored of pizza fairly quickly, so perhaps the guys who work on Rock Band and Guitar Hero develop strange musical tastes. They probably only listen to accordions and harpsichords, or something.
It must be particularly trying with a project like The Beatles: Rock Band, where the focus is entirely on the back catalogue of a single artist. Then again perhaps it’s a pleasure. Harmonix says that everyone who worked on this game is a massive fan of the Fab Four, and whether or not that’s true, the end product certainly feels as if it was made by Beatle-philes.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is essentially just a new version of Rock Band 2 with a catalogue of Beatles songs, although given the quality of both the game and the music, this is hardly a bad thing. There are, however, a few changes and additions that are worth discussing. Foremost among these is the new mechanic for vocal harmonies, allowing up to three people to sing select parts of a song together. This may not sound complicated, but Harmonix states that it’s one of the most technically complicated things they ever had to implement within their series. I’m no engineer, but I’m prepared to believe them.
During a song the harmonies are represented as three different bars appearing at different heights on the vocals track. At the end of the song you then get a complete breakdown of your efforts, including how many fabs (successful harmonies) you scored. An advanced set of results will also show how much each player sang of each vocal part, a feature that may help if you’re aiming for one pitch and hitting another (apparently Paul’s notes can be the trickiest to hit). The full game will also include a dedicated training mode for the three-part harmonies. Hopefully this will help those of us who sound like drowning cats when we murder Here Comes The Sun.
Aside from the harmonies, Harmonix has also been making a song and dance (ha!) about the effort they’ve put into the game’s look. I’ll admit to be being a bit sceptical about this, since graphics are hardly the most important element of a music game, but I have to say that the new visuals do look really good. There's a clear split in BRB between those songs culled from the band’s early career and those that were written after they stopped touring. In the former category, the four are shown playing at virtual recreations of real-life venues - notably The Cavern Club in Liverpool and the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. The models for John, Paul, George and Ringo are a notable step up from the characters used in Rock Band 2, while the backgrounds have been based upon reams of research material and photographs from the time. Clearly the music is always going to be the focal point of a game like this, but it really does add something to have the smoky confines of the Cavern on screen while you’re jamming away.
The second set of visuals are arguably more of an innovation. From 1966 onwards the Beatles stopped playing live gigs and largely focused on studio work. Aware that this backdrop might become a bit dull if it were used for half of the game’s songs, Harmonix has instead created a set of “dreamscapes” - colourful videos that tie into the themes of each song. The one for Octopus’s Garden begins with the Abbey Road studio flooding, while the clip for Back In The USSR is packed with classic images in the style of those Soviet propaganda images. They look pretty great, and arguably set a new standard for visual accompaniments in games like these.
All the same, there’s no getting away from the real appeal here: 45 Beatles songs, available for you to play with up to six friends, provided that two people are content to just be backing singers. In addition to the pleasure of the songs themselves, hardcore fans should know that even the warm-up and failure noises have been culled from previously-unreleased recordings: cock up a song, and you may hear one of the band making a joke or an excuse. If you’re a purist with a fat wallet, or if you’ve never bought one of these games before, you may also choose to splash out on a new set of peripherals based on instruments used by the guys. There’s John’s Rickenbacker 325, George’s Gretsch Duo-Jet, Paul’s Höfner 500/1 bass guitar and a Ludwig drum kit. Being a non-musician, none of that last sentence means much to me, but I can confirm that the new kit looks very nice. The new devices are just redesigned versions of the Rock Band 2 controllers, so they should work very well.
One thing worth mentioning is that this game won’t work with any DLC songs for previous Rock Band games, so if you want a non-Beatles tune you’ll have to change discs. Some people may find this a bit irritating, but as Harmonix points out, it would be a bit weird to have Lennon and McCartney playing Hammer Smashed Face by Cannibal Corpse. In any case, the whole of the Abbey Road album will be available to download shortly after the main game is out. There will also be a timed exclusive release for All You Need Is Love on the 360, with all profits going to Doctors Without Borders (the charity, not the band).
All in all, this looks like it should be a great package for Beatles fans. If you play Rock Band and Guitar Hero for their metal tracks then I suspect you may be a bit disappointed, but everyone else is going to flock to this. Expect it to sell by the bucket load on release, and many more when Crimbo rolls around.
The Beatles: Rock Band will be released on September 9 on PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.