Rock-rhythm games are an increasingly tricky proposition for your humble games reviewer. Last year VideoGamer gave 9 out of 10 scores to both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour; these titles are the still best in their class, so how should we feel about games that essentially provide a near-identical experience but with a new set of tunes? Some might say we should punish such releases for their lack of originality, but we don't take this approach with other genres. Each fresh iteration of FIFA and Pro Evo is merely a subtle tweak away from the last one, but that's largely tolerated because hey - football is football. If the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games have found their winning formula, should we really expect them to radically change? And if not, how do we decide what constitutes a great strum-em-up?
If you say you want a revolution, Beatles: Rock Band may not be the game for you. Harmonix has certainly added a few new elements to the familiar rock-along gameplay - three-part vocal harmonies, for one - but if you're looking for a game that shakes stuff up a bit, you may be better off waiting for Guitar Hero 5 (although I stress the word "may", since at the time of writing we've yet to receive review code). Rather than tearing up the rulebook, Harmonix has taken its established, near-perfect rhythm gameplay and used it to make the absolute most of the Beatles license - the kind of source material that most developers would kill for. And happily for the gaming public, the results are nothing short of sublime.
The quality of this game is evident right from the outset. Beatles: Rock Band kicks off with one of the best intro videos I've seen in years - a gloriously stylish piece of animation that condenses the whole of the Beatles' career into a three minute montage, flitting between styles as it goes. We start with our four at The Cavern club, in Liverpool, then follow them through city streets as they attempt to flee their fans. From here we jump to the band's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and then on to their shows at the Shea Stadium and at Budokan. Things turn a bit trippy as the group move into their studio years, and the montage concludes with the Fab Four leading a bizarre procession from the head of a giant elephant-like creature. It's a wonderful way to start the game, demonstrating a clear understanding of the imagery and mythology that surrounds the band to this day.
While all but one of the game's 45 tracks are unlocked from the start, many fans will want to dive straight into the career mode. Previous rhythm games have attempted to offer some form of narrative with varying degrees of success, but here the historical story-telling works brilliantly. As with the intro, we start with the band playing simple rock and roll at the Cavern before working our way through seven more chapters that catch the boys at important stages of their development. As you move from one period to the next you're treated to more high-quality cutscenes featuring photo cut-outs and album covers from the relevant years.
While these videos do a nice job of setting the tone for each new chapter, it's the in-game graphics that make the career mode so successful. I've never regarded visuals as being particularly important to strum-em-up titles, but Beatles: Rock Band has proved me wrong. The backdrops that accompany gameplay fall into two categories: for the chapters that cover the group's live performances, you get a detailed recreation of the band playing at the relevant venue. Then, for the years when The Beatles confined themselves to recording at Abbey Road, the game uses "dreamscapes" - highly stylised music videos that tie in to the themes of the song you're playing. Both approaches work extremely well. The dreamscapes work particularly well when accompanying songs with vivid imagery, but the "live" backdrops are equally effective at capturing the look and feel of the time. It all builds up to an emotional climax as the Fab Four play their final gig atop the roof of the Apple Corps building - a scene that might leave some fans with a lump in their throat.