So, Rock Band 2 has finally made it over to good old Blighty, only six months after the first game landed on these shores. This presents a problem. Do I, A: Fork out the £40 to buy it, even though I've only had the first Rock Band for half a year, or B: Fork out the £40 to buy it, as well as splash the cash on one or more instruments released for the original Rock Band or Guitar Hero: World Tour, because I don't have a band video game? The answers are as follows: A: Yes. And B: Yes. Let's start with A.
If you fall into the A category, you've already got Rock Band and probably an instrument or two. So you'll be interested in what new features Rock Band 2 brings to the stage. There's a four-player Online World Tour, daily Battle of the Band tournaments, a No Fail mode (thank you!) and a Drum Trainer that allows you to drum along to songs imported from your mp3 player. You can even export your created rocker to the internet and order custom Rock Band merchandise, like clothes and figures.
The Online World Tour mode does exactly what it says on the tin. Instead of having to wait for when the rest of your band mates came round to play it offline, you can now join an online band, made up of real people from all over the world. Playing online is nowhere near as good as playing with three friends locally, as you'd expect, but there will be plenty of people, especially the competitive rockers among you, who will be delighted at this addition.
The track list, going by other music-based games, is enormous. There's over 100 songs here (84 on the disc, 20 free to download), although most of them need to be unlocked by playing through the World Tour. It's all rock, as you'd expect, with everything from AC/DC to Guns 'N Roses, via Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam. It's usually impossible to say, with music games, that there's guaranteed to be something for everyone, but in this case it's absolutely true. And, as you'd expect, all the songs you've downloaded for the original Rock Band will be immediately playable, too. On the downside, however, you'll have to fork out 400 Microsoft Points (GBP 3.40 / EUR 4.80) to import 55 songs from the original Rock Band, a fee we can only imagine is in place because of extra licensing costs incurred by Harmonix.
Beyond the new tracks and the new features, Rock Band 2 is fundamentally the same as Rock Band. At its best, usually with a few friends around the house and a crate of beer, it's absolutely brilliant. With a full compliment - one player singing into a USB mic, one player flashing fingers on guitar, one player bashing the crap out of a drum kit and the other grooving on bass - the experience is like no other. Developer Harmonix hasn't dared tinker with the core 'notes falling from the top of the screen down to the bottom' gameplay, and with good reason. It knows the magic that is Rock Band doesn't need to be tinkered with. When you're in the zone, when you're fingers are just doing what they need to, seemingly independently of your brain, when everyone is just nailing their part on Hard, there's no feeling like it in gaming. Well, apart from Guitar Hero: World Tour.
Played solo, Rock Band can feel lonely, and get pretty boring, we'll admit. Unless you're practising a track, there's little point. The online features do help here, but for us playing a game like Rock Band with others online is a strangely detached experience. It's designed to be played with everyone in the same room, and that's when it's best.
Better than all of the headline new features, however, is the feeling that Rock Band 2 rights all of the wrongs of the first game, wrongs that you won't find talked about in an EA press release. In the Tour mode in the original Rock Band each created band member had to stick with his or her instrument throughout. Harmonix was obviously trying to make each character feel like it played a specific role in the band, but the end result was a restricting experience, especially when people wanted to switch instruments but keep playing with their character. In Rock Band 2 each character can now change instruments in-game, which eradicates this problem.
Given these additional features, improvements in the little, niggly things, as well as a bulging track list and the ability to import 55 songs from the first Rock Band (albeit at a cost), there's no question that Rock Band 2 is worth forking out £40 for even if you've bought the first game only a few months ago. The fun factor isn't significantly increased, nor is the amazing Rock Band experience modified. This is a refinement, but an essential one.
Now, on to question B: I don't have the first Rock Band, or any Guitar Hero game, should I buy Rock Band 2, and a set of instruments, to go with it? Given that Activision's Guitar Hero series has now set its sights on carving itself out a piece of the 'band experience' pie with its recently released World Tour, a game Neon gave 9/10 in his review, the answer isn't so crystal clear. Rock Band 2 has competition, and to recommend it over its bitter rival requires careful analysis of the differences between the two offerings.
Guitar Hero: World Tour, as it stands in the UK, has better instruments (the new Rock Band 2 instruments aren't out here yet, the World Tour drum kit has cymbals), and it's also got a music editing and recording mode called Music Studio, which Neon described as "incredible". Apart from that, it's horses for courses, and your preference will probably come down to the track list (World Tour's list is probably a tad more mainstream than RB2's). DLC offerings from both Activision and EA are excellent and flow constantly. For us, Rock Band 2 is brilliant, just like Guitar Hero: World Tour is. We can't pick between them. Slightly boring conclusion, we know, but the right one.