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.
Though it clearly goes without saying, none of this style would count for anything were it not backed up by some of the greatest tunes in the history of pop music. There's no room to go over the full tracklist here, but it's fair to say that Harmonix's song selection is pretty much a dream come true for any Beatles fan. The roster includes iconic numbers like "Day Tripper" and "I Am The Walrus", but also album tracks like the swaggering "Hey Bulldog" and the brooding darkness of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". The Beatles covered a wide range of styles over the course of their career, and casual fans may be surprised by the amount of musical variety on offer here.
Up until this point I've assumed that everyone knows how Rock Band works, but here's a quick recap for any non-gamers who are totally new to the concept. The aim of the game is to accompany a song by following a pattern of coloured notes as they move down a vertical track on the screen. When a note reaches the bottom of the track, the player must "play" the right chord - either by strumming a chord on a guitar-shaped controller, or by hitting an electronic drum kit. That's essentially all there is to it, but as your skill improves and you move up the difficulty levels, things can get really quite challenging rather quickly. You can buy the game with or without instruments, but you'll need at least one instrument in order to play; If you've already got a set of peripherals from an existing music game, it should be supported here.
In addition to the instrument-based play, there's also the option to sing - and it's here that Harmonix has made the biggest steps towards innovation. For the first time in a rhythm game, Beatles Rock Band will allow up to three people to sing along on a single track. Each player can stick to the central melody if they wish, but the real point of this feature is to enable multi-part vocal harmonies, wherein each player sings a slightly different part of the song. It works like any other karaoke-based game, only here there are two or three pitch indicators on screen for the harmonised sections. At the end of a tune you can get advanced feedback on who sang which part; you won't lose points if you wound up drifting between two or more parts, but if everyone does manage to stay in tune, you'll get a massive bonus to your score. None of this is actually as tricky as it sounds, but the game still throws in a helpful (if brief) tutorial to get you on your way. I normally hate singing, but I have to admit that I was totally won over by this element of the game - although I'm not sure if the rest of the office enjoyed my tuneless caterwauling. Practice makes perfect I guess.
On top of everything I've already described, Harmonix has also thrown in a bunch of additional goodies to reward players for doing well. As you progress through the story mode and are awarded stars for your performances, you'll unlock a range of black and white photos from across the Beatles' career. These are nice enough, but the real treats are the prizes you receive after collecting a set number of photos. The first reward is a Christmas message that was originally sent out on vinyl to members of the band's fanclub in 1963. It's a great little surprise that catches the foursome in a playful mood, and since the original recording was limited to 25,000 copies, very few people will have ever heard it. Later rewards include video out-takes from the band on tour, and footage of the group doing a warm-up performance for the Ed Sullivan show. Theses bonuses are pretty top notch as far as video game extras go, and since you'll need to rack up a whole bunch of five star performances to get them all, it'll take ages to collect the lot.
It's hard to see how this game could have been much better. Every element has been designed with fans in mind - even the loading screens are quite special, since they feature previously-unheard audio of the band warming up. I don't think I've ever seen a game do such a great job of catering to its target audience, and at every step Harmonix displays a deep understanding and appreciation for the Beatles license. One could argue that 45 is a fairly low track number when compared to other entries in the genre, but there's hardly any fat on the line-up and several classic albums will be available to purchase in the coming months from The Beatles: Rock Band Music Store. Personally, I'm not even that massive a Beatles fan - and yet playing this though has reminded me of everything I've ever loved about the band. If you have even a passing fondness for John, Paul, George and Ringo, this game will make you an extremely happy bunny.