I realized recently that I’ve probably spent more time listening to the voice of Paul McCartney than I’ve spent listening to any other person on the planet, save for immediate family members (who have the rather unfair advantage of knowing me personally). Friends come and go, but the music of the Beatles (in both their Beatle and post-Beatle guises) has been with me since infancy, and might very well play me off the stage when it’s all said and done.
For that reason, I’m torn between tailoring this review to two types of readers: those for whom the Beatles are just another band (I know you’re out there), and those for whom they’re something akin to a religion. Of course, you don’t need to know all the words to “Revolution 9″ to find something to like in Beatles Rock Band, but your level of attachment to the band will largely determine whether you consider the game a worthwhile purchase.
Seth Schiesel of the New York Times recently suggested that Beatles Rock Band “may be the most important video game yet made.” While that lofty claim might have some validity in light of the game’s potential status as a “cultural watershed” the title that started the franchise — the original Rock Band — was far more important from a gameplay perspective. Beatles Rock Band merely tweaks the established formula. You’ll still be strumming or pounding plastic instruments in time with “gems” scrolling down on-screen note charts, and while “Overdrive” has become “Beatlemania” and “Awesomes” have been replaced by “Fabs” the core mechanics remain the same.
A three-second count-in before resuming play after exiting the pause screen and a more extensive drum trainer (“Beatle Beats” allows you to mimic 80 of Ringo’s signature strokes at reduced speed) are welcome additions, but Beatles Rock Band’s most notable innovation is its inclusion of three-part vocal harmonies. The Fabs were known for employing the sweetest harmonies this side of the Beach Boys or Zombies, and Beatles Rock Band capitalizes on the public’s familiarity with their songs to capture this essential element of their sound. Although the band bonuses conferred by activating “Beatlemania” encourage a degree of cooperation, the addition of vocal harmonies necessitates some planning and coordination, and goes a long way towards making each player feel like a part of a cohesive unit.
When harmonies are activated prior to starting any song that supports them, each player with a microphone can sing any of the vocal parts, with no penalties resulting from a failure to sing anything but the lead correctly. The vocal trainer in the practice mode allows you to isolate each vocal part and repeat each section of any song as many times as you like, and you might find yourself resorting to it when some of those peskier Double and Triple Fab scores prove elusive. As creative director Josh Randall noted, the Beatles rarely “shred” but while Beatles Rock Band offers few instrumental challenges on par with those of the most difficult songs found in previous incarnations of the franchise, playing on expert while singing complex harmonies represents a feat that only the experienced can master. If you’re especially sadistic, you can activate “Super Speed” in the game’s settings, increasing the rate at which the note charts scroll, or enter “Performance Mode” in which the notes themselves are hidden.
In a nod to user-friendliness, Harmonix made 44 of the game’s 45 songs accessible from the start in quickplay mode (in previous iterations of Rock Band, one had to progress through a lengthy career mode to catch ’em all). However, in order to unlock the final tune (it’s worth the effort), you will have to play through the story mode. Story mode divides the assembled fragments of the Beatles catalog into discrete historical periods, introducing each through an artful montage of animated archival material. Simply complete every song in a given period to progress to the next.
Once you complete each section, you’ll also have the opportunity to complete a “Chapter Challenge” which tasks you with five-starring each of that section’s songs without interruption, but Beatles Rock Band’s story mode is far less involved than those in Rock Band and Rock Band 2. You won’t be forced to replay songs countless times in pursuit of riches, mostly because there simply wouldn’t be anything to spend them on.
That brings me to one possible source of frustration for fans of the franchise: Beatles Rock Band features a notable lack of customization and interactivity in comparison to the previous Rock Band titles. In the interest of historical accuracy, you won’t be able to create your own character, design your own logo, play dress-up with the Beatles, or tinker with their instruments. You’ll also find that freestyle drum fills and crowd participation have disappeared, whammying sustained notes no longer produces an audible effect, and butchering a song results in a failure message, rather than an inglorious exit from the stage.
Notice that I didn’t say that Beatles Rock Band suffers from these changes. There might be a certain segment of the game-playing public that laments these omissions, but I found the commitment to historical accuracy and the core Beatles experience far more rewarding than the ability to scour the sunglasses rack in Rock Band 2. Fortunately, the Beatles’ array of iconic outfits keeps things from growing stale on stage, even without the player’s intervention.
Beatles Rock Band positively oozes with Beatles-specific audio, imagery, and extras. In days gone by, I yearned for downloadable Beatles tracks to appear in the Rock Band music store, but now that I’ve witnessed the power of this fully armed and operational Beatles-station, I’m glad that the folks at Harmonix resisted the urge to drop the Beatles bomb before they were prepared to deliver the maximum payload. The game’s breathtaking intro and outro videos, produced by Passion Pictures, convey some sense of the Beatles’ cultural impact while drawing upon elements of the band’s visual legacy, and shorter animations, prepared by graphic design studio MK12, accompany the introduction of each new venue. Selecting menu options even elicits a chord that sounds straight out of “Getting Better.” In-studio chatter from actual Beatles recording sessions, some of which had never been officially released prior to appearing in the game, both precedes and follows the playing of most tracks, and helps to foster an immersive experience.
If strumming along with some of the best songs ever written doesn’t sound like an ample reward for your $60 outlay, you’ll be happy to learn that Harmonix has included a selection of photographs and videos of the band which can be unlocked through the story mode. The photos and their accompanying captions were vetted by Macca himself, and the videos, consisting mainly of excerpts from preexisting Beatle documentaries, offer a glimpse of the game’s principal characters in action. There’s little here that hardcore Beatlemaniacs haven’t seen and heard elsewhere, and it’s hard not to wish that Harmonix had managed to cram more of this material onto the disk, but what there is does offer a powerful incentive for players to master all of the game’s tracks, and should provide a handy primer for those new to the band’s history. In addition, a long list of achievements provides a host of more specific challenges which can be undertaken for Beatle bragging righties.
Although the music is the headliner, the venues in which you’ll find yourself playing it certainly qualify as co-stars of this show. As you advance through the story mode, you’ll find yourself playing to screaming crowds in a number of immediately recognizable settings, including the Cavern Club, the set of the Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium, the Nippon Budokan, and the rooftop of Apple Records. Each of these locales was meticulously researched and recreated, and only the somewhat generic appearances and recycled animations of the crowds subtract from their overall effectiveness.
If you turn on “Realistic Mode” in the game’s settings, your every action will be accompanied by the high-pitched hollering of an adoring crowd. It’s exhilarating initially, but after struggling to hear yourself sing for a few songs, you’ll understand why the band decided to call touring quits after playing Candlestick in August of 1966. Fortunately, rather than retiring, the band retreated to the studio, and that’s where you’ll head after completing the Budokan set in story mode. Beatles Rock Band’s selection of songs that the group never performed live is set in Studio Two at Abbey Road, where you’ll be treated to an intimate look at the Fab Four in some of their quieter moments. However, Studio Two merely serves as a launching pad for the centerpieces of Beatles Rock Band’s graphical gallantry: several song-specific “Dreamscapes” psychedelic landscapes through which the virtual Beatles meander in mid-performance. The Dreamscapes draw upon the band’s artistic endeavors, the imagery inherent in their lyrics, and the creativity of Harmonix’s design team to conduct a visual symphony which non-playing observers might appreciate more fully than the frenetic fretters locked in concentration beside them. Only when the Dreamscapes dissolve at each song’s conclusion to reveal oddly motionless Beatles sitting in Studio Two does the spell dissipate.
Harmonix went to great lengths to perfect the looks and animations of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in a slightly cartoony form, and for the most part, they succeeded. Motion-captured movements and extensive research yielded in-game models through which the essence of the Fab Four shines. Catching a glimpse mid-play of a merrily bobbing McCartney or a collectedly crooning Lennon undoubtedly enhances the excitement to be had.
The original Rock Band shipped with 58 tracks (albeit with only 45 that anyone had ever heard of) while Rock Band 2 raised the bar by hitting the shelves with 75. More importantly, an ever-expanding catalogue of downloadable tracks awaits anyone who procures either title. If you purchase Rock Band 2 today (for less than the price of a fresh copy of Beatles Rock Band), you’ll have (at last count) as many as 832 songs at your fingertips. In contrast, Beatles Rock Band offers you the prospect of only 45 (46 if you count “All You Need is Love” available online on release day), with a relatively limited number of downloadable numbers in the pipeline. Of course, you could regard the package in another light: at an MSRP of $60, you’re paying only two thirds of the price of an imaginary 45-song Beatles downloadable track pack offered at the going rate of ~$2/song, and you’re receiving significantly more than the songs alone.
The Beatles weren’t given to writing songs of extraordinary length, so most of the 45 tracks supplied on the disc, which span the group’s career, will fly by. In essence, you can see all that Beatles Rock Band has to offer in a single evening (or, if you’re like me, you can see all that it has to offer three or four times, in three or four successive evenings). Harmonix is banking on the fact that you’ll want to revisit those offerings over and over again, just as any self-respecting Beatles fan regularly revisits the band’s oeuvre.
By the standards of previous band-specific offerings, Beatles Rock Band’s set list is an unqualified success. Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Guitar Hero Metallica padded their selections with tracks from related bands and included even fewer masters from the titular groups. However, Beatles Rock Band was not intended to be a greatest hits collection, and those expecting one might be slightly disappointed. Out of the box, the game features only 13 of the 27 mega-hits collected on the One compilation in 2000; instead of “Help!” “A Day in the Life” “Hey Jude” “Let it Be” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” you’ll find the likes of “Boys” “Good Morning Good Morning” and “Birthday.” The latter cuts add some musical variety and make up in playability what they might lack in renown, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Harmonix decided to hold some of its most potent weapons in reserve to serve as the highlights of future downloadable offerings.
We took the Beatle-branded custom guitars for a test-drive at the Harmonix offices, but we haven’t yet gotten our mitts on the replica of Ringo’s Ludwig drum set, and we didn’t spend enough time with the replicas of Paul’s Hƒ¶fner bass, John’s Rickenbacker 325, or George’s Gretsch Duo to produce authoritative judgments.The new instruments have been modeled to give fans a heightened visual and tactile sense of being Beatles, but they play very similarly to the older Rock Band models.
Fortunately, Beatles Rock Band is compatible with a wide array of preexisting fake instruments, so you really only need to pick up the Beatles-branded gear if you just don’t feel fab enough without them (I don’t). Because the game’s servers hadn’t yet gone live, we also weren’t able to sample its online offerings, but Rock Band 2’s online quickplay, Tug of War, and Score Duel modes have all returned for another showing.
In the end, the love you’ll take is equal to your affection for the music you’ll fake, so you might be wise to steer clear of Beatles Rock Band if you’ve already proven resistant to the band’s charms. However, the multiple generations of would-be Apple scruffs who have come to cherish the music of those four lads from Liverpool should greet the game with nothing less than the love with which Harmonix clearly labored. Best played with a bandmate or five, Beatles Rock Band is perfect for parties, but it’s also an ideal solution when you’re craving a more interactive alternative to yet another listen. Now, just wake me when I can mangle the medley.
Now that you’ve read Blast’s review, be sure to peruse our previous coverage of one of this year’s most engaging games:
- Oct. 30, 2008: Blast reports Beatles Rock Band under development
- March 5: Beatles Rock Band gets 9/9/09 release date
- June 3: Blast interviews Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos at E3
- June 10: Blast ranks Beatles Rock Band among the best games seen at E3 2009
- Aug. 18: Most of the track list is revealed
- Aug. 25: TV Spot
- Sept. Issue: Harmonix lead artist Dare Matheson interviewed
- Sept. Issue: Harmonix audio lead Eric Brosius interviewed
- Sept. Issue: Harmonix creative director Josh Randall interviewed