The Beatles: Rock Band Review

The Beatles: Rock Band Review

Guitar Hero would have made itself top of the bill
Guitar Hero would have made itself top of the bill

Let’s face it. Rhythm games are over-saturated and, if you’ll excuse the pun, played-out. There is never really much new gameplay-wise to enjoy in a new release, long time players have lost most of the challenge by practicing too much, and the song catalogues accompanying most new titles are uninspiring at best. Drop on top of this a full retail price every time a developer feels like grinding out a new game, and it’s not really very hard to see why many gamers are over the entire music game trend.

Which is why, amongst this slowly composting genre, it’s lovely to recieve the breath of fresh air that is provided by The Beatles: Rock Band.

Now, before I gush (and gush I will, trust me), let’s do a little checklist on my list of gripes above.

Technically, there isn’t much new gameplay-wise in TB:RB. There are a few new mechanics that I’ll get to in a second, but overall there isn’t much changed here since Rock Band 2.

The difficulty also won’t exactly challenge any experienced player, with the exception of maybe a few of the trickier songs. If a player is comfortable alternating 3-button chords, then there isn’t much to seperate them from 5 starring every track.

And yes, you will be slugged (at least initially) full retail price for your copy of The Beatles: Rock Band.

But all that can be easily forgiven when you play the game, and discover the beautiful way in which Harmonix has collaborated with Apple Corps to make such a brilliant tribute to the life and times of the Beatles.

Usually I’d talk about the plot or gameplay of any given game I was reviewing first, but the first thing you’ll notice when you play The Beatles: Rock Band is the fact that it is visually brilliant, and not many games can truly say that. I don’t even mean brilliant in a “quadruple 1080iHD crisper than a pack of crisps” sense, which probably makes this even rarer. The Beatles: Rock Band has a beautifully developed artistic style, which seems to permeate it’s way into every aspect of the game. That’s right, it’s so good it can legitimately get away with using a word like ‘permeate’.

When are sweater-vests coming back in fashion?
When are sweater-vests coming back in fashion?

Harmonix has single-handedly shown it’s competitors what can be achieved when you actually bother to apply a little original thinking to your title. Half of the tracks are presented in their chronologically accurate performance setting. For instance, if you’re playing “Can’t Buy Me Love”, you’ll be playing it as the young Beatles in the Ed Sullivan Theatre. If you’re playing “Don’t Let Me Down”, you’ll be playing as an older version of the Beatles on the Abbey Road rooftop. All these segments look fantastic, and are complete with appropriate stage costume, equipment, and the ever-present horde of screaming young girls.

Where the art style kicks into overdrive (sorry, “Beatlemania”) however, is for the series of songs tied to recordings at the Abbey Road studios. These are performed in what the developers refer to as “dreamscapes”: magical, typically psychedelic performances inspired by Beatles cover-art and themes. I imagine “LSD-scapes” probably didn’t make it past the proof-reading stage of the games development.

For instance, playing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” drops the Beatles (in their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, of course) inside a rotunda in the middle of a sunflower field. In the background, enormous horns play the accompanying brass sections of the song, and when the song transitions to “With A Little Help From My Friends” the rotunda sprouts a hot air balloon and floats off through the clouds. The chorus lyrics float through the sky next to the balloon as they are sung, and when it’s all over the camera transitions back to the studio, where the whole band have just finished their recording.

These dreamscapes are really what sets this game apart from the rest of it’s genre. Rock Band 2 had already paved the way for this style of play by using effects and having “music video” renditions of songs. But The Beatles: Rock Band takes the simple premise and makes it nothing short of art. On your first playthrough of the game, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll wish you could stop playing for a while just to watch the accompanying video. It’s a simple and well executed device that allows the developers to show off their respect for the catalogue, while at the same time breaking the “four guys on a stage” mould which so tightly surrounds the genre as a whole.

The harmony sections are ... challenging, to say the least
The harmony sections are ... challenging, to say the least

OK, now to gameplay. Apart from a few cosmetic changes, you’re not going to find too much has changed since Rock Band 2. In many ways this is a good thing, as you don’t have to worry about buying a brand new controller just to make use of a throwaway feature. What has been added is the ability to sing vocal harmonies, which is probably almost as difficult as the addition of a second kick pedal. Players with extra microphones can assist with the vocals by singing certain sections in harmony with the vocalist. These sections appear as two or three layer notes in the vocal track, and each player can choose any one of the three to sing. Luckily these only count as bonus points, as singing in harmony can be very bloody difficult, especially for the amateur singer caged up inside most of us gamers. Coupled with this, players singing the harmonies also have to know the words (which is easier than usual, given they’re Beatles lyrics), know when to jump in and continue to play their instrument chart. Put all these together and, even if you don’t get the bonus vocal points, you’ll probably have knackered whatever streak you were building on the drums!

A feature that struck me as quite clever was the fact that the whammy bar’s effect on the audio has been disabled. It still operates identically in function, which is to say that you’ll still be able to use it to gain extra energy from Beatlemania phrases, but it doesn’t fuck around with the sound of the original tracks, which I found delightful. In a similar vein, it’s impossible for the Beatles to get booed off stage. If you fail a song, you’re simply prompted to start again or to go back to the menu. Around the songs, there is plenty of unlockable Beatles memorabilia for any Beatlemaniac to enjoy, from production photos to recordings and video. The more stars you collect, the more extra little tidbits are available for you to check out.

Although it comes as close as any rhythm game could, The Beatles: Rock Band isn’t perfect. That said, the flaws are few and mostly cosmetic. There doesn’t seem to be as much leeway with hammer-ons and pull-offs as you’d usually expect. It’s kind of like playing original Rock Band with precision mode switched on. This is again probably a design decision to help preserve the original music, but it becomes very frustrating when trying to accomplish certain achievements that require you to play all these sections without strumming. Cosmetically, sometimes the faces of the Beatles can be washed out by a certain effect leaving you with a strangely expressionless face (if you have the game, McCartney behind the piano at the end of “The End” is what I’m reffering to). Something I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed, if not for the beautiful job done on the rest of the game, is that the audience for the Beatles’ performance at Bukodan is populated entirely with girls similar to the earlier shows, there doesn’t seem to be anyone of Japanese origin in the entire concert.

The Verdict:

Good! Great! Tre magnific! Words of approval!
Good! Great! Tre magnific! Words of approval!

Pros: A stunning art direction is coupled with the obvious deep respect that Harmonix has for the Beatles back-catalogue. A good selection of songs that span the Beatles’ career. Original use of stage effects and the dreamscapes will have you cursing the task of actually having to play the game.

Cons: Charts are not overly difficult, save a few songs. A few minor cosmetic niggles, but nothing of any real note.

Overall: I’ve no hesitation giving this 4.5 out of 5. This title is about as close as you can come to a perfect rhythm game, and it’s done with love and creativity. The song collection is as classic as ever, and can be enjoyed by Beatlemaniac and new-comer alike. Brilliant, brilliant work Harmonix!

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