Archive for the ‘So You Want To Save Music Games’ Category

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Review: Rock Band Blitz

September 16, 2012

Image from Harmonix, on whose site there are links to buy the game.

Summary: Harmonix independently publishes a digital download music game, ditches the instrument party for a solo controller setup, and reinvigorates Rock Band for the lean social age.

Ups
• I’m quite happy that Harmonix finally put out a Rock Band game that allowed the use of a controller. After I hit a plateau in Rock Band 3, it became less fun to pull instruments out of my living room closet. Blitz’s exclusive reliance on the controller makes it much more accessible to casual players.
• Despite its simple concept, the game gives you a lot to manage. You have to hit enough notes on 4-5 instruments, switch between them enough times so that the point disparity between them isn’t too great, watch for white notes (to build your overdrive meter for launching power-ups) and purple notes (to trigger other power-ups), and push your accuracy meter to enter Blitz mode (where the game speed seemingly doubles but you get more points for every note you hit.) I enjoyed the complexity.
• Part of the appeal of each new Rock Band game is its song list. For $15, you get 25 songs right out the (virtual) box. Before the game dropped I was looking forward to some of the songs, notably Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” I thought those were fun to play, but I also had some surprisingly good times with Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” and Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away,’ both songs I had never heard of before this game. Heck, after playing through Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” I no longer think of them as horrible clunkers. For a $15 digital title, there’s a decent mix of material right from the get-go.
• On top of that, any song that you have on your console’s hard drive gets integrated into Blitz’s gameplay system. If you were regularly buying DLC and/or exported the setlists of the other Rock Band games into Rock Band 3, then you’ll have a lot of fresh levels to play and leaderboards to climb. It’s a great nod to players who invested a lot of time and money into past games, as everything old is new again.
• Free export! When I bought other Rock Band games in the past, export was always an extra $5-$10 on top of the cost of the game. Even if you aren’t feeling the gameplay, Blitz is a mega-cheap track pack at $.60 a song. Enjoy duets of “One Week,” people.
• You can’t fail out! While there is an incentive to play the game well and not just wail on the buttons (though on the guitar solo parts I might as well have been), you can still do ok by mashing when buffered by the right power-ups (gotta love that shockwave!)

Downs
• Remember what I said about the game’s use of the standard controller making it more accessible to casual players? This is counterbalanced by the sheer speed and number of notes coming at you as you play. Each song’s charting in Blitz is based on its expert mode charting in regular Rock Band so if you’re unfamiliar with a song or your hand-eye coordination is a little slow, it can be easy to get discouraged. Toss in all the different stuff you have to be aware of while playing (see my second point in the Ups section) and things can get pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re not in the right mindset for this kind of thing.
• There’s nothing really connecting the levels of gameplay. There is no band onstage, no cutscenes between levels, and no changes in what the highway scenery looks like while playing the game. I liked Rock Band 3’s use of story in its Tour Mode as a means to get me emotionally invested in my band of avatars. Similarly, the acquiring of character customization options through completing goals kept me coming back after I had heard all the songs in the game. The game looks the same each time you play it and there are no human faces on which you can project yourself while you play. It feels a little cold.
• Instead, there’s a big focus on social networking with challenging friends and strangers to “Score Wars” and Facebook integration. While leaderboard rankings were present in Rock Band 3, they weren’t the big prize for playing well (see previous point.) I’ll admit that it was neat to see my run on Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” placed in that song’s top 10 (by the time you read this it’s probably ranked #310 or lower), but leaderboard rankings are fleeting and so is the satisfaction I get from placing on them. I also don’t buy into the Facebook integration thing because I’m not sure I want to share that part of me with distant relatives or work colleagues. I recognize that this may be a big thing for some people, but it isn’t for me.
• Sadly, there is no way to play Rock Band 3 songs in Blitz at this time. Frankly, this isn’t that big a deal to me. Kickass as that game’s tracklist was, I did get a little tired of hearing the same songs as I was trying to complete many of the game’s goals. I’d rather have Blitz’s more open-ended goal system that encourages playing of lots of different songs.
Blitz has a lot more value if you already have a bunch of songs on your console’s hard drive. That might be a little discouraging to newcomers who plow through the base 25 songs in a weekend and then want to do something new but might not want to pony up $2 a song.

Conclusion: As I type this the game has been out for almost a month and I still feel the urge to go back to it. It’s a testament to the game design prowess of Harmonix that they can make a game that’s cold and a little cynical and overcome those shortcomings through deceptively complex gameplay, solid musicality, casual-friendly level structure, and a soundtrack that’s fun at the start. Beyond that, I’m just happy this game exists and Harmonix hasn’t totally focused their energies into Dance Central. I’ll be honest, before this title launched I hadn’t played a Rock Band game since 2011, which would have come as a shock to me circa when I launched this site. Then again, the way I felt about Rock Band in 2010 was the same way I felt about Dance Dance Revolution in 2003 – that it would be around forever and that I would love it forever. Nothing lasts forever, and while both series are still alive (though DDR is questionable) my enthusiasm for both series has waned considerably in the wake of other titles and interests. It’s a little unsettling to consider this in an “ashes to ashes” sense. In the meantime I’m glad that there’s a new way to connect with Rock Band and enjoy this fabulous series for a little bit longer. Blitz on!

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R.I.P. Guitar Hero 2005-2011

February 9, 2011

Image from MTV Multiplayer

“At the same time, due to continued declines in the music genre, the company will disband Activision Publishing’s Guitar Hero business unit and discontinue development on its Guitar Hero game for 2011…. These decisions are based on the desire to focus on the greatest opportunities that the company currently has to create the world’s best interactive entertainment experiences.” – from Activision’s recent financial statement,  2/9/2011

So it’s the end of an era. I’ll admit that when it comes to music games I’m more of a fan of Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, but Guitar Hero was the franchise that really blew up the music game genre in the West after years of trying by Konami and I respect that. While Rock Band catered more to the “music” side of “music games,” Guitar Hero was definitely on the “game” side and filled a real demand in the market. It represented the potential of the genre for straight up fantasy and with Warriors of Rock I thought it was beginning to find its voice. It’s a shame.

My sympathies go out to all the people affected by this announcement, especially the developers and their families, as well as all the business and support personnel who are stressing right now since their jobs are likely tied into making that franchise operate. If you look further into the financial statement and go into the “Business Highlights” section, you’ll notice only two franchises in bold: Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. In my opinion, that’s just bad business.

So here’s to you, Guitar Hero. You weren’t the first music game, you weren’t the first rock game, and you weren’t the first to use guitar controllers, but you made music games mainstream in America and we’re worse for your departure.

You can learn more about the announcement at Eurogamer, Kotaku, Joystiq, Rock Band Aide, and the Los Angeles Times.

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33 Non-Rock Songs I’d Like To See In Rock Band 3: Part 3 + Scenes

June 30, 2010

Image from rofanator @ Flickr

Here’s part 3 into my working list of hip-hop, R&B, funk, disco, electronic, dance, and pop songs that I would like to see in the Rock Band series. Here are parts 1 and 2!

But first a word about exclusivity and shared experiences.

Now if any of these songs I’ve been listing were to actually go into a Rock Band game, I imagine some people would be kind of upset, that “their” game was being compromised or diluted and that it was no longer “for them.” However, I would argue that these scenesters are depriving themselves of the opportunity for a shared experience. Oftentimes I find that the people I like to hang out with are those with whom I find similar interests or at least something to go beyond small talk. If I can chat with someone about one of my favorite music games, I don’t care if our favorite songs are different. I just like that in this age of splintering interest groups I can find someone to geek out with even if it’s only for a few minutes (at least until I have a kid). We all have to interact with one another and the shared experience or interest can make those interactions a lot easier. Let’s bring others into the tent. We may not all go for the same songs, but we can all play the game.

Note: Chuck Klosterman’s essay on Johnny Carson covers this idea of the common experience in a much better way than I ever could.

Full list after the jump.

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33 Non-Rock Songs I’d Like To See In Rock Band 3: Part 2 + Peripherals

June 23, 2010

Image from Harmonix

Now we continue into my working list of hip-hop, R&B, funk, disco, electronic, dance, and pop songs that I would like to see in the Rock Band series.

Here’s part 1!

Before we get to the main list, I’d like to write a concern I have about Rock Band 3: peripherals. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m pumped about the keyboard. Because of that instrument expansion I feel like I can write these lists and have them not be mere pipe dreams. Plus it looks like the playing experience will be crazy fun. My concern is in the price and over-featuring of the new instruments. In the push to continuously up their game in the peripheral department and appease the series’ most vocal semi-serious musician fanbase, the new guitar and keyboard peripherals from Mad Catz and Fender appear capable of doing a lot, including doubling as real instruments and midi controllers. While this is cool if you’re into music production or if you are seriously convinced to pick up a real instrument, I feel like this isn’t going to appeal to the silent majority of more casual players, especially a majority with reduced disposable income. I like my instrument controllers to be responsive and last more than 12 months, but I doubt I’ll be getting into serious jamming, and I doubt that I’m the only one of that opinion. I’ll likely snap up RB3 pretty early into its release, but I’ll probably wait awhile until the keyboard drops in price before buying one. That being said, let’s get down to more of what I’d like to see in-game: a little trip-hop, a little g-funk, and of course, the legendary MJ.

The full list is after the jump:

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33 Non-Rock Songs I’d Like To See In Rock Band 3: Part 1

June 15, 2010

 

With all the news about Rock Band 3 coming out, the big thing for me was the confirmation of keyboards as the 5th instrument. I think this opens up the door for the series to go into new genres it had previously left untouched and possibly attract new audiences. The series has already departed from a strictly rock soundtrack before, having featured a whole track pack devoted to country music, as well as some DLC from acts like Earth Wind & Fire, The Chemical Brothers, and Lady Gaga. I would love to play some hip-hop, R&B, funk, disco, dance, electronic, and pop music right alongside the rock and country. With Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock reaching back into that series’ classic rock and metal roots, Rock Band needs to position itself either through Rock Band 3 or through DLC as a multiplayer music game platform for people who like all kinds of music. Here is the first third of a working list of 33 songs that I feel could really expand the series’ audience.

The full list is after the jump:

Read the rest of this entry ?

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So You Want To Save Music Games: Guitar Hero

May 11, 2010

 

Whew! It has been a long time since I have written a post of this type, but as announcements of Rock Band 3 come down the pipeline, I have seen more “music games are dead!” comments on the blogs I follow. So I suppose I feel inspiration now. ARE YOU READY TO READ!!!

Today’s target is the game that really ignited the genre’s legitimacy in the West. While games such as DDR and Frequency predate this title, Guitar Hero was the first music game to get really popular. Really popular. Since the release of the first Rock Band game in 2007, GH and its main competitor have started to carve out identities and points of differentiation. Before I identify where GH needs to improve, I should first identify what it does well.

No other music game series has exemplified the rock star fantasy aesthetic more than Guitar Hero, with a big emphasis on fantasy. Realism is not a priority in the series and it is better for it (mostly). Its graphics move at fast framerates. Its larger-than-life characters are typically over-the-top hyper archetypes or celebrities that a fan may or have wanted to be playing air guitar in his/her parents’ basement. Its venues are big, crazy sets with tons of stuff going on.

And it doesn’t stop with the visual/thematic aspects. Have 4 people at your party who want to play guitar? No need to force someone to sing! Does a hot song have no guitar part? Use the guitar to play the keyboard, or piano, or cello part – Guitar Hero will make it work! Wish a song had more challenge? They have artificial notes that make a song harder to play than the music should allow, should a player want it. Authenticity? Bah, it’s only a game! Besides, the tracklists for each of the main games have been solid, with fairly diverse collections of hits and deep cuts to bring the challenge and the fun.

Unfortunately, many of those plusses of the series also contain its opportunities for improvement. A Guitar Hero game rocks because it is a game first, fantasy second, and music sim a distant third. This is also why it can be troublesome at times.

In other words, here’s how GH 6 can be better:

First, while it’s obvious, I still feel as though I need to say it – lay off the open playability of real people. It’s what’s getting Activision all of those lawsuits (that aren’t from their former employees, anyway). I don’t care if the contract says you’re in the right. It’s just bad taste. Now I’ll admit, I laughed my ass off the first time I saw those videos of Kurt Cobain singing “You Give Love A Bad Name,” because I feel that some people (I’m looking at you, Gen-Xers) take KC way too seriously. After giving it some thought, as well as after seeing Johnny Cash’s corpse being forced to sing “YMCA” like some karaoke sock puppet, I realize that the open playability of real people isn’t fair to those people, alive or dead. It would be like some political simulator game where a player could choose to run Barack Obama as a Republican candidate and court Christian Coalition/Tea Party voters; or Sarah Palin as a hard-left Green, complete with pot-smoking-after-college-appearance minigame. To do so would be absurdly hilarious in the short term, but ultimately disrespectful. It makes GH 5 and Band Hero great as musique concrete modern art pieces, but in poor taste as mass-market video games.

Don’t get me wrong, lookalikes are fine, as is limited playability that locks the real artists to their songs (as was done in GH World Tour and Lego Rock Band), but have some class. Not too much class, as that isn’t the Guitar Hero way, but show a little class and respect for your artists.

My other big complaint is that there are too many games in the series. Actually, strike that. When you add up Rock Band’s Track Packs, the two franchises probably have close counts. Each series has 3 “band” games (Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen vs. AC/DC, The Beatles, and Green Day). My other big complaint is shelf glut inconvenience. Other than The Beatles: Rock Band, Harmonix has allowed PS3 and X360 players the option to export their Rock Band songs to their hard drives for huge jukeboxes of content. Guitar Hero’s export feature is severely reduced, even though every game since World Tour has featured band play. How awesome would it be for GH 5 players to play every song from World Tour, Metallica, Smash Hits, Van Halen, and Band Hero in their game on top of the solid GH 5 setlist and any DLC? Now that’s a party! Get some better lawyers, Neversoft, or at least spend your legal resources more on export licensing and less on celebrity caricatures! Not only does it get you $5-10 more from your game, it rewards fan loyalty by allowing them to build a cumulative collection. It’s partially why I didn’t align myself with the series.

Otherwise, Guitar Hero is a solid franchise that puts fun first. It kicked open the mainstream music game market and it deserves to stick around and keep the rock and roll on full throttle (and this is coming from a Rock Band fan)! It can always be better, but keep it up!

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So You Want To Save Music Games: DJ Hero

February 6, 2010

Ne-Yo vs. Dirty Vegas – “Closer Days” mixed by Kodiax

With the declining sales of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, along with the disappointingly low sales of DJ Hero (which I flipping love), several video game writers have declared that music games are dying, never mind that the Dance Dance Revolution games have been alive and kicking for more than ten years and that Just Dance sells like hotcakes despite abysmal reviews.

I love music and I love video games. I credit DDR with helping me develop the rhythm sense to get into DJing. I have put tons of time into both DJ Hero and Rock Band 2. So it breaks my heart to hear that one of my favorite genres is dying. So here’s free advice for Activision, MTV/Harmonix, Sony Studios London, Konami, et al from an unqualified amateur writer. You want to save music games? I will write a series of pieces with proposals to save each major music game. Today – DJ Hero.

Here’s what DJ Hero should have been:
DJ Hero’s problem wasn’t the expensive controller or the ugly, ugly characters. It was that it seemed to forget about all of the changes that Rock Band had brought about. Two players tops? Oh and you can plug in a guitar controller for some of the
songs, but it’s still two players? You can plug in a microphone, but it isn’t for points and since there isn’t space for the stone cold rhyming, whoever is your MC looks like a tool? Sigh. DJ Hero should have been an add-on to the Guitar Hero games that added keyboard/turntables to the band set-up. That would have made those keyboard-driven songs in GH5 and Band Hero a lot more realistic. Make it a 5-player game minimum.

DJ Hero’s other problem was that it seemed to focus on mashups and turtablism. While the image of a DJ scratching records back and forth is the image most people have of a DJ, turntablism doesn’t really factor into most pop songs. The reason Mixmaster Mike (apart from his work with the Beastie Boys) or DJ Craze haven’t cracked the Billboard top 40 is the same reason Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen didn’t: virtuosity while technically impressive doesn’t mean sounding good. It can be alienating. Back in 2002 I went to see the X-Ecutioners live and the crowd didn’t really get into it until they played their crossover hit “It’s Going Down.”

Meanwhile most DJs in clubs and on the radio don’t scratch records. Most live DJing is about 1) picking the records and 2) mixing the records. Few gamers want to play a beatmatching game.

The pop, hip-hop, and dance producer’s biggest live tools are the keyboard and the sampler, both of which could be translated into gaming. Hell, you could map a simplified Akai sampler onto your basic controller (or an Alesis Air Synth for the Wii remote). That would make a much better game. Konami did it best with their 5-key-plus-turntable controller for Beatmania, they just did it too early in the product cycle of music games. Keyboard, drums, bass, guitar, vox. That’s what DJ Hero should have been.

Finally, the setlist: one criticism of DJ Hero was that its focus on mashups skirted the middle while failing to appeal to either the hip-hop or the electronic audiences it was targeting. The band concept I outlined above would have made single songs much easier to chart. Then can release an 84-song set (Rock Band 2 set the precedent) as a single game or better yet, two 84-song games, with one in hip-hop and one in electronic, with both titles exportable to your console’s hard drive so one could arguably have 168 playable songs,  (half on disc, half on hard drive) on day one. Or put the game engine as a download with, say, a 20-song download voucher, and sell the controllers separately to be more budget-conscious.

Those are just ideas. I don’t have all of the facts. I’m just going off of common sense.

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