Posts Tagged ‘music video games’

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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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Review: Rock Band 3

December 31, 2010

Buy it from Amazon

2010 was a great year for music games, at least in terms of the sheer number of choices available to fans of the genre. We saw the release of Dance Central, Def Jam Rapstar, DJ Hero 2, Just Dance 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the latest versions of Dance Dance Revolution. For me, there was only one game that mattered: Rock Band 3. The latest Rock Band game made huge improvements to the series with the incorporation of multiple vocal lines from the Beatles and Green Day games, addition of keyboards (finally!) and establishment of pro modes so I’m reminded how much I couldn’t cut it as a real musician. The steady accumulation of downloadable content (henceforth abbreviated as dlc) and content exported from the other RB games has allowed Kathy and me to build up a pretty sizable library. Looking at my song list I feel like a karaoke DJ.

Even with tons of dlc, the main game’s song lineup is refreshingly diverse. Highlights for me include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I also have a new appreciation for both Dio and Smash Mouth. Props to Harmonix for including Spanish and German-language songs. While Juanes is not my cup of tea, I realize that the dude is incredibly popular and it is nice to see a music game publisher recognize the diversity of its audience.

Game progression has improved, allowing for more choice and less repetitive grinding. No longer will players have to play a “random difficult drum song,” knowing that it will be “Spoon Man,” “Pinball Wizard,” or “Chop Suey” (if you put a lot of time into Rock Band 2’s World Tour mode, you know what I mean). Goal Progression can be done in Quickplay, Tour Mode, or Career Progression, where players can view their goal lists and directly attack challenges in the game.

One of the features of the Rock Band franchise that has gone underrated in the opportunity to create a band of custom avatars. What changes from the main previous games in the series is the increased emphasis on story. Taking cues from Lego Rock Band, the game inserts your avatars into cutscenes depicting their formation and growth as you complete challenges. You’ll see them get shortchanged at their first gig, play a festival on the West Coast, and arrive in Japan to screaming throngs of fans. It’s really cool to see this motley crew (get it?) that you made acting outside of the main stage as more fully formed characters.

As for the character creator itself, it is just as fabulous as it was in Rock Band 2. There are more customization options for characters’ faces and bodies (almost enough to rival a Sims game). As for outfits, there are not a ton of changes from the previous go-rounds. The money system of acquiring outfits from the previous games has been replaced with an unlock system. Players earn articles of clothing by completing certain goals. This replaces the old tour mode grind and forces players to learn the Rock Band 3 songs, since many of the clothing-related goals are still tied to the core game. I’m resigned to not acquiring some of the items since they are tied to pro mode goals and as I’ve written before, I’m just not going to get that good.

This brings us to some of the disappointments in an otherwise stellar title. First, the game has many bugs. Before it got patched, loading screens would freeze, forcing hard resets. Some characters move weirdly or fade into their clothes in unnatural ways. One time I was playing a two-song setlist and after the first song I got kicked out of the game and sent to my PS3’s main menu. Luckily, my progress was saved. The game’s bugs aren’t deal breakers and the game is 98% playable, but the periodic bugs can be annoying.

Second, multiplayer is difficult for the wrong reasons. Playing a road challenge in the game’s tour mode requires communication among your band to get full completions and unlock more items. In road challenges, players are tasked to not only play songs well, but also fulfill conditions such as sustaining the enhanced-score overdrive, going into overdrive a certain number of times, or hitting a certain number of notes with each player taking turns to hit that number. The problems occur when one player gets designated in a difficult section and they just can’t hit that sequence, or timing overdrive is crucial but vocals and drums have limited control over when they can go into overdrive. Either way, there’s trouble.

Regarding dlc, I would like to see more content beyond music. While you can pay for Doors and Who T-Shirts for your avatars, I have a feeling those items were on the disc and you’re just paying to unlock them. I’d like to see new ensembles come out as often as songs. For more on this, Lisa Foiles has a neat article on Kotaku advocating for more crossover between fashion and gaming. As for the music content, offerings have been solid, but pretty conservative. Can we get something that was recorded in the past ten years? Nonetheless, I hope the Bee Gees dlc may be a sign of things to come.

The game includes a very deep tutorial mode to get players into playing the pro modes which simulate real instrumentation. It’s cool that you can learn to play scales and chords on keyboard and guitar, but the tutorials could be more user-friendly. In Rock Band 2, instrument tutorials included text, illustrations of someone properly playing the instrument, video demonstrations, and a play-through. In Rock Band 3, the only demo video you get is a quick intro to how the pro guitar interface works. The keyboard tutorial is text and playthrough-only, and the text directions for finger placement fail to communicate how a piano is supposed to be properly played. I may complete the tutorial lessons eventually, but I doubt I’ll really learn to play keyboards. Developer Harmonix assumes a level of musicality in their audience that may not always be there. This tutorial system would have been improved through an instruction system that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Overall, the real value of the game comes from the sheer number of things to do and the opportunities to personalize the experience. The technical problems don’t break the game and can be fixed with future patches. Rock Band 3 is a fantastic experience with tons of music, customization, replay value, and just good times rocking out. It’s my game of the year!

 

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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:

Read the rest of this entry ?

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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.