After an epic delay, Rock Band finally made its way to Australia this month, just as the rest of the world was getting to grips with the sequel.
It's more or less worth the wait.
Straight up front: I am a huge Guitar Hero fan. Rock Band is better than any of the Guitar Hero games up to and including number 3, easily. It's made by Harmonix, the people behind the first and second Guitar Hero games, and these are people who love their music and let it show. There is an authencity and rawness about Rock Band that steals the stage from beginning to end.
If you don't understand the concept of Rock Band after over a year of inter-buzz then you're a very strange and isolated individual, but in short it is this: a song is played, and you attempt to execute a faux performance of it on one of a variety of fake instruments. You have the choice of lead or bass guitar, drums, or vocals.
Guitar plays more or less like Guitar Hero. Notes flow down the screen, and as they cross a timing bar at the bottom you have to hold the relevant fret(s) on your instrument and strum. The notemaps are logical translations of the song and are better layouts on the whole than the ones in Guitar Hero, but in every other respect the guitar portion is inferior. For a start, hammer-ons and pull-offs are depicted with ever-so-slightly-smaller note gems, which are quite hard to spot unless you're an experienced player who knows when to look for them. Also, the included guitar peripheral has frets which pinch your fingers and (at least in mine) it seems to have some trouble detecting when you're tilting it upwards to activate star power.
Rock Band also adds a few gameplay elements to the Guitar Hero foundation. It introduces soloes. During a solo, the on-screen fretboard glows blue. If you're using a Rock Band guitar, you can move down to a second, lower set of frets on the peripheral and pick out the notes without having to strum. This is confusing and tricky for new players and a completely unnecessary addition to experienced air-guitarists. Also, the moulding on the peripheral makes the hand slide quite tricky and sharp edges on the fretboards can result in unintended minor injuries. The Rock Band guitar also has an "effect switch" to modify the audio playback in-game - you can add wah-wah, for example. There's no gameplay bonus; it's just cool. Rock Band on the XBox 360 is fully compatible with Guitar Hero guitars, and is in fact better if you're using one.
Vocals are pretty comparable to Sony's SingStar franchise. The game displays lyrics and a pitch track - you sing the vocals and try and match pitch. An on-screen indicator shows you where your pitch is compared to where it needs to be. You can "wrap" up an octave or down an octave if you don't share the same vocal range as the real singer. Star power is deployed by shouting or freestyling during gaps in the lyrics; during long lyric-less stretches of music the singer is encouraged to lead the audience in clapping by tapping on the microphone. There's no gameplay penalty for ignoring this clapping section which means if you want to sing and play an instrument at the same time you theoretically can. (You'll need to know the lyrics in advance, though, as following the vocal track and an instrument track at the same time on-screen really isn't possible.)
The highlight of Rock Band is the drumming, which replicates the experience of Konami's DrumMania arcade games. You get a set of four drum pads on a stand, with an attached footpedal, and a pair of authentic drumsticks. You're more or less performing real drumming here, which is excellent. The pads are well made and seem to withstand some pretty vigorous drumming, even from those prone to really bash the suckers. The footpedal is a bit more flimsy - a lot of people have reported breaking theirs, although I haven't had any problem yet.
The game really works best when you've got at least three people playing, with one of those people doing the vocals. Playing as a band is a great co-operative experience and generates real energy for everyone present. The solo tours for each instrument are a bit lifeless by comparison.
The two biggest disappointments in Rock Band are the set list and the progression system. A music game lives or dies by its selection of music, and Rock Band's collection is only so-so. There's a lot of genuinely excellent bands featured, but the songs for each band are rarely what most people would consider their first, second or even third pick. While OK Go's Here It Goes Again and Jet's Are You Gonna Be My Girl are solid choices, it's hard to understand the reasoning behind Orange Crush as the sole song from REM or Rock & Roll Star as the offering from Oasis. David Bowie gets Suffragette City, of all things, and the Rolling Stones apparently have nothing better in their catalogue than Gimme Shelter. Even Harmonix-favourite Freezepop have gone rooting through their B-list to provide the less-than-awesome Brainpower.
These problems are remedied to some extent by the massive amount of downloadable content available for the game, but even here the weirdness continues. The Killers trackpack overlooks Somebody Told Me and All These Things That I've Done in order to supply Mr Brightside, Spaceman and Smile Like You Mean It. There's an entire album by The Pixies, for some reason, but it's not the one that has Where Is My Mind? The Presidents of the USA get three songs but nothing off their first album. Out of eight Nirvana tracks they couldn't manage to give us Smells Like Teen Spirit, and despite seven Nine Inch Nails songs we're denied Closer.
The other major problem with Rock Band is it feels a lot less like a game than Guitar Hero. With four instruments and a massive number of songs, attempting to "play through" the game feels like floundering in a bottomless ocean. The solo tours involve slogging through the built-in songs, sorted by difficulty, with no real rewards or incentives.
The multiplayer "World Tour" mode at face value has more structure, with content locked off until you've acquired enough "stars" or "fans", but for some reason most of this mode is focused on making you play multiple songs back to back. Less demanding tasks ask you to play two or three songs in a row. Later you'll have to play six or eight songs without interruption, where failing one song drops you out of the challenge completely. World Tour mode culminates in the ridiculous "Endless Setlist" where you'll have to play all 50-something songs included in the game non-stop, without the ability to save your progress until you're done. That takes about seven hours.
There are some other things you should take note of if you're planning to buy Rock Band. There are two "real" versions, being the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 iterations. All the other versions are gimped in some essential way, starting with the inability to download extra tracks and moving on from there. Don't buy the fake versions as I do not have any nice things to say about them.
Also, there's quite a complicated treatment of gamer profiles. When you create an in-game avatar, it's bound not only to the profile that created it, but also to the instrument you were on when you made it. So you'll need to create separate characters for guitar, drums and vocals, and you'll need to be signed in on the instrument you intend to play to use them. Shuffling musicians around mid-session requires either a bunch of signing out and signing in, or people abandoning their avatars to another player and playing under someone else's name.
Also when you create a band, the person who created that band needs to be signed in on the same profile and instrument as when they created it in order for that band to be played at all. So if you created the band as a drummer, you'll always have to have a drummer when you're playing that band. It's a system which is frankly odd, and hugely frustrating to the process of organising local multiplayer. My experience is with the XBox 360 version so I'm not sure to what extent this problem might persist on the PS3.
Okay, so that's a long list of gripes, so I should probably say again: the Guitar Hero games are excellent, excellent games, and Rock Band is better. If you're not initially convinced, all you need to do is hear the crowd sing along during a particularly excellent performance of a song's chorus, or freestyle your first drum fill. This is an excellent game, and everyone should own it. Maybe own it twice. That's how good it is.