Video Game Review – The Beatles: Rock Band (PS3)

Box art for The Beatles: Rock Band
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So, a while back I played, and reviewed, the first major rhythm game to be based around a particular rock band – Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. I reviewed it almost a year ago,  and I didn’t think it was all bad. Well, this year I’ve picked up Harmonix’s take on the concept. With the game I reviewed a year ago, Neversoft took the Guitar Hero series, took some of Aerosmith’s hit tracks and put some relevant tracks by other artists around it. Harmonix’s philosophy of game design has a fundamentally different style. Instead, they’re picking some of the best of the best of the band they’re building their game around with DLC for other songs by that band. The band in question? The Beatles.

The game’s story mode basically follows the Beatles career from the first concerts in the Cavern Club to the final rooftop concert. Like Neversoft’s Aerosmith game, the venues they performed at are recorded faithfully, which isn’t hard considering that most of the Beatles concerts (except maybe for the Cavern Club) were faithfully recorded. Where things get interesting, though, is after their Nippon Budokan concert. For those unfamiliar with the band’s history, the Beatles stopped touring and performing live for over half their career. They put out promotional videos for some of their songs. They put out movies, but they didn’t perform live. So, how do you, as a developer, depict what’s going to be about half your game in a fashion that’s visually interesting for your players?

What Harmonix did is they built dreamscapes. With each song during what I’m going to call the Studio Years–because it’s less insulting than the “shut-in years” (and Paul McCartney was a dog person anyway), Harmonix developed a fanciful backdrop for the band to perform in. The song begins and/or ends in the recording studio at Abbey Road, and in between the studio turns into a bizarre environment that’s appropriate to the song. For example, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds has a psychedelic dreamscape, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends starts out with the Beatles in the Sgt. Pepper outfits performing on a bandstand, before the bandstand turns into a hot air balloon, with the Little Help From My Friends segment being performed in the air. Octopus’s Garden & Yellow Submarine are performed underwater (with the titular Submarine surfacing in that song for the final few refrains being performed on the ship’s hull on the surface for that song).

Not only does this work, but in my opinion it works better than the execution for the Aerosmith game. The  Beatles have a catalog that’s big enough to fit a game of this size, one of the few bands that do (the others that come to mind being Pink Floyd, Rush and Van Halen, off the top of my head). Further, the Beatles story has a definite narrative to it, and the structure of the game fits that narrative well. While all the songs are unlocked from the start, there are photos and video clips you  can unlock by getting 3 and 5 star ratings on songs, which tell you more about the band. There are additional bridging video segments between chapters which you unlock by playing all the songs in a chapter. Additionally, when each song loads, the game plays some audio clips of the band warming up for each recording session for the Studio Years, and some of their stage banter during the concert tours. This really helps get across some of what the Fab Four were like at the  time.

However, this game has it’s bumps. Firstly, because the tracks are organized chronologically, instead of by difficulty, and they’re going by notable tracks instead of by difficult tracks, you’ll find that early on in the game you’ll find yourself playing some very hard tracks. That said, if you’re playing on easy, the game puts you in no-fail mode by default, and this also won’t prevent you from getting a high score. Still, if you’re trying to beat the game on hard right off the bat, you may be surprised by getting hard tracks early. It also is of note that the game wants you to calibrate your guitar when you put the game in for the first time. On calibrating the game, I ended up unintentionally mis-calibrating it and ended up having to re-calibrate it later. I wouldn’t particularly mention this, except you get an achievement for calibrating your guitar (even if you mis-calibrate it). For someone playing the game for the first time, this could turn the game into an exercise in frustration. Be warned.

Still, this game is about The Beatles, one of the best bands in the history of music. Not one of the best Rock bands in the history of Rock, or one of the best Pop bands in the history of Pop or whatever. They are one of the best Bands in the history of Music. Period. This game accurately conveys their music, and their career. If you consider yourself a fan of the Beatles at all, you need to get this. If you’ve wanted to really get into the Beatles music, you need to get this. Finally, if you are new to the Beatles, you really need to get this. (As a bonus, the Gresch Pro Jet replica that was made for The Beatles Rock Band is really awesome looking. I’ve been meaning to get one but I haven’t found one yet).

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