Review: Music Game Roundup

Once upon a time, if you asked “Have you played the cool new music game?” everyone knew what you were talking about. Whether it was PaRappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5 or the original Guitar Hero, the field of music games was neverall that crowded. That’s changed a lot over the last few years. Now, not only do we have the two giants of Guitar Hero and Rock Band saturating the market as they battle for dominance, but also a number of bandwagon-jumpers hoping to capitalize on popularity of new gameplay concepts and controllers. To help make sense of it all, we thought we’d take a look at the four biggest music game releases of the holiday season. All are out right now for the Xbox 360, PS3 and, with the exception of Power Gig, the Wii.

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock
Let’s kick off this survey with the latest game from the series that started it all. There may have been music games before Guitar Hero but that’s like saying there were platform games before Super Mario Bros. After years and years of market oversaturation, the series has taken a bit of a break before launching Warriors of Rock, a story-driven tale of mythic proportions where the players must complete guitar challenges and rescue the God of Rock. On the whole, it seems like the game is really trying to be earnest about the whole affair, even including the talents of Gene Simmons, Rush and Dave Mustane, but it all comes across as a bit too campy to fit the concept. I mean, I expect a little camp here and there, but the guitarist as mythic hero angle just seems laughable.

Having a story-based campaign also confines the progression of the game. It’s interesting to consider how a more traditional adventure game quest might be incorporated into a game like this, but that also means that players aren’t as free to pick and choose their challenges as they advance through the game. There’s something to be said for having to unlock the classic “2112” or the new Megadeth songs but having only one clear path through this content is a pretty radical step for the series.

Also, some of the song choices seem a bit off, reflecting a lack of focus. If this is supposed to be a hard-rocking guitar game, what am I doing playing mandolin in “Losing My Religion” or piano in “Bohemian Rhapsody”?

DJ Hero 2
I admit I never got caught up in the small ripple of enthusiasm for the original DJ Hero. Judging from the sales, I’m not the only one who was largely indifferent to the concept. The mixes were largely unfamiliar, the controller was bizarre and the glut of music games made me suspicious of any game which followed the naming convention, “[blank] Hero.” But in playing all the big music games of this season, I found I liked DJ Hero 2 once I was forced to give it a chance.

If you can get past not playing it with a guitar, the rhythm-based gameplay is genuinely fun and much more variable than I anticipated. Yes, just hitting the right color buttons on beat is still the biggest part of the process, but you also can be satisfyingly expressive with the freestyle scratching, mixing and effects. When you really get into the zone, it’s every bit as fun as the gameplay in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. I particularly like the combat battles against rival DJs, which let you trade off sections of a track in a real “call and response” style competition. The controller itself is awkward if you’re used to playing with guitars, but I think we’re all so used to guitar controllers these days that we forget they used to be a bit awkward as well.

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DJ Hero 2 does have a few failings, however. The campaign, in contrast to Warriors of Rock, barely hangs together. You’re supposed to be building this massive DJ empire, but as you move from your humble beginnings in Ibiza and go one to conquer the world (or at least the DJ part of it), you don’t really get a sense that you’re developing a single story or character. It all just seems like one isolated challenge after another. I know that may sound odd after my criticism of Warriors of Rock but the difference is that your cumulative efforts in DJ Hero 2 don’t seem to have much meaning at all. The only other big problem with the game is that the mixes are so fragmented that the microphone controller isn’t particularly useful. You’ll have to play for a good long while before you even begin to get a handle on how the popular songs are mashed together.

Power Gig: Rise of the Six String
I never judged anyone else’s attraction to guitar games, but I’m one of those snobby types who would much rather be playing a real instrument than monkeying around with the heavily abstracted simulation of guitar-playing that is the genre’s current state of the art. Fortunately, today’s developers are trying to ease the transition from gamer to guitarist and from guitarist to gamer with the addition of controllers that actually work like (gasp!) real guitars. Now when you’re sitting there playing with singers and drummers, you can feel like you’re actually doing what real guitar players do.

Power Gig comes with a real (albeit plastic) electric guitar that also serves as the standard five-button controller found in other popular guitar games. The gameplay itself is kind of ordinary, with the notable exception of using leading trails to let players know which direction the music is heading. I kind of appreciated this feature on the earlier levels, but once the notes started to really pile up, the trails get a bit distracting. (This distraction was aggravated by the loud chunking sound coming from the deadened strings in game mode.) When you consider the ways the other three games on this list put the interface up front, I wonder if Power Gig does all it can to help players see the notes they’re supposed to be playing. And like Warriors of Rock, Power Gig has a quasi-mythic story that’s impossible to take seriously and not inventive enough to be enjoyable.

Even if you throw in the game, the guitar’s not worth the $180. It may be a guitar in the scientific sense, but it’s essentially a plastic game controller with working guitar bits stuck on. You can plug it into an amp and it will make a not entirely unpleasant sound, but there is also an abundance of things that would frustrate you to death on a real guitar. The tuners are terrible; even after just a few minutes of playing, the thing is out of tune. Even tightening up the tuners doesn’t solve the problem. The whole thing is plastic, which doesn’t help the tone, and the electronics are subpar. Considering a real Squier or Epiphone guitar isn’t that much more expensive than $180, the Power Gig guitar is really disappointing.

Rock Band 3
I’ll just get it out of the way now: I love this game. While I was always a mild fan of the series, the addition of Pro Mode has turned me into a full blown fanatic. The heavy level of abstraction has always kept me at a bit of a distance from these games, like a professional race car driver whose only videogame options were arcade driving games. But Rock Band 3‘s Pro Mode is like the Grand Prix Legends, a full simulation that blurs the line between the game and life, at least so far as the skills to play and the range of options are concerned. In Pro Mode, you’ll be playing the actual parts from the actual songs, and not just simply approximating the direction and rhythms of the music. So if Huey Lewis and the News play a C chord with an E in the bass during the vamp, you’ll play a C chord with an E in the bass in the game.

Rock Band 3 has a great career mode, full of nearly endless customization options, plenty of rewards for incremental progress, and a surprisingly deep and satisfying song list with full support for Pro guitar, drums, keyboard and vocal play. If you can get seven people together, they’ll each have something to do in this game. You can even make your own band, complete with changing wardrobes, hairstyles, make-up, and instruments. Even if you don’t want to take the party route, there’s still a lot of meat for the solo gamer. Trying to learn individual song parts, or even train on instruments you don’t normally play, keeps me coming back again and again. Toss in an online ranking system and plenty of unlocks, and you’ll find there’s a great sense of progress in the solo modes.

Squier is releasing a real guitar controller in the near future (probably next year and probably around $300, although that’s just a guess), but for now gamers can make use of the Pro Guitar. This $150 peripheral makes no claims to be a real guitar. It even says “Not a real guitar” on the box, but it is a one-button-per-string-per-fret MIDI controller that also works with the game. The difference between this and the Power Gig guitar is that this one embraces its controller nature. All the game’s pro songs are tracked note-for-note, so when playing you’ll actually be playing the real songs. Though well-made, this thing is still a plastic controller and it lacks the tactile feedback that’s so necessary when playing guitar. As a result, you’ll find yourself checking your position with your eyes more than with your hands, which makes it tough to keep up with some of the game’s faster songs. It’s also a short-scale instrument, so you wind up getting cramped up around the 12th fret.

As with the Power Gig guitar, the big question with the Rock Band 3 guitar is whether or not you want to pay that much for a controller that mimics something you could buy in real life for about that same amount of cash. This is probably all buried in the larger issue of why you’d want the Pro Guitar in the first place. If you just want to extend your enjoyment of the game, and don’t mind shelling out an extra $150 to do it, then it will do what you want it to do. If you just want to transition to playing a real guitar, you’d be better off using that money to buy a real guitar to begin with.

Each of these four games brings something new to the table. DJ Hero 2‘s unique controller is genuinely fun once you get the hang of it, and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock tries desperately to make guitar games be about more than just shredding. Power Gig wants to give gamers a chance to transition from the couch to the stage, and Rock Band 3‘s Pro Mode brings a new layer of authenticity to the whole music game experience.

In the end, I found myself coming back again and again to Rock Band 3. Not only does it deliver a great combination of challenges and progressions without losing the sense of freedom that makes it pick-up-and-play, but it’s also more refined and dense than any of the other experiences available on the market right now. Of course, your level of enjoyment depends greatly on buying into the game’s Pro Modes, which may feel more like work than play for some gamers. If you’re into music at all (and otherwise, why are you even reading this?), it’s the clear winner for this holiday season.

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