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Taking Rock Band to the next level

I’ve always affectionately classed the drums bundled with Rock Band and Guitar Hero as “Fisher Price.” No matter how hard you try there’s no way you can truly pull off the air of a true musican when doubled up over a half-sized-kit which is made mostly from plastic. They have sparked something within me, though, and since their release some six months ago I have been avidly beating away on them in the bid to become the next Phil Collins.

On Friday, that dream came a step closer as the lovely people at Thomann.de kindly delivered to work a complete e-drum kit. Five large boxes containing dozens of smaller boxes have never made a man so happy.

It may be electronic and operate through my headphones to spare our neighbours, but it’s no lightweight. Three hours were spent assembling it on Saturday morning and a further two just to try and get it to fit discretely into our living room. We failed at the “discrete” portion of the mission but the bunnies are enjoying their new climbing frame.

In just these few short days it’s fair to say that I have fallen in love with my new shiny toy. With it so accessible it’s nice just to nip and have a bang and crash when you have a spare few minutes, as long as Ali isn’t watching Come Dine With Me at the same time. Where it truly excels, though, is its ability to be wired into Rock Band. Take the MIDI out from your sound module, plug it into the relevant port on your Guitar Hero drum kit, tweak the note outputs and within five minutes you have a novelty controller that puts Steel Battalion to shame.

Going from a very compact setup to the range offered on by the e-drums is quite a shock. I’m just so used to reaching just a couple of inches that at first it was horrible. Anyone who plays games (or instruments) will know that after a while your muscle memory takes over. You don’t need to look where the X button is or where a certain string is on your guitar, you just know it. I’m slowly relearning the instinctive movements for Rock Band and with each progressing song the experience just gets better and better.

Whatever you may think about investing in such a ridiculous “toy” to go with gaming, I do think that the combination of Rock Band 2 and a full e-drum kit will help anyone with their drumming. On a basic level the whole point of those games are to play along in time, something quite critical for anyone armed with an instrument, but also because it has rhythm and fill trainers. Lurking in its depths are dozens and dozens of riffs and drum rolls for you to practise, giving you feedback on just where you’re missing the beat. It’s never going to replace music lessons but as a compliment to them it’s very beneficial.

Cards on the table, it still doesn’t beat a full acoustic kit. My first port of call whenever I get into work early is the music room but for a home environment I don’t think I could have done much better. The fact it can be linked with one of my favourite games of all time just makes it even shinier.

Lego What Now?

After months of rumour and speculation Lego Rock Band has been confirmed. If there was one thing I thought those angular toys wouldn’t be able to turn their hand it would be the world of rawk but here they are strumming away on their pieced together instruments.

My first reaction was that this was a shocking cash in, a step down the Guitar Hero route that signalled the end of the franchise’s moral high ground. All they’ve done up until this point has seemingly put the fans first but was the temptation of the Lego cheque book too great? Maybe not, as on closer inspection it appears they are just reaching for a younger market. “Lego Rock Band combines the multiplayer music experience of Rock Band with the fun, customization and humour of the Lego videogame franchise packed with brilliant chart-topping songs and classic favourites suitable for younger audiences” claims the press release.

If this is true then it could be a master stroke by Harmonix. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero brands are both well known in the medium but from personal experience they can also be quite daunting. Whether it be the image they exude, the pricing or the perceived target age range, some are put off from grabbing a plastic guitar and strumming along. Over the last few years, though, Lego videogames have built up a reputation of being accessible and welcoming which could be exactly what is needed to bridge the gap. I’m not saying that everyone who bought Lego Indy is going to drop over a hundred pounds to join in but I can see more than a few of those currently on the fence finally deciding to do so.

My biggest disappointment, however, is the track listing. When the title initially surfaced I had visions of a playlist featuring Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, The Judd’s Love Can Build a Bridge and anything from New Kids on the Block. What a missed opportunity.

Feel free to leave your own Lego based song suggestions.

Give me my music

I still feel that criticising Guitar Hero is like speaking ill of an ex-girlfriend. There must have been some good times otherwise you wouldn’t have spent so much time with them, but then they went and stole your CD collection and you moved on to the sassier, more loving, Rock Band. The point I’m trying to make here is that as much as I loved the strumming based fun, when I found out my Guitar Hero II DLC wasn’t recognised in Guitar Hero III I was a little miffed. And when my Guitar Hero III DLC was also locked out of Guitar Hero: World Tour I knew it was time to move on.

This whole scenario has once again been setup with the official unveiling of Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits, a rerelease of the greatest songs from Guitar Heroes I, II and III, all wrapped onto one nicely packaged disc. This means that on the Xbox 360 alone there will soon be five different Guitar Heroes, each unable to play the other’s downloaded songs. In a party atmosphere where a cry can go out for a particular song, you don’t want to faff around popping discs in and out as the evening’s taste change, you want to be in one game with access to all those songs you’ve spent your hard earned Microsoft Points on. God bless Rock Band.

Whilst the Guitar Hero name may hold more sway with the masses, those in the know are wholeheartedly behind Rock Band for this and many other subtle reasons. If Activision ever want us to switch back then they’re going about it the wrong way as we don’t want branded games or greatest hits as separate entities, what we want at the very least is access to them as DLC. Give me the option to spend £40 in the Marketplace as opposed to Amazon and you may tempt me back, but as long as I know that my newly downloaded Wings pack is going to invalidated come the holiday season then you can kiss me goodbye.

An-i-mal!

Over the Christmas holiday my Guitar Hero: World Tour drum set was given one hell of a beating. Our neighbour kindly went away for a whole fortnight, opening the way for spontaneous drum solos, Foo Fighter marathons and several epic, late night sessions. Simply put, that kit combined with Rock Band and three friends is up there at the pinnacle of gaming experiences.

Once again, though, the power of video games have resounded deep within me. Ali may have sensed I was getting ideas above my station when I invested in a proper drum “throne” – after all, how can anyone look professional when wailing on a plastic, Fisher Price-esque drum kit if they’re sitting on a kitchen chair – but not content with allowing myself these windows of gaming to express my inner Animal, I am now booked in for my first drumming lesson. Sunday sees my first step on the way to tackling Expert mode.

It’s all very exciting and a visit has already been paid to the music department to sit in awe at our own drum kit. Did you know the proper ones don’t have coloured rings around the drums?

Unfortunately there is already a precedent for this with me. Two years ago I bought an electric guitar after becoming hooked on the first Guitar Hero. Having previous had an acoustic guitar at uni which I’d enjoyed strumming off and on, I thought this was a great place to reinvigorate my musical side. Sadly it was never to be. After the initial hopes and eagerness faded, it went into storage for almost a year as we tried to move house and when it reappeared I was just never enthused enough to pick it up again seriously. So this time certain parties had to be assured that lessons would be at least taken before any purchase took place.

If all goes well a drum kit will hopefully be possible by Easter, with the garage is now being cautiously eyed as a potential home. So if anyone has got any spare egg boxes to help with the sound proofing, our neighbours would appreciate the donation.

First Impressions: Guitar Hero World Tour & Rock Band 2

I’ve held off of my rant against the god-awful pre-budget report and decided to focus on shiny things instead. Like my new Guitar Hero World Tour drum kit! Coming in a box large enough to house a full family of wombats, it surely is a thing of plastic beauty.

First thing to report is that the Guitar Hero World Tour drum kit is a marked improvement on the original Rock Band equivalent. The RB kit, although a fresh idea at the time, always felt a little flat and awkward with its four pads. My main issue being the spacing and that when I was staring fixedly at the note stream if my hands wavered it wasn’t always easy to differentiate between the middle pair. GHWT has solved this by stripping down the basic drums to three and adding a pair of raised symbols. It may not be much of a refinement but the definite placing of all five pads just lifts the whole experience for me – you know exactly where you need to bring the stick down, no matter where you are mid-flail.

It feels more satisfying, too. The simple aesthetic addition of the symbols still can’t separate you away from the fact that you are playing an oversized Fisher Price toy but the actions played out on it are just far more satisfying. You know exactly when a symbol smash is coming and bashing those elevated quarter circles of black rubber feels amazing, far better than the flat equivalent in Rock Band.

The moveable and more sturdy foot pedal is also a welcome upgrade as I no longer feel my foot is cramped underneath the tiny frame.

And so to the Rock Band 2 v Guitar Hero World Tour software battle. In summary Rock Band 2 is by far the better game. It has oodles of downloadable tracks already, its difficulty curve is friendly to newcomers, it has a varied but lengthy career mode to plough through and it has the all important “no fail” mode for when you get a drunken band together. In contrast, Guitar Hero is much harder for novices, its career mode’s progression is extremely strict and DLC are currently scarce.

What World Tour can offer, though, is drum arrangements that are more involving. Throughout the game there is are strict definition of what pad means what. For instance, the left symbol is always high hat, the right being crash. Rock Band may do similar but not to the same level and it is the consistency in GHWT that makes it a better drumming experience. What makes the comparison fairer is that both games share a lot of songs and having played Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and others on both, I much prefer the style in which World Tour lets me hit things with sticks.

So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’d heartily recommend GHWT’s drum kit for all the little things like the spacing of the inputs, the foot pedal and the build quality as a whole, but I’ll be playing it on Rock Band 2. Now Ali’s taken up the bass I can’t see our band, The Secret Society of Buzzlegums, ever moving back to GHWT… although I may sneak over for the odd solo.

“Please release me, let me go”

Looking at the release schedule, which has steadily been growing week upon week until the current “What’s Out” listing looks comparable to the north face of K2, this Friday’s has to be the most demanding of the year for me. These last seven days will have brought Gears, Banjo, Left 4 Dead, Guitar Hero World Tour, Mirror’s Edge and End War to the shelves, and this is on top of my pre-existing love affair with Fallout 3. What is a boy to do?

The one release that passed my silently by was Wrath of the Lich King, a World of Warcraft expansion. Quite strangely it was only brought to my attention by BBC Radio 5live covering its midnight launch. They were interviewing someone who had camped out since Tuesday in order to be first in line and were quite reasonably discussing its addictive properties.

Part of me is quite disappointed that I am no longer interested in World of Warcraft enough to be excited by or even to notice a new chapter working its way out to the masses. Having played two serious stints before, the second triggered by the release of the previous expansion, I definitely count myself as a fan but I believe my time has been and gone is Azeroth.

World of Warcraft still can claim home to some very memorable gaming moments due to the team work and social engagement it brought with other players in the world. A core four from within Rare formed our party but in the end it required so much planning to get the whole quartet together at the same time on the same night that the feasibility of playing just dropped away. At higher levels, its scale is hardly something you can dabble in at lunchtimes.

Currently I wander the plains of a different world, Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland, and until that has been put to bed I can only see a certain rhythm action game being played in parallel. Everything else will just have to wait.

Drop a beat

One of the joys of crunch is that with a lot of you free time evaporating around you is that you have a tendency to spend less money. The most recent threat to my wallet has been in the form of the Rock Band drum kit sitting in ASDA, taunting me from its lofty position, beckoning me to take it home.

You see, if they sold it like this out the box it would already be in my living room.

Despite all my rantings a while ago about how it was just too expensive, it didn’t stop me from being tempted. The lure was definitely there and Ali had to talk me down from the ledge on more than one occasion telling me I just don’t have time to play it.

That lust for plastic instruments, however, has now passed. As it turns out, I am quite a fickle gamer and if it’s not new then my urge to purchase it drops off dramatically. In the two weeks since Rock Band has been out in the UK I have gone from desperately searching eBay for a low, low price, to turning my attentions to the next big thing appearing on the horizon (and with any luck it’ll be cross-compatible and that will solve all my problems).

This transient gaming nature seems to have followed me around for some time and I know that in recent time Metroid Prime, Mass Effect and Half-Life 2’s episodes all having passed me by because I didn’t jump on the bandwagon at the time of release. It’s a very bad habit to get in to, and one I wish I could shake, but at least this time it’s saved me over a hundred pounds.

This is what is wrong with society today

There is nothing that gets me more irate than the legal system gone mad. Particularly the American one.

Guitar makers Gibson are suing Activision over their Guitar Hero series because it infringes their patent for simulating a musical performance. What makes this even crazier is that they have been official partners of the brand since July of last year so it could have hardly gone unnoticed.

See that one on the right… guess what make it is.

I can understand the need for patents when it comes to securing your rights over technical and highly skilled pieces of technology or research, but but when it comes to such generic filings I throw my hands high and wail in despair. Such a catch-all statement is one step away from a patent patenting patents. 

With the precedence set, is Sony now going to be sued for Sing Star, is EA next for its Rock Band series or, more importantly, am I going to get done next time I use my shower gel as an impromptu microphone whilst in the shower?

I can only hope the judge shows common sense and throws it out.

Rubber lips not included

Whilst they may not be able to make me want to live it up whilst I’m going down, the announcement of an Aerosmith edition of Guitar Herodoes fill me with hope. For if Activision are planning on doing themed versions for everyone’s favourite plastic guitar, then it opens the doors wide in terms of possible future content.

Right now we have to wait for the dribs and drabs that reach us via downloads but if they embrace the Sing Star model we could have a new compilation pack every couple of months.

Since 2006, Sing Star have launched over twenty different versionsaround the world. Every one is specialised in a different genre, national taste or decade but each of them are there to broaden the appeal of the series to snare in yet more unsuspecting singers. From Bollywood to Norway, Rock to Pop, Sing Star tries to supply everyone with something and no one could argue that’s a bad thing.

Did they do that one from that one with the meteor?

So could we see the Guitar Hero brand being associated with more bands and genres? Hopefully. Not only would it be a good way to retain its presence at retail and differentiate itself from Rock Band, but as it stands that they have already done an 80’s edition and seemingly have various trademarks lined up, both giving further credence to this possibility.

Here’s hoping for an Ocean Colour Scene version some time soon.