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Rock Band Blitz

It’s been tough for Harmonix since the great plastic instrument crash of twenty-ten. Despite the superb Rock Band 3, demand for clacking guitars and Fisher Price drum kits dried up and first week sales of the flagship title did not even break five-figures. It was a far cry from their billion-dollar Guitar Hero days when the sound of friends and families clicking along to Kiss filled living rooms across the land. The craze disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived and not even a keytar could prevent it. Not long after, Harmonix and Viacom parted company and it looked an uncertain future.

They have, however, put out the consistent and well received Dance Central for Kinect. Although this may have scratched a musical itch for the developers, it was a departure from the games that made their name and you could always tell that something else was brewing. That something was Rock Band Blitz.

Blending their more recent gameplay stylings with the track swapping and score chasing of their earlier work, Amplitude and Frequency, it carries on the Rock Band brand without the need for half-sized guitars.

For those, like myself, who possibly overdosed on Rock Band in recent years, what is presented is something that’s very familiar but utterly confusing. On screen are up to five highways – the streams of colourful buttons that represent notes and indicate when you should press buttons – one for each of the instruments in your band. Drums, bass, lead guitar, vocals and keyboard each have their place, and in a different era this would mean there were five people playing along together. In Blitz, however, you play everything yourself; you are the ultimate one-man band.

As the notes rattle towards you, there’s only two buttons to worry about as you tap out the rhythm in time to the song; left or right is all there is. Layered on top of that is the ability to swap tracks. If the drums have grown a little slow or the singer’s nipped to the back of the stage to grab a drink, a tap on the triggers will switch focus to a more involving instrument. Similarly, if the guitar solo’s getting a little too hot for your fingers, flick over to the bass to ensure your combo remains unbroken. With each run of notes your multipliers tick up and you feed your Blitz meter. When that fills the camera drops low, the sense of speed picks up and points are positively hurled at you like knickers at a Tom Jones gig for as long as you can keep the chain going.

It’s all about the high score. There’s no longer the ability to fail mid-song when you reach the twiddly bit and your sense of rhythm collapses under the pressure of syncopated off-beats, your only penalty is that you will score nothing. That, strangely, is a feature I’ve often wished for in the main Rock Band career.

Initial forays will be mini adventures as you get used to the new format, experimenting, and wrapping your head around the focus on scoring. There’s always been points, but not like this, as the keen designers drag you left and right with the introduction of a gated multiplier. Each track must be built up evenly, spreading your focus across each instrument to gain the maximum benefit. Neglect the keyboards and even if you’ve topped out the other highways until they glow like Blackpool seafront you won’t see the caps increased as you pass through various checkpoints scattered throughout the songs.

It introduces a level of strategy I’ve never encountered before in music games. It’s easy enough to play through a song but to master and balance each instrument to know that you’ve played enough notes to unlock higher and higher multipliers needs you to truly know that song. Knowing when the vocals fades out can be the difference between a high score and a wasted run. At this point it goes past the point of simply playing along, as you flit back and forth between the highways, it’s a manic display of finger dexterity.

And it’s compelling. Leaderboards are rampant throughout and the constant comparison to friends is an undeniable draw to giving that song just one more go. And then one more. Maybe third time lucky. A situation only made worse by Harmonix’s Score War feature where you slap your online friends round the face with a digital white glove and call them to duel with you, giving you both three days to set the highest score. There’s in-game currency to win but being called out and showed up is a high incentive to eke out every point from a song.

Adding a further twist are the power-ups that can be equipped before every try. Star Power no longer fuels increased multipliers, it launches bottle rockets, sets off explosions, or calls to your aid a virtual bandmate. With three different types of power-ups, all possibly heavily affecting the way you approach play, it furthers experimentation with each one unlocked. Already around the office tips and tricks are being passed about as new techniques and combinations lead to higher and higher scores.

No matter what has changed, below it all is still Rock Band. The gems still glow as they did before as they glide down the highway, and either side that rock city motif scrolls by with the odd recognisable character briefly flitting into view. It’s a reassuring constant, especially as it imports all your previous Rock Band content. The track list built into Blitz is incredibly solid, with a range from Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters, but the instant expansion gave it a lease of life I find very rarely in score attack games.

For those of you who miss a traditional Rock Band experience, this will go some way to alleviating that pain. It may be reimagined but it shows all the design genius and subtlety that made Harmonix’s name. Where Blitz has its focus however is entirely on competition. Anyone who is alone amongst their friends in downloading this will enjoy it but see very little of its incredible depth. Bobbing your head and floating your way through a song is one thing but when pressed by the knowledge that that bastard Ben has just knocked More Than a Feeling out of the park, that smile will be replaced with gritty determination as you flick tracks like a man possessed.

That high score? She will be me mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.

Double value downloads

Regular readers may have twigged that we here at 7outof10 towers are very partial to a bit of Rock Band. Most of the time I can’t sing its praises high enough; for its colour-coded music brings joy to all, has introduced me to a great range of bands, and has even inspired me to learn the drums proper. Some may argue that the final point is not a good one as a drum kit now takes up a large percentage of my front room, but I think only my wife falls into that camp.

Over the weekend I was introduced to The Beatles edition of Rock Band, and my was it an education. No matter how many Beatles tracks you think you know the game does an excellent job of throwing in tracks from throughout your career that many people will be surprised to see. Either because they did not realise that particular track was one of theirs, or because a song that you have never heard before is suddenly streaming down the noteway towards you and you’ve no idea how it is supposed to sound.

At the end of it I felt I had been on a little musical mystery tour, having had my mind expanded and I wanted to find out more. So off I headed to the Marketplace, hoping to see Hey Jude peering back at me. Sadly it was conspicuous by its absence, but the full albums of Rubber Soul, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road did all sat proudly upon its shelves. And it got me thinking: I’d be far happier parting with my Microsoft points if I could take my music elsewhere.

I’ve downloaded many songs from Rock Band’s music store and a reasonable number have been played once, maybe twice, and then left to mill around with the rest of the RB tracks that litter my harddrive. Some Foo Fighters, No Doubt and Greenday do get some good play time, but the impulse buys out-number them, and I fear that any Beatles downloads I do make would head in the same direction. Especially as you can (understandably) only play them on the Beatles edition of Rock Band.

Imagine, however, if you got the MP3 version of the track with it. In my mind that would certainly give a new lease of life to the music store and those albums that originally looked at little daunting at almost £15 were suddenly a lot more attractive. I’m not saying it would be easy, or indeed feasible, but what if? What if?

Lego Rock Band – Review

A few years ago, of all the licenses that could have been signed by a music game, a child’s set of building blocks must have been quite near the bottom of a rather lengthy list. We’ve seen Metallica, The Beatles and even Van Halen all attach their names to the current craze of plastic instruments and yet here we are with the oddity of Lego Rock Band. Cue gags about Bloc Party, Another Brick in the Wall and Block Rockin’ Beats.

A few years ago, however, we didn’t have Lego Star Wars, Batman or Indiana Jones. Each of which has slowly built the Lego brand into more than a Danish ambassador. The Lego world has developed a character all of its own with an unerring knack in distilling film plots into amusing cutscenes. It has taken three franchises and made them into family friendly experiences where prior knowledge is in no way a prerequisite. And it is this identity that EA have coveted in order to take Rock Band to a broader audience.

Traveller’s Tales have done a superb job in taking the traditional Rock Band experience and encasing it in a Lego bricks. Everything from the opening car chase cinematic to the menu’s background has been tweaked to incorporate blocks whilst still keeping the original’s essence. The biggest change, for it is still Rock Band 2 under this veneer, is in the story mode and its outlandish venues. Rather than clubs and stadiums it starts you off busking at the railway station and moves on to zoos, prehistoric caves, pirate ships, haunted mansions and palaces.

The Lego theme isn’t just limited to scenery however, and as you rise to stardom special gigs will become available. Some offer the opportunity to embody the likes of Blur, Queen and Bowie, all perfectly recreated in minifig form. Others will get your band to turn their hand to some rather specialist tasks. Were you aware that the power of rock can be used to banish ghosts, bring down buildings and even defrost explorers who became lost in the Arctic? No?

Although silly, the accompanying videos are packed with all the charm that you expect from the Lego series; the only negative being that you have to watch your stream of notes and not the unfolding shenanigans. Everyone in your band and management team can be seen capering about the stage with each and every one of them customisable. Currently my band has a peg-legged pirate on vocals, a ticket conductor on bass whilst a deep sea diver plays lead guitar on a par with Hendrix himself. As for me, the least said about my giant vegetable drum kit the better.

This is Blur. The one on the right is Coxen but I think he has just a touch of Harry Potter about him.

Despite all that, disappointment creeps in as Lego Rock Band is a twelve-month old product hiding behind a new wardrobe and it shows little sign of progression. Although tuned for accessibility – you can’t fail a song, there’s a super easy move, and drummers can ignore the foot pedal entirely – it still lacks basic features. There’s no option to jump in mid-song, or even mid-tour, and the Thomas brothers will once again have to fight over the drum sticks as the opportunity for two people to play the same instrument remains absent. These omissions are made worse by rival Guitar Hero having addressed them both.

Whether Lego Rock Band is for you will be down to an individual’s position. Those previously put off by the brand’s rocker image should put worries aside and start clearing space for your plastic band now. For Rock Band veterans, it’s a harder sell. Treating it as a bonus song pack will be dictated by personal taste but the clincher should be whether the enticement of having a band made completely out of minifigs can be resisted. Either way, what it does well is add a much needed sense of humour to what is becoming a formulaic experience.

Now do excuse me, I need to go and chase away an octopus from my lead singer’s ship.


Lego Rock Band

This week’s announcement of Lego Rock Band’s track listings and the option of exporting it out into older versions of Rock Band reinforced my faith in human nature; there are publishers developers out there who aren’t just trying to extract every possible penny from your wallet for minimal effort. Compared to Guitar Hero’s dozen or so releases in the last three years, each major Rock Band release has seen Harmonix jump through technical hoops in order to keep their brand as a platform rather than a batch of stand alone releases.

In a world where certain companies are willing to sell you unlock codes for items that used to be available through a simple button combination, or extra money in games you’re too lazy to earn it, it’s a refreshing gesture. Naturally there is a fee involved but considering when exporting Rock Band 1’s tracks to Rock Band 2 it cost less than a fiver for 60 songs it can well be considered one of the best value transactions in this digital age.

I gave up on Guitar Hero after, for the second game in a row, they wouldn’t let me import my old DLC into the newer game. It hardly makes for a fun social event swapping discs after each track, nor does paying for content that becomes defunct so quickly. Guitar Hero do seem to be sensing the error of their ways and are making efforts to amend the lack of song sharing, but it seems quite laboured by comparison.

Rock Band, Sing Star and even Hasbro Game Night are the direction social gaming should be going. Give me lots of releases, keep the content flowing, but also allow me to access it all from a single hub. Games that do so may suffer a hit from not featuring in retailer’s New Release section so frequently but as distribution turns more and more towards digital downloads that should become less of an issue.

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.

Birthday Honours

As with The Queen, I feel it my duty to recognise those that have impressed me over the last twelve months and so I welcome you to the second annual BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

For services to music: Rock Band 2

I used to think the solo guitar experience was exhilarating, making you feel like an instant rock star. However, as I have already stated this week there were few experiences last year better than playing in your own plastic band. This iteration on the series builds on its already strong core, whilst the drums and the copious amount of downloadable songs have been a revolution to me, revitalised my interest in this genre.

For services to the Capital Wasteland: Fallout 3

If there was one game in 2008 that I had to force myself to put down as I was in danger of forsaking all others, that game would be Fallout 3. Some may have found the desolate wasteland they were wandering through a chore, I regarded it as a mammoth game of hide and seek. Over each ridge or round the next canyon turn you never knew what you were going to find, from crashed UFOs to museums dedicated to fizzy drinks. The sheer scale of the game was inspiring.

For services against the undead: Left 4 Dead

Despite my original muted response towards Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse has grown on me. It is a game where no story is needed, your goals are obvious and tight teamwork is rewarded. This simplicity is its strength with new players able to delve right in and get just as much from it as grizzled veterans.

For services to engineering: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Not only does it feature one Trophy Thomas, but also the ultimate Lego set. Once you reach a certain point in the game a light bulb flicks on inside your head and all sorts of crazy ideas begin churning out. To add to my trebuchet, Thundertank, Thunderbird 2 and Seaking, I’ve seen ferris wheels, walking robots, space shuttles and a myriad more creations that make you realise what a flexible toolset you have at your disposal.

For services to puzzlement: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

A delightful DS game that takes a different slant on point-and-click adventuring, combining some devious logic puzzles with a colourful brand of animation. The whole game oozes charm, from a village that is populated with those obsessed with testing your brain to Professor Layton’s nemesis who would prefer you out the way so he can presumably have all the puzzles to himself.

Honourable mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year, I do think a few others deserve the nod.

The continued presence of Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas should be appreciated. Excluding those with zombies, no shooter has come close to dislodging these pair as firm favourites.

In terms of controlling green clad pixies, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for me was second only to Link to the Past in terms of enjoyment. A great debut on the DS for Link.

Mirror’s Edge would be held in far higher esteem if only the combat wasn’t so frustrating. For me this has great parallels with Sands of Time; if only enemies were completely removed from both games then I would champion them to anyone who would listen.

Although there seems a backlash for Fable II, I still really loved it for what it was. There may be no sandbox world on the scale of Oblivion but I liked what it did for it did it really well.


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 percussion lessons. 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.