First look: The Beatles: Rock Band*
The Beatles: Rock Band will be a delight for pretty much anyone except those poor Fab Four nerds born without a shred of playfulness in their DNA.
Based on the preliminary preview I received recently at MTV Networks’ offices in Santa Monica, the game connects a deep respect for the quartet’s musical legacy with a sense of the inspired fun that was also central to their collective personality.
The visuals that have already been previewed online have telegraphed a strong sense of the look and feel of the game; Rock Band (and Guitar Hero) players will feel at home almost instantly, and should appreciate the amped-up visuals created on behalf of the honorees.
Beatles avatars appear in period-representative clothing, hairstyles, mustaches and beards as the game shifts from the band’s relatively scruffy early years in the cramped, sweaty underground environs of the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, through the career-making appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in those natty collarless suits to historic concerts at New York's Shea Stadium and the foursome’s swan song public performance on that windy and chilly January day in 1969 atop the Apple Corps headquarters in London.
Anybody’s who’s been sentient during the last half-century will have a good idea of what the game will sound like from the 45 Beatle classics that’ll be included with the initial batch of software. Still, there are treats in store on that front thanks to new remixing work by Giles Martin, the son of veteran Beatles producer George Martin. And Giles is no Beatles novice -- he won a couple of Grammys for his work with his father on the striking remix/mash-up of their catalog for the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, “Love.”
Perhaps the single most significant expansion of Rock Band as we know it is the capability of harmony singing, and that was the key element showcased at the first phase of the media preview I attended.
The Beatles: Rock Band allows for as many as three singers for players daring enough to try replicating the harmonies so uniquely identifiable that they generated an adjective all their own: Beatle-esque.
As an amateur musician myself, one of the things I find coolest about Rock Band in general since I sprung for it at Christmas (only for my 13- and 17-year-old sons, you understand) is the drum tutorial. This function actually teaches some music fundamentals to would-be percussionists. (Forget about the guitars -- there’s little connection to real music-making except for fomenting a bit of rhythmic sense.)
The Beatles: Rock Band kicks this function up a notch with its Vocal Training function designed to walk users through the Beatles’ often intricate vocal parts. (The standard pack of the game listing for $249.99, however, comes with just one microphone along with a guitar controller modeled after Paul McCartney's signature Hofner bass and a drum kit with some of the trappings of Ringo Starr's famous Ludwig kit. Additional Rock Band microphones are sold separately for $18.99.)
In Vocal Training mode, a synthesizer tone doubles whichever vocal line the user chooses to follow, making it easier to first hear separate parts, then emulate them. I found it a fairly annoying intrusion on the Fab Four’s music, but it probably will prove useful to anyone not experienced in discerning interior harmony lines.
During game play, accurate singing by different players can bolster their overall scores, but they’re not penalized if they muff notes. The designers noted that unlike previous versions of Rock Band where one player’s mistakes can drag the whole group down, they set this up to offer encouragement -- not humiliation -- to those who want to give it their best shots.
Moving through the playing levels (easy, medium, hard, expert) tightens the range of notes considered acceptable and thus worthy of points being awarded. On something early such as their version of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” where the Paul-George harmony responses to John’s melodic call stay fairly consistent throughout the song, racking up lots of vocal points is nowhere near as challenging as more sophisticated numbers such as “Eight Days a Week.” (That’s the song I tried during the hands-on demo. But I limited myself to playing guitar, leaving the vocals to the Harmonix staff who were guiding the session. My go-round left me pumped enough to ship a resume and a screen grab of my 97% score off to McCartney in case he needs backup on his next tour.)
At its core, it’s still a video game, and pop music/Beatles purists who are so inclined can find historical inaccuracies to grouse about. (Example: For “Back in the USSR.,” the game shows visuals of all the Fabs in their traditional roles: John and George on guitars, Paul playing bass and Ringo at the drums, even though Paul actually played drums on that track during Ringo’s brief departure from the group in 1968 during the recording of “The Beatles,” a.k.a. “The White Album.)
But lighten up — it's a kick. The real shame is that these games don’t instill actual guitar-playing skills as reward for all the time and effort players can devote to them. Still, word from musical equipment manufacturers I’ve spoken to say that sales are up since Guitar Hero and Rock Band have come on the scene. So perhaps the next pop music phenom that comes down the pike to change the world as we know it will cite one of these games as the source of their creative inspiration.
'Cuz in the end, the rock you take is equal to the rock you make.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo credit: MTV Networks
*Update: An earlier version said the Beatles' final public performance took place on the roof of Abbey Road Studios in London. It was at Apple Corps headquarters.