Reviews

Falling A Little Flat


From Kinect to Apple TV, Harmonix has gained a reputation
for supporting fledgling platforms. Following the revival of the Rock Band
franchise in 2015 with Rock Band 4, the studio turned its eyes toward another
new piece of hardware: the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset. After releasing
Harmonix Music VR, a collection of music-focused minigames, the developer called
upon its most recognizable IP, Rock Band.

Rock Band VR combines familiar conventions with enough new
elements to make the experience novel and exciting for fans of the genre.
Taking full advantage of the technology, Rock Band VR puts players in the
first-person perspective with little UI clogging up your view, a departure from
the view in mainline Rock Band games where the concert video-style presentation
is background to the prominent note highway. Instead, you’re free to look
around the stage, with the only UI appearing in a chord guide that floats above
the crowd, and a combo meter on the head of your guitar. This new approach
plays into the strengths of virtual reality, removing the barrier that exists
with previous series between the player and the screen. When a song I love like
Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” or Megadeth’s “Hangar 18” comes on,
it’s difficult not to get into it. I found myself tapping my foot, nodding my
head, and even holding the guitar in a more stylish manner during my favorite
tracks.

I enjoyed being able to look out over the crowd as I played
through a set, but unlike the similar concept in Guitar Hero Live, the people
you’re looking at are rarely interesting. The members of the crowd do things
like try to take selfies or yell out at the stage, but the concept doesn’t go far
enough. What’s worse is your bandmates, who feel more animatronic than human.
Each time I looked over at my fellow instrumentalists, they did little more
than stand at their mic stands and sing along – save for some pre- and
post-song animations, like one where one of them smashes their guitar. One of the
things that made Guitar Hero Live’s first-person perspective so much fun was
the campy-yet-entertaining way that your bandmates and fans reacted to you
during the songs.

Setup for Rock Band VR is surprisingly easy. You attach a
special Oculus Touch holder to the head of a Rock Band 4 guitar controller and
sync the controller to your PC. Once that’s done, it’s just a matter of getting
the software up and running and learning the basics of gameplay through the
tutorials.

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Despite using the same guitar controller, the core gameplay
of Rock Band VR is drastically different from the rest of the series. Rather
than playing along to specific colored gems on a note highway (that is reserved
for the peripheral classic mode), you improvise what you want to play using a
scrolling guide that hovers over the audience. The guide doesn’t tell you exactly
what notes to play, but rather when you should change chords and chord shapes.
Within this system, you also rack up points using different established
combinations of the various chord shapes. With no note highway, you’re instead
scored based on how well you follow the guide.

Jumping between bar chords, power chords, arpeggios, and
muted arpeggios is fun, especially when the song breaks those progressions up
with a solo. The guitar-solo mechanics borrow heavily from the mechanics of
Rock Band 4’s improvisational solo mechanics, so if you’ve played that mode,
you know what to expect. However, players looking for a true challenge like
Guitar Hero and mainline Rock Band games might be disappointed; instead of the
satisfaction of completing a song, the main thrill of Rock Band VR comes with
making songs sound good through your improvisation (trust me, you can make some
classic songs sound like garbage since the guitar sounds mirror your play).

Playing through songs using this system is fun at first, but
it falls flat quickly. Unlike the series’ classic gameplay, Rock Band VR’s core
gameplay doesn’t feature the same nuance from song to song. This means that
while a track like Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” is drastically
different from Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” from both an
instrumentation and a structural perspective, the gameplay does not reflect
that massive gap between those two tracks. You can improvise to make them sound
more distinct, but the act of actually playing those songs does not feel as
different as it should.

The setlist is made up of a diverse group of songs,
featuring classic Rock Band favorites like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a
Prayer” and The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to new additions
to the franchise like Kaleo’s “Glass House” and The Pretty Reckless’
“Heaven Knows.” I love that these songs can be played in both the new
improvisation-based gameplay, as well as the classic mode with the note
highway. The modes play completely different from one another, so when I wanted
a break from one style, it was great to be able to easily jump to the other. I
just wish that classic mode had more going on than just a blank background that
does nothing to capitalize on the immersive properties of virtual reality.

Multiplayer is one of the cornerstones of the Rock Band
franchise, but Rock Band VR is strictly a single-player experience centered on
quickplay and a short, forgettable story mode. I understand why the multiplayer
is missing given the format of the VR gameplay, but without being able to play
with friends, the game feels like a half-measure rather than the full-blown
Rock Band experience that made the series so much fun in the first place.

Stepping into the shoes of the lead guitarist
adds a new layer of excitement to the Rock Band formula, and the new gameplay
mechanics are fun to mess around with, even if it feels completely different
from the original gameplay style. Harmonix has always prided itself on giving
players new ways to experience their music, and Rock Band VR succeeds in that
regard. Though lacking in content, Rock Band VR is a fun, new way for the
long-running series to let you live out the rockstar fantasy. 


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