Game Review Roundup Fall 09: Music Games

Trailer: Ultimate Rock Band: The Beatles

Over the course of the next couple weeks, we'll be running Review Roundup columns featuring games that were released this fall, grouped together as closely as we can. Today, to start things off, we take a look at this fall's new music games. Turns out, there are a lot of new reasons to rock this season.

The Beatles: Rock Band

From: Harmonix, MTV Games, EA, Apple Corps

Reviewed on: PS3, also available on Xbox 360, Wii

This game is happiness. Harmonix took happiness, turned it into 0s and 1s, and lets people access it by simply turning on a game system. It's that simple.

The core mechanic of the game should be familiar to anyone that's played a rhythm/music game in the last few years. You can play guitar, bass, drums, and vocal parts, and use your plastic instruments (this time based on the instruments the band themselves used and made famous) to input a series of buttons, strums, and whammies. There is also now the option for multiple vocal parts in certain songs and sections, allowing the 2 and 3 part harmonies The Beatles were famous for to be played out in your living room.

There truly is something just joyful about playing these songs. The selection holds enough from their entire range to please fans of any era of their music. Even if you're not a big fan of The Beatles, the music is challenging enough and diverse enough that you'll still have fun playing along.

The design surrounding the game is truly something to behold, and another part of the magic. From extremely faithfully recreated performance spaces and stages to delightful, colorful animation sequences that invoke memories of some of their best, you'll never be bored by the aesthetics of the game, whether you're actively playing or sitting on the sidelines with a large group, waiting for your chance.

Aside from the harmonies, there isn't much new added to the basic Rock Band formula here, and that's just fine. The newness is in the music, which contradictorily is old, and in the way it is presented. For gamers who are fans of The Beatles, this is without a doubt a must own. For music/rhythm game fans who either aren't big fans or haven't had much exposure to the group, this is a great first step, and an incredible range of music for only one band being present.

DJ Hero

From: Freestyle Games, Activision

Reviewed on: Xbox 360, also available on PS3

I've been singing the praises of this game since the first time I got my hands on it, all the way back in July. Now that its out, I continue to tell anyone I meet: Play. This. Game.

The setup is relatively simple. There are three colored buttons on a turntable, that need to be pressed in time with the corresponding dots coming down the screen, just as in the other rhythm games. There is also a slider that is used to go between the two tracks, and a knob for tweaking the sound. As you play, you'll also have times when you need to scratch, do some freestyle tweaking, and even spin the turntable all the way around for a rewind boost. It's more than just your basic music game mapped to a new controller, however, as the experience itself is changed to fit the culture around the world of the DJ.

What's remarkable isn't just how fun this game is to play, but how fun it is to watch. With incredible, all original mixes that reach across decades and genres, people who wouldn't normally be hopping and dancing at the club every night will no doubt find some music here to get them going. The thrill of pulling off a particularly challenging sequence on the turntable is even more thrilling than the hardest guitar solo has ever been; even though you're playing a set mix, there's still a higher level of ownership to the way it all comes out sounding.

The game is fun to play alone, but playing for an audience is a different experience, as you're bound to get cheered on (and booed) as you play. It's a bizarre animal, being a mostly-single-player party game, but it really is. To get others involved, there are a few DJ vs. Guitar mixes, where two can play at once, and with local and online DJ battles, if you and your friends are turntable equipped, you can see who has the most skills with scratching, mixing, and tweaking these sounds. A great game, great music, and a bigger sense of accomplishment than in other rhythm/music games, DJ Hero is a welcome addition to the plastic controller stack.

Lego Rock Band (Harmonix, Traveller's Tales, MTV Games, WBIE; Reviewed on PS3, Also Available on Xbox 360/Wii): Take the gameplay of "Rock Band," add 45 family-friendly tracks, and slap Lego aesthetics and customization on top, and you've got the gist of this game. The game also allows for most downloadable content from the "Rock Band" series to be played within it, but not all. The new Super Easy Mode and no-fail options allow younger players to get in on the action, but are the only additions to the game. Overall, this is the same solid gameplay you know and expect from the "Rock Band" series, with about half the songs you get on the regular discs. These songs are also exportable so that you can play them in your standard "Rock Band 2" setlist, so if you're keen on the setlist (some great choices and massive hits, some pretty obscure and downright boring songs), it may be worth the purchase just for that. Any family with younger children who have been dying to get in on the living room music craze has a surefire hit on their hands with Lego Rock Band.

Guitar Hero 5 & Band Hero  (Neversoft, Activision; Reviewed on PS3, Also Available on Xbox 360/Wii): Not to be outdone, Activision also released two new full-band games this fall. The first to be released, Guitar Hero 5, showed a lot of improvement over last year's "World Tour." The menu system is simplified, the game is geared more toward group play with the new Party Mode (also found in Band Hero), and the song selection seems to have remembered that this game has the word guitar in the title. While the songs work great for the full band experience, the majority definitely have that guitar focus missing from last year's incarnation. Band Hero has a pop focus, and the no fail mode plus drop-in, drop-out and even mid-song instrument changing make this a very group and family-friendly edition of the series. Both games allow you to export/import the majority of their songs into one another (for a fee), so you can mix and match without having to swap discs every time. Both also allow gamers to play any combination of four instruments. That means you can have 3 singers and 1 drummer, or two drummers, a singer and a guitarist. Nothing revolutionary here, but another solid couple of games that build off what has come before.

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