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'Rock Band': A Hands-On Test of the Most Anticipated Video Game of the Year

August 16, 2007 11:46 AM ET

What It Is: The sensation of this year's E3 gaming show, Rock Band is essentially a four-person version of Guitar Hero. In fact, it's made by same MIT Media Lab music brainiacs (Harmonix) who created Guitar Hero (as well as a slew of other music games from Karaoke Revolution to Amplified).

How It Works: Each person takes an instrument in the form of a plastic video-game controller shaped like a guitar, bass, drums and mic, respectively. When the music starts, each member of the band has to press red, blue, green or yellow buttons on the controllers (or sing correctly) in sync with the ever-changing colored squares and bars that run on a track on the screen. It's typical Karaoke Revolution-meets-Guitar Hero gameplay, but with a seriously intriguing four-person multiplayer element.

What It's Like to Play: We sang along with Rush's "Tom Sawyer" with words (and bars representing note values and pitches) streaming across the screen in time with the music. We found that all we needed to do was just sing more or less on pitch for as long as those individual bars are on-screen. Like Karaoke Revolution, though, you can basically sing along in a soulless, robotic fashion and still score points as long as you're in sync with those bars. That said, extra style points are awarded for those singers who improvise here and there. The vocals track also includes some separate onscreen symbols that ask you to tap on the mic as if it were a tambourine, so you'll need to have your rhythm skills in shape to master this part.

Next up, the bass, which is probably the easiest of the instruments to tackle. On Weezer's "Say It Ain't So," we were able to more or less hit most of the extended notes, though a few hammer-ons stumped us until we got a little more practice. The Fender guitar controller was a bit more difficult, asking us for harder-to-hit hammer-ons, regular notes and a variety of extended notes on Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," but we were offered the option of going nuts with a lever on the guitar that creates a wah-wah-pedal-like effect on some longer notes.

Drums are the hardest part to play, unless, of course, you're a drummer. The drum kit features color-coded pads that represent the snare (red), high hat (yellow), tom (blue), crash (green) and bass-kick pedal (orange). Our first shot while playing David Bowie's "Suffragette City" made us look like a hyperactive two year old banging on cans.

What Does the Game Have Besides Music-Making?: You can create a virtual rocker character with different clothes, instruments and hair. Your rock star avatar then shows up in a digitized concert video that serves as the background during gameplay. The more points you score over time, the more accessories you'll have to give to your avatar. Multiplayer options will let you compete in the game against millions of other players online.

What Kind of Music Can I Expect?: Beside the multiple instruments twist, actual talent is one area in which this game surpasses all other music games before it. MTV, which is teaming up with Harmonix and Electronic Arts to put out Rock Band, has secured licenses to use the music of legendary bands past and present. Once the game comes out, new songs will come out every week, and many bands will be offering entire albums up for sale (tracks and albums will be purchasable online on Xbox Live or through the PlayStation store). More bands will be announced in the coming weeks, but so far the following groups are on board: The Who, Mountain, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Rush, Blue Öyster Cult, the Hives, Queens of the Stone Age, the Ramones, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Weezer, Foo Fighters and the Strokes.

What We Like: In our brief time with Rock Band, we found it to be closer than any other game in replicating the music-making experience. You really have to hit those notes or no music comes out, but if you hit those notes, you really get the feeling that you're part of a band. And thatâ's on easy mode, which only asks you to hit a few keys in sync. In advance modes, you literally have to hit every not that's in the song. Harmonix claims that if you ace a song in advanced mode, you're technically able to play the song on real instruments.

What We Don't Like: Not much. That said, there's a potential high-price issue: If you want to get each and every peripheral (pseudo-instrument) for the game, you may have to shell out several hundred dollars.

Should You Get It?: Yes, but you'll have to wait until December, when it's scheduled to come out. Make sure you have plenty of space so four players can really rock out. Rock Band will be a guaranteed crowd pleaser at your 2008 parties -- it's a real step forward that's bound to change the face of karaoke.

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Song Stories

“Long Walk Home”

Bruce Springsteen | 2007

When the subject of this mournful song returns home, he hardly recognizes his town. Springsteen told Rolling Stone the alienation the man feels is a metaphor for life in a politically altered post-9/11 America. “Who would have ever thought we’d live in a country without habeas corpus?” he said. “That’s Orwellian. That’s what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals.”

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