- Courtesy of MTV Games
BY DAVID WATNICK
Managing Arts Editor
Published September 7, 2009
There may be no such thing as a "can’t miss" in the world of video games or anywhere else, for that matter, but “The Beatles: Rock Band” is about as close as they come. Attaching the catalog, likenesses, aesthetic and aura of the greatest artists in the history of popular music to one of the most accessible and engaging formats in the gaming world was an utter no-brainer.
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The logic is condescendingly obvious: If The Beatles’ music is the most compelling rock ever created, just imagine performing it yourself (without even having to be competent on a real instrument). Better yet, imagine being a Beatle without having to leave the living room or put on a black suit (although dressing in-character seems like the logical next step by the time you’ve reached the Shea Stadium chapter). The pairing of The Beatles with “Rock Band” is, of course, stellar. It’s almost as perfect a match as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were.
Time might as well cease for the opening sequence, in which an animated montage depicting The Beatles up to their old antics explodes forward to the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The attention-commanding lead-in epitomizes the attitude of inevitable excellence that pervades the entire game.
It’s an all-around confident affair, reeking of a creative team that knew it had an obvious smash on its hands. Yet there are no signs of complacency or lack of ambition: Every aspect of both the gameplay and the menu screens is meticulously ornamented, from the “Getting Better” guitar strum that plays every time a button is pressed in the menu to the vintage out-of-breath Paul McCartney introductions that precede many songs. And the cut scenes that run between chapters do a perfect job of turning The Beatles’ artistic and career growth into the fantasy it always seemed to be in real life.
Though the significant depth of the game’s artistic dimension goes furthest in setting the atmosphere of total Beatleness, harmony vocals — the game’s only major gameplay addition — are most responsible for giving players a lifelike Beatles musical experience. With a capacity for three microphones, there are no vocal phrases in “The Beatles: Rock Band” that can’t be replicated with near-complete authenticity.
Of course, the harmonies can be quite difficult to hit, even after using the too-brief harmony trainer tutorial (The Beatles’ songwriting and recording legacy often makes people forget they were exceptional vocalists). Those extremely familiar with The Beatles output should eventually be able to find the harmony in most places, but in some cases (like the close harmonies on “I Saw Her Standing There” or the three-part group wall of “If I Needed Someone") only talented singers have a good chance of nailing harmony parts. A solo mode allows one to three singers to attempt only a song’s main melody, but it makes songs seem frustratingly abridged.
In theory, “The Beatles: Rock Band” can support six players (three singers, guitar, bass, drums), but any serious outfit will want to invest in a few mic stands (or fashion their own) in order to become a fab fourpiece. Simultaneously singing and playing an instrument is a tricky skill to master, but anyone well-versed in Beatles lyrics should have no trouble serving double duty after a few evenings in the Cavern Club.
Unfortunately, the concentration required to play the songs makes noticing the gorgeous background animations nearly impossible. The scenes from the Cavern Club, "The Ed Sullivan Show," Shea Stadium and Budokan that accompany the first four chapters do a marvelous job of reviving the history they represent, and their portrayals of The Beatles’ mannerisms are hilariously accurate.