Rock Revolution (Xbox 360) review
"It by no means beats out Harmonix's effort in terms of gameplay, but if you've played so much Rock Band that you're in danger of burning out on the series -- or if you were disappointed by the lackluster Guitar Hero: World Tour -- Rock Revolution is a refreshing alternative."
I watched Rock Revolution's development with a dread-laced fascination. I read interviews with staff members who showed obvious disinterest. I cringed through the gameplay debut press conference, in which official spokespeople ended the proceedings abruptly after failing a song before it could finish. I checked the official website two days before Rock Revolution's release, only to find an under construction message and a misspelled .gif advertising a "photo retreival" feature. The whole thing was almost too tragic to watch, but I couldn't look away.
Such missteps would be merely unfortunate for any other publisher, but it seemed especially sad for Konami. Konami's Beatmania series made me a fan of rhythm-based gameplay, and I've been following the company's efforts in the field ever since. It's too bad, then, that so many of Konami's timid attempts to bring their music game franchises to America have ended in failure. The U.S. version of Beatmania was received poorly, and the less said about the XBLA release of Beat'n Groovy, the better. Given Konami's track record, Rock Revolution seemed like little more than a years-late attempt to bring Guitar Freaks and Drummania to the United States, in a characteristically ugly and miscalculated way.
So after a few hours of play with the final product, I was confused. Why was I having so much fun? As unlikely as it seems, Rock Revolution overcomes its many shortcomings to offer a surprisingly satisfying rhythm gaming experience.
Much has been made of Rock Revolution's limitations compared to the recently released band simulations Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour. Whereas Harmonix's and Neversoft's efforts offer up more than 80 playable master tracks each, Rock Revolution features a comparatively paltry selection of 41 songs, nearly all of which are cover versions of varying quality ("Spoonman" is nearly pitch-perfect; "Chop Suey!" might be the worst thing to ever be recorded by humans). Rock Revolution also lacks the karaoke-styled vocals gameplay present in competing titles, instead focusing exclusively on guitar, bass, and drum simulation.
With less than half the musical selection and three-fourths the gameplay variety of its contemporaries, Rock Revolution seems like a bad purchase, if only from a value standpoint. However, its gameplay is so varied and its note charts are so much fun to play that I found Rock Revolution to be more enjoyable overall than Guitar Hero: World Tour.
In fact, it's thanks to a recent playthrough of Guitar Hero: World Tour that I was able to fully appreciate Konami's alternate take on the genre. Ever since the series was handed over to Neversoft, Guitar Hero's brand of guitar simulation has focused on difficulty, with an emphasis on convoluted and nonsensical fretwork. Guitar Hero: World Tour takes this philosophy to a new extreme, introducing new gameplay mechanics that make an already difficult experience even more frustrating. The final third of GHWT's career mode also came as an unpleasant surprise -- once the main setlist has been completed, the remaining bonus gigs are padded out with an unfortunate blend of boring, repetitive indie rock. Though the experience was mildly fun at first, its final hours left a bad overall impression.
Rock Revolution feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison. Its tracks may be cover versions, but the music selection itself works exceptionally well within the context of gameplay. Even the questionable picks play well, for the most part. I never would've expected Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi" to be fun to play on guitar, and classic cheese like "Cum On Feel the Noize" soon became a guilty pleasure.
The game is at its best, though, when you're playing tracks by artists conspicuously missing from Rock Band and the newest Guitar Hero. Rock Band may have its Rush quota filled for all eternity, but where's the Cream? And why haven't I been able to play a Queen guitar track since the cover of "Killer Queen" in the original Guitar Hero? The power of recognizable and likable music is not to be underestimated -- I had more fun playing Rock Revolution's mediocre cover of "White Room" than I had playing the final hour of forgettable "up and coming artist" garbage in Guitar Hero: World Tour.
Another strong point in Rock Revolution's favor lies in its unique career challenges. While Guitar Hero and Rock Band's challenges rarely extend beyond "Here, play this song," Rock Revolution mixes things up with new gameplay modes like Poison Note (in which you must avoid playing fake notes that litter the playfield) and Crank it Up (in which the notes scroll faster as your score multiplier increases). While the songs themselves may get old after a few plays, the introduction of these challenges keeps gameplay fresh. Some challenges work better than others -- like hell I'm ever going to finish all of the Studio challenges, which require memorization and blind playback -- but I'm glad that Konami and Zoe Mode attempted something different beyond the genre's typically straightforward gameplay.
Unfortunately, while Rock Revolution's guitar gameplay is better than expected, other instruments don't fare as well. The drum portion feels especially stunted -- Rock Revolution's takes on "Run to the Hills" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" have significantly fewer notes than their Rock Band counterparts, and are much less challenging and satisfying as a result. Bass gameplay, on the other hand, is made unnecessarily difficult due to the mode's complete lack of hammer-ons and pull-offs. Constant, tiring strumming is required throughout. I don't know whether this omission is a design decision or a bug, but it makes gameplay feel more stiff and less fun than it would be otherwise.
Both modes are still enjoyable in their own right, however. While Rock Revolution's official drumkit (which was not available for this review) has been criticized as cumbersome and unrealistic, the game can optionally remap its drum charts to be playable on Rock Band and Guitar Hero: World Tour's drumkits. The result feels strange at times (even most expert-level charts seem oddly easy on a Rock Band kit), but it's still playable and fun. Bass suffers the same repetition issues as seen in other music games, but ultimately provides at least a little more gameplay variety, along with a few memorable charts.
In the end, though, Rock Revolution's biggest issue is one of value. Though it may stand on equal footing with the underachieving Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Revolution pales in comparison to Rock Band 2. Rock Band 2 offers a more robust multiplayer experience, a character creation mode (Rock Revolution only allows you to pick from a handful of pre-made avatars), a longer career mode, and a much, much broader track selection of both on-disc songs and downloadable content. There really is no competition between the two. Rock Band 2 and even the original Rock Band outclass Rock Revolution in nearly every aspect.
As a supplement to Rock Band 2, however, Rock Revolution emerges as a surprisingly worthwhile purchase. It by no means beats out Harmonix's effort in terms of gameplay, but if you've played so much Rock Band that you're in danger of burning out on the series -- or if you were disappointed by the lackluster Guitar Hero: World Tour -- Rock Revolution is a refreshing alternative.
Freelance review by Danny Cowan (November 12, 2008)
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