Review: Rock Band 2

It feels like only a short while ago that I penned my evaluation of the initial Rock Band game. However, in reality, it has been less than twelve months since I did so.
As a gamer myself, I have spent countless hours rocking out with plastic instruments, invested significant amounts of money in the game’s weekly downloadable music content, and listened to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” at least 947 times. The initial release of the game revolutionized the way we approach music games, providing us with a wider range of options, more music choices, and greater incentives to gather with friends and pretend to be rock stars.
The announcement of Rock Band 2 by Harmonix and MTV Games was not unexpected, but some felt it was premature given the game’s continued freshness thanks to regular new content releases.
Is it truly feasible for us to listen to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” 947 times in the upcoming year, or would it have been preferable for Harmonix to keep releasing new songs instead of repeating the same one? Read on to discover the answer.

Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360)

Developed by Harmonix
Published by MTV Games, Electronic Arts
Released on September 14, 2008

To be clear, referring to Rock Band 2 as a completely new game is a bit of an exaggeration. Almost everything from the previous game, which was released less than a year ago, is present in the sequel, with additional features. Harmonix evidently spent the past year expanding on the foundation they had already established, rather than starting from scratch.
Essentially, much of Rock Band 2 will feel familiar. The create-a-rocker feature has not been altered significantly, but rather, it has been enhanced with additional face types, hair styles, and clothing choices in addition to those from the previous game. Similarly, the game’s venues, modes, and song selection have undergone minimal changes. Some songs now feature drum solos and hammer-on and pull-off chords, but the core gameplay mechanics remain largely the same.
Rock Band 2 includes almost everything from the first game, with a few rare exceptions. While some may argue that the sequel is simply a rehash with new tracks and visuals, this is not entirely accurate. In reality, there are numerous fresh gameplay features and choices that will excite most fans of the original, prompting them to throw up the devil horns in approval rather than resorting to hurling a urine-filled bottle at the lead singer.
The Band World Tour mode is making a comeback, and while much of it will be familiar, there are some new features to look out for. One exciting change is that players can now create a band on their own, without needing to bring along friends. As a solo performer on vocals, drums, guitar, or bass, you can travel from city to city and venue to venue at your own pace, completing gigs, gaining fans, and earning money. Of course, the tour can still be played with up to four players, just like in the original game. It’s worth noting that playing Rock Band with friends is highly recommended, as it’s much more fun than playing alone in your basement.

For those seeking a structured advancement in song difficulty, the Tour Challenges offer a distinct series of performances tailored to various playing styles. Starting at the Local Upstart level, players can progress through challenges focused on vocals, drums, bass, guitar, or full band play. Advancing through the tiers unlocks increasingly challenging set lists and additional types of challenges.
New challenges will arise with downloadable content, such as the David Bowie and “Doolittle Album” challenges, which require playing through the entire Pixies album. The good news is that you can stop mid-set and pick up where you left off later, as the game will save your progress.
The most significant feature in Rock Band 2 is the Battle of the Bands mode, which offers daily challenges instead of the expected head-to-head band competitions. These challenges may focus on achieving high scores, maintaining note streaks, or earning total stars for a set list or individual song. Some challenges have specific requirements, such as playing on Expert difficulty, having a drummer in the band, or avoiding the use of Overdrive during a song. The duration of challenges varies from a few hours to a week or more, and players can track their progress on a persistent leaderboard.
Inspired by Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, the leaderboards in this game show the score and band you need to beat. If your friends have played the challenge, you’ll compete against them in real-time with an on-screen meter. This feature will keep you hooked, as you strive to improve your score or stars on a song. Losing your place on a leaderboard is a good reminder to up your game. The daily challenges are the real draw, with multiple challenges available, including one-offs that can be completed in a few hours, such as a late-night challenge.

The Battle of the Bands is an innovative approach to engage people and introduce competition into a game that typically emphasizes cooperation. However, it has its flaws. In particular, when attempting a challenge for the first time, the score to beat is often disappointingly low. Once you surpass it, the game fails to advance to the next name on the leaderboard, leaving you unaware of your next obstacle. Although this is a minor issue, it is worth noting. It does not necessarily detract from the mode, but it would be beneficial if it were addressed in a future game update.
Exciting news! You can now experience the city hopping tour, Band Challenges, and Battle of the Bands events online with up to three other players. Local players with active Xbox LIVE Gold accounts can also join in. The online feature works seamlessly, allowing you to invite friends to your band or search for substitute bandmates. Additionally, you can search for other players and join their band’s journey to success.
The online World Tour feature functions as promised, with minimal delays or connectivity problems encountered during my gameplay experience. Inviting other players to join your band is a straightforward process, either by selecting them from the character selection screen or allowing the game to randomly match you with other musicians. Once connected, the online gameplay is identical to the offline version, with no notable changes or omissions to the menus or options available.

Playing World Tour online is almost identical to playing locally, as Harmonix has delivered the functionality that players requested without any significant changes to adapt to online play. However, there are some limitations to the online experience. For instance, when searching for random players, there is no option to search for an “Expert” player, and the game will simply fill an empty instrument spot, which may result in playing with someone whose skill level is significantly different from your own. Additionally, to play downloaded content in mystery and created set lists, all players must have purchased the content, which limits the experience somewhat, despite the game’s wide variety of available content. While this limitation is understandable, it does detract from the overall experience.
The game’s soundtrack is a notable strength, boasting an impressive 84 tracks that are both diverse and exceptional. It’s arguably one of the best setlists in the genre, featuring a range of familiar favorites and lesser-known gems that are worth discovering. The on-disc library of songs in Rock Band 2 is a comprehensive education in rock n’ roll and music as a whole, showcasing Harmonix’s exceptional ability to curate a wide variety of songs across different styles of rock spanning four decades. Additionally, all tracks are master recordings, adding to the overall quality of the game’s soundtrack.
While 84 tracks may seem impressive, it’s only a fraction of the available content in Rock Band 2. With over 200 downloadable songs currently available, players can immediately access all of them in quickplay, World Tour, and Challenges. Additionally, those who own the original Rock Band can export 55 of its songs for a small fee of $4.99. It’s highly recommended to take advantage of this feature, even if it means borrowing a friend’s disc or purchasing the game used. Harmonix’s inclusion of this ability is unprecedented in the genre and demonstrates their commitment to Rock Band as a platform.

Harmonix had promised to turn even the most rhythmically challenged players into drummers, but that goal has yet to be fully realized. However, the latest installment of the game includes a “Drum Trainer” mode designed to teach players the fundamentals of drumming outside of the context of familiar songs. The mode offers a variety of beats and fills that can be adjusted in real-time, but it may not be enough to inspire players to pursue a career as the next Keith Moon. While the mode does require hand-eye coordination, it does not necessarily test rhythm. The true challenge lies in the Freestyle drum mode, where players can drop beats without the aid of note highways seen in the game.
Rock Band 2 maintains the same impressive visual quality as its predecessor, featuring the same captivating animations that brought the on-screen performances to life. While the game introduces some new camera angles, such as the singer playing to the camera more frequently, the overall experience remains consistent with the original. Nonetheless, the background visuals are still a delight to watch, making the game a joy to play.
Regrettably, the Jukebox mode, which was supposed to enable players to create a playlist of songs to listen to and watch, was removed from the game’s final version. Harmonix and MTV Games have stated that they will not release it until it is flawless, which I hope will be soon. This feature would have been an excellent way to enjoy the music separately from the game and could have increased the worth of downloadable content.

Rock Band 2 boasts not only new features, but also a multitude of tweaks and added features that enhance the game’s overall feel and polish. The game’s extensive set list is now easier to navigate with new sorting and navigation options, which are particularly useful given the library’s size (expected to exceed 500 songs by year’s end). Quickplay mode now allows players to create set lists, eliminating the need to constantly return to the menu when selecting a few songs to play. Additionally, players can queue up an entire album or all songs by a single artist with just one click.
In summary, Rock Band 2 will feel familiar to fans of the first game, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For those who enjoyed the original, purchasing the sequel is a no-brainer. The game offers excellent value with 84 on-disc tracks and numerous small improvements that enhance gameplay. If you are a fan of music or the music-rhythm genre, there are few reasons not to own this game. The amount of content in Rock Band 2 surpasses any other game in the genre by a significant margin.
While Harmonix’s Rock Band 2 doesn’t introduce any groundbreaking features, it excels at refining the formula it established. It’s highly likely that this sequel will remain a staple at social gatherings for the foreseeable future. However, whether you’re prepared to endure the inevitable repetition of popular tracks like “Livin’ on a Prayer” at parties is up for debate.

Overall Score: 9.5 — Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won’t cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)