There's no contesting the musical ability of The Beatles. Throughout the sixties they changed the face of music as we know it to such an extent that it seems unlikely we'll ever see anything like them again. Sure, there was that whole Maharishi thing, and songs about yellow submarines were marginally less weird then than now, but the song writing force of Lennon & McCartney simply cannot be beaten as an example of raw talent in the right place at the right time.
If somebody had told me ten years ago that one of the biggest gaming titles of 2009 would allow you to play The Beatles music on a large, flat television screen using plastic guitars, three microphones and a complete disregard for local noise
regulations I'd have assumed they were telling the truth. Fiction just isn't that strange.
Developers Harmonix have had to tread carefully with this Rock Band iteration, and it shows. The franchise is getting a little long in the tooth now, and although The Beatles may have preferred experimentation to consolidation in their later years, you won't find anything too radical in this electronic homage. Anyone well schooled in Rock Band fundamentals will be able to pick up and play straight away, and as you already know exactly what sort of music you're getting, Harmonix have already won half the battle in convincing you to do so.
The rest of the challenge involves designing and creating functional hardware that can tolerate a Keith Moon level of abuse over an extended period of time without failing spectacularly. When we first reviewed the original Rock Band back in November last year, we rated it lower in comparison with the rival Guitar Hero World Tour package partly due to the twelve month delay in its arrival down under, and partly due to the build quality and lack of refinement in the instruments. The guitar buttons had too much lateral movement and the drums made so much noise they were as loud as... well, drums. Happily these problems have now been largely rectified with the inclusion of Rock Band 2 hardware, and in addition, the controllers have had a makeover to better resemble the Fab Four's favoured instruments. We'll even get it at the same time as the rest of the world.
The Limited Edition Premium Bundle ships with a Hofner bass replica modelled after McCartney's own, a Ringo Starr inspired and Ludwig branded Rock Band 2 drum kit, a USB microphone and microphone stand, and the game software. It's not cheap either - at NZ$399 you're probably going to need a little help from your friends - but the entertainment value on offer is certainly worth the price of admission.
The rest of the game plays very much like Rock Band 2, which unfortunately we're yet to see in this part of the world. Those of you who have played an imported copy will feel right at home, with the same tweaks and refinement shown across the software. For the first time however, Harmonix have introduced three-part vocal harmonies, which represent the biggest alteration to the franchise so far. Yes, it's difficult to sing in harmony, so unless you're particularly skilled in this area you might want to avoid purchasing additional microphones and stands. The in-game singing instructor assists greatly, but as with many things, you can either sing or you can't, and I'm firmly in the latter camp so the less said about the trauma I've inflicted on my neighbours this week the better.
Career progression is a delight, as you track the history of The Beatles from the early touring days in 1963 right through to the infamous rooftop Apple HQ rooftop gig. The studio sessions are particularly enjoyable, as you'll hear previously unreleased chatter from the band members at the conclusion of each track, as well as stacks of trivia to enthral Beatles geeks and casual admirers alike. Reverence is shown to the band members too - should you happen to fail a track, you won't get an angry audience booing you off the stage, and whilst not all of the animations are entirely accurate (Starr never played on Back In The USSR due to a disagreement with the rest of the band) the overall look and feel is fantastic without being too kitsch. Perhaps this is due to McCartney personally overseeing a large part of the design, but it really doesn't matter - Harmonix have set the new standard for the genre.
Unfortunately the online component is locked out until the 9th of September when the game actually releases, so we can't really reveal how that works. It's most likely going to follow the same format as Rock Band & Rock Band 2, and as a show of faith the entire Abbey Road album will be available as downloadable content shortly after launch. Rock Band's online component has always been backed by a strong digital catalogue, and we have no doubt that Harmonix and Electronic Arts will do their best to keep this momentum up.
There's no doubt that The Beatles Rock Band represents the best Rock Band experience to date, although the credit for this is really due to the brilliance of the music on display. In having said that, Harmonix have shown great respect and a willingness to present the subject matter in a way that will appeal to everyone, and considering the legal problems associated with doing anything with The Beatles music, it's a wonder the game has been made at all. If you've been holding out for a band experience to kick the summer off with, you won't find better than this.
Continue to page 2 for a full track listing.