Thursday, September 10, 2009

Number Nine, Number Ten, Number Nine

The Beatles: Rock Band
Video game, developed by Harmonix

Yesterday was a big day for Beatle people everywhere, as it would have been difficult not to notice. In addition to the long-delayed (though sort of pointless) release of new versions of their oddly badly-handled digital catalog, the really exciting news was the release of the inevitable Beatles music game. I spent most of yesterday, up until the point where I had to go practice with my real band, working my way through the story mode on expert level drums. The verdict? It's the best music game ever, obliterating the lazily made Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica games and eschewing the mind-boggling amounts of filler tracks that the flagship Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles always possess. It's true that there's half as many songs on the disc as Rock Band 2, but they're Beatles songs. They count way more than double anything by Panic! at the Disco or Steve Miller.

I was a bit nervous about the game being too easy, as I've gotten to be a top-flight video game drummer in the past few years. That was silly. Anyone who's a music fan first and a gamer second has long since realized that what matters in these games is how fun the songs are to play, not how hard they are. I've played Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" approximately eight million times in Guitar Hero: Smash Hits even though I can practically go the whole way through with my eyes closed now. It's not tricky, it's just fun. And The Beatles: Rock Band, although it doesn't have any of the soul-crushing Slayer or Dream Theater tracks that have stalled my progress dead in other games, has a sweet difficulty curve. As the band improved as musicians and the technology and instrumentation they had available widened, their songs got more sophisticated. One of the most striking things about the game is how downright amazing it sounds; rather than working from the new digital masters engineer Giles (son of George) Martin went all the way back to the original multitrack tapes. After the very primitive early recordings, which it's a marvel they managed to massage into playable form at all, you'll be astounded at how crystal-clear and contemporary the songs from Rubber Soul onward sound. Particularly the Sgt. Pepper tunes -- I was pleased to see Geoff Emerick get a special credit after I completed the game.

As a musician, I've always appreciated the way these beat-matching games -- even ones from before the plastic-guitar era, like Rez and Amplitude -- improve players' internal meter in a useful and fun way. Of course, there's a further distinction between the drum modes, which actually teach you to play the instrument, and the toy guitars and bass. This game, appropriately to its subjects, adds the biggest advancement in real musical education since the original Rock Band. The vocal harmony function is beautifully designed, incredibly easy to jump into (even when you're playing an instrument at the same time, since these are songs everybody knows) and absorbed into the game in a way that's neither dauntingly difficult nor unsatisfyingly fudged. There's a vocal trainer, but as a lifelong Beatlemaniac I haven't touched it; I've been practicing these harmonies for as long as I've been able to sing. For those who have less refined musical ears, it's pretty amazing to plug into a video game and realize you're singing pristine three-part harmony. Of course, since I'm a baritone masochist I insist on doing Paul's high harmonies, often a seventh or even a ninth above the principal melody. I'm quite hoarse today, but it's well worth it.

As for the drums, I've been hoping since this game was announced that it would go some way towards repairing Ringo Starr's unfairly tarnished reputation. So what if he couldn't write songs? Along with Charlie Watts (rumored this week to be leaving the Rolling Stones after nearly 50 years of service), the man invented rock drumming. Expert mode in Beatles: Rock Band is a fitting tribute to a guy who reportedly broke tempo less than ten times in eight years playing with the most exacting composers who ever lived. The blitzkrieg pace of "I Wanna Be Your Man" puts the Ramones to shame, "I Feel Fine" is frantic with its asymmetrical, syncopated tom hits, and the drum solo from "The End" is way tougher to nail precisely than it sounds on record. Ringo is actually the ideal drummer for this sort of game, since he rarely uses 16th- and 32nd-note fills. Getting 100% on tunes like "I Am the Walrus" or "Good Morning Good Morning" (mind that dropped beat!) is deceptively challenging. What's more, these are just about the best songs in the history of the universe, so who cares if "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is just straight 4/4 with no fills?

I haven't played the guitar or bass tracks that much to this point, but my girlfriend assures me that the bass on expert is fiendishly difficult. Really, really nitpicky Beatles obsessives (and they don't come much more nitpicky than me) might be bothered by the fact that a lot of riffs that are hammered-on, like the main one from "Day Tripper," have to be picked out in the game, while a lot of George's early solos which were played note-by-note (in the style of his biggest early influence, Chet Atkins) only take one downstroke and then a bunch of left-hand fingering. The basslines are pretty interesting both to see and to hear. They've managed using modern technology to separate out parts from the Please Please Me era that were buried on a track along with drums and excessive rhythm guitar bleed. McCartney's unmistakable, virtuosic pulse is more audible than it's ever been in any digital format. It doesn't sound great, exactly, certainly no substitute for my mono LP's -- when playing solo bass, the game turns the recovered track way up, and it sounds pretty compressed and clippy. Checking against my scores, there are a few places where the game designers have mistakenly added a note, probably due to a stray guitar sound or kick drum not completely removed from the original tape. It keeps you on your toes! Paul doesn't need any further praise from me or anyone else, but hearing his instinctively jazzy walking lines (and his restraint when called for, "Ticket to Ride" for example) in this context is a master class in how to play the electric bass. It's a shame that so few rock bands have followed the Beatles' example by assigning their best musician to play the four-string.

It's hard to quibble with the presentation of the game, which splits right down the middle between service to fans of the band's and accessibility to gamers. There's a wealth of cool stuff to unlock, some of it new even to a Fab Four anorak like myself, but if you just want to plug in and play, the menus have been significantly rationalized from the somewhat annoying RB2 interface. They've also sped the default scrolling speed up slightly, which makes it less frustrating trying to play the drums while guitars are plugged in as well. Rock Band still needs to incorporate the option to choose different speeds for different instruments at the same time (which Guitar Hero has, but unfortunately combined with a badly designed main play screen setup that cuts the note highways off too short). The animations are light-years better than any I've seen in a music game so far, really putting the folks who worked on the earlier Guitar Hero theme games to shame. The Beatles wear historically accurate outfits and even wield the very instruments they used to record each track -- George plays his Gretsch Country Gentleman at the Cavern Club, picks up a Rickenbacker 12-string for "Hard Day's Night," strums a Martin acoustic for "Here Comes the Sun," slings a Les Paul for "My Guitar Gently Weeps," uses a Strat with a psychedelic paint job for "I Am the Walrus," and plays a Telecaster the exact right shade of maroon up on the roof of the Apple building.

Rather than a single set of repeating cues for each venue, each and every song is animated independently. This provides for a level of personality, and historical accuracy, that really puts the lazy profit-mongerers at Activision to shame. They couldn't even be bothered to put Cliff Burton in the Metallica game, or do more than one character model for each member of Aerosmith. By contrast, every song in Beatles: Rock Band has its own subtle surprises, particularly after the touring period ends and the game shifts to individualized "dreamscapes" unique to each track. Some of them are based on familiar clips, like the "Walrus" sequence from Magical Mystery Tour or the 1967 promo clip for "Hello Goodbye" (pretty sure the only reason they put that particular song in the game was because they couldn't resist animating George's gigantic neon pirate hat). The band's outfits change to reflect each period: you'll see Paul in paisley and skinny ties during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, George and John in their alternating masses of hair looks ('68-'70), amazingly authentic variations in facial hair and clothing style all adapted in an effective way to a cartoony but proportional Rock Band style. For the three-way dueling guitar solo section in "The End," you get to see John, George, and Paul jamming out shoulder to shoulder, as they really did.

As wonderful as all of this is, diehards are going to be cranky about a few things. The game tries to promote an all-members-equal, everybody-doing-their-part re-revisionist whitewashing of the Beatles story, which is nonsense. Ringo doesn't need to have a lead vocal in every single stage (of four to seven songs). As much as they don't fit precisely into the guitar-bass-drums-vocals formula of Rock Band, tunes like "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" and "Blackbird" (and "Norwegian Wood" and "The Inner Light" and "Across the Universe" and "Words of Love") were and are essential elements of the Beatles' catalog, and I for one wouldn't have minded laying out (or tapping out a simple rhythm on a "bongo" or "tambourine") while watching the cool animations that might have gone to those songs. As it is, the focus is on riff-rock tunes like "Day Tripper," "Birthday," "I Feel Fine," and so forth, which is understandable but overextended -- "Dig a Pony" is one of a very handful of Beatles originals that I probably wouldn't bother getting as a download, so why it's here on the disc rather than "She Said She Said" or "Got to Get You Into My Life" or "Rain" is a mystery. The game also really misrepresents John Lennon; practically none of his quieter or more spiritual songs make the cut here. Both "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life" are absent, which is just unconscionable. Instead of the original "Tomorrow Never Knows," the mashup with "Within You Without You" from the Cirque de Soleil show Love is utilized. It's a cool track, but it just makes you wish you could play the originals of both songs. The section where the rock beat drops out and you get to play along to the tabla part, sort of, suggests amazing things could be done with all of George's Indian songs if someone could just go to the trouble.

The standard that the in-game songs meet probably won't be possible for DLC; we'll see generic puppet animations as in its lesser predecessors. That's a huge bummer. If ever there was an opportunity for Harmonix to open up even more revenue streams by selling levels and costumes in additions to new tracks, this game is it. I would pay good money for several stages that would fill in the band's history more authoritatively: a Hamburg level of all R&B covers (and pre-management leather and greasy hair); a black-and-white Hard Day's Night stage with "If I Fell" and "I Should Have Known Better" and "You Can't Do That" (and Wilfrid Brambell coming out at the end of a song on a stage elevator); Help! sequences with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," George's first run-in with a sitar, and copious clouds of, er, "incense" everywhere; an earlier studio level (the game's start in '67) covering the advances of Rubber Soul and Revolver; and then maybe a White Album section where you have to buy three different versions of the game and play John's, Paul's, and George's songs each on one of three different XBoxes.

Does it bug me out of all proportion that the game shows Ringo playing on "Dear Prudence" and "Back in the USSR," both drummed by McCartney? It really does. Also, George mimes the guitar solo to "Taxman" (Paul again) and neither Billy Preston nor Eric Clapton appears where they should. I can understand that getting Clapton's likeness rights might be opening up a whole big unprofitable can of worms, but the exclusion of Preston makes no sense at all. "Don't Let Me Down" and "Get Back," both in the game, were released under the pointed heading of "The Beatles with Billy Preston," in recognition both of Preston's fantastic electric piano playing and the energy and goodwill he injected into the darkest months of the Beatle decade. You can unlock snapshots of both guest musicians (also Brian Jones and Mick Jagger, and an unforgettable one of George Harrison contending in vain with the patch bay of a very, very new VCS3 synthesizer), but how hard would it have been to put a little digital Billy up on the roof with the other guys? He was there!

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