Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Rock Game Rivalry Heats Up

By the end of 2008, there will be three separate band simulation games out for the consoles, each with their own set of instruments. Along with the currently available Rock Band, Activision’s Guitar Hero IV will feature for the first time in the series additional instruments such as drums and microphone. Both Rock Band and Guitar Hero were inspired by the original music/rhythm games developed by Konami and Bemani. Known for popular series like Dance Dance Revolution and Karaoke Revolution in the US, Konami has developed a slew of popular Japanese music games like the RB/GH predecessors, GuitarFreaks and DrumMania. Using their music game experience, Konami is developing Rock Revolution, a new band simulation that will feature guitar/bass and a focus on drums.

After the release of Guitar Hero II and Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s, series publisher Red Octane and developer Harmonix split ways after being purchased by Activision and MTV Networks, respectively. While Activision proceeded with GHIII, Harmonix moved on to their bigger project, Rock Band. Featuring guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, the game has set the bar for innovation in music/rhythm games. The PS3/360 version has the full feature set, while the PS2/Wii versions have created controversy with a more limited set of options. The lack of DLC, online play, and the career mode has caused a stir among gamers, as well as the price tag for the game and bundle in Europe. But with weekly downloadable content, online game modes, and a robust Band World Tour career mode, Rock Band has risen in popularity despite being a new IP, having a larger price tag and instrument quality issues.

Courtesy of Game Informer
Guitar Hero IV’s drum set will feature two cymbal pads, two toms, a snare, and a bass pedal.

Guitar Hero III was praised for its more guitar-centric songs and gameplay, but the lack of more DLC and true innovation to the series remained large criticisms. While Activision is delivering the guitar-focused Guitar Hero Aerosmith this summer, Guitar Hero IV is set to come at the end of this year and features the same instrument set as Rock Band. The game has been announced for the PS2, PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. The new drum controller will feature two cymbal pads, two toms, a snare, and a bass pedal, as compared to Rock Band’s snare, hi-hat, tom-tom, crash cymbal and bass pedal. There will also be a new guitar controller that will take advantage of a new gameplay mechanic that has yet to be announced. Along with a career mode and create-a-character feature, GHIV will introduce all new custom songs modes. Entitled “Jam Over” and “Advanced Studio”, each will allow the creation of either a custom remix of existing tracks or an all-new custom creation. They will be allowed to upload them to their GH Tunes service for sharing. With a more robust on-disc set list and all tracks set to be master recordings, Activision looks to provide a true alternative to Rock Band.

Rock Revolution's drum user interface.

While Konami has mostly been sitting on the sidelines since Guitar Hero and Rock Band brought the music/rhythm genre into the mainstream, they look to retake their title with Rock Revolution. Recently announced at their Konami Gamer’s Night 2008, the game has been confirmed for release on the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Nintendo DS. While full details aren’t known, the Rock Revolution is set to include 40 songs on-disc, future DLC, a “Jam Session” recording mode, robust online modes, a new six-pad drum set with pedal. Nintendo’s systems will receive exclusive features with the Wii’s “air guitar” option with the Wiimote and nunchuck and the DS’s “vocalist” mode using the built-in microphone.

Being a big fan of music/rhythm games way before GH and the advent of instrument peripherals, I’m really glad to see the genre grow and have more games developed for it. While Japan has seen many successful music games such as Beatmania, Keyboardmania, and ParaParaParadise, the genre has only recently exploded in the US with the popularity of Guitar Hero. With these three new band simulation games competing this year, it’s great to see each developer innovate and provide new gameplay experiences. Seeing the GH franchise live on with new developer Activision, original GH developer Harmonix setting the standard for US music games, and music/rhythm pioneer Konami brings their experience into a new IP, it really sounds like a great time to be a fan.

With the continuing rivalry between Activision and Harmonix providing continuing guitar compatibility issues between RB and GH, these new expansions do not bode well for future instrument compatibility across the franchises, let alone cross-platform. No official word has been made on the subject, but these petty squabbles are only hurting the consumer. Each series will have their own distinct drum set, which makes it difficult to imagine them being compatible across the multiple games. The only conceivable instrument without any issues would be the USB microphone, but the other proprietary peripherals will force consumers to choose sides or clutter their living room with fake, plastic instruments. Seeing as they are simply controllers, it’s ridiculous to limit their options instead of allowing them to choose. Unless Harmonix, Activision, and Konami work together and fix this problem, then this will only hurt the genre instead of cultivating it.

UPDATE: I actually misstated that Rock Revolution would contain a vocal mode, and it is seemingly only included as a special DS feature. More details as they come.

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