Monday, June 1, 2009

demo monday: rock band unplugged

don't do it. don't unplug it! Last week’s Demo Monday post was about something old, so this week I wanted to be a little timelier. As a member of the Playstation Network, I am bombarded weekly by Sony’s latest demo and release announcements, and I was actually surprised to see them releasing PSP demos of late – they seem to be ramping up to the the recently-revealed disc drive-less PSP Go! Get used to downloading all your PSP content, ladies and gents, because it is the Wave of the Future.

The PSP demo Sony’s suits were pushing this week was Backbone Entertainment and Harmonix-developed Rock Band Unplugged, set to release on June 9. I’ve got to say, the Guitar Hero/Rock Band brand of rhythm game, so fresh-faced and new only a few short years ago, is beginning to wear out its welcome. I see copies of the stupefying Guitar Hero: Aerosmith rotting away on store shelves everywhere I go, sometimes for $15 or less – these games offer downloadable content every single week, and new releases are little more than further expansions on an increasingly tired concept. Who, may I ask, is actually waiting on the next one of these games to be released? But I digress. I’m going to try not to blame this portable version for the sins of its console brethren and evaluate it on its own merits (or lack thereof).

I imagine you know how Guitar Hero or Rock Band looks by now, so imagine that same ol’ same ol’ music track coming at you with those same ol’ same ol’ colored notes. Instead of playing on a plastic controller with your friends on the other instruments, though, you’re playing them all. Play a sequence of notes on one instrument successfully, and then hop to another one – you have four plates to keep spinning, and dropping any of them is bad. For you. It’s not awful, I don’t guess, but it’s not especially true to the series and it’s not as compelling as its console counterparts.

Let’s go back in time to 2006 or so and remember why the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band games were so fun and ground-breaking. For one, they were doing something other rhythm games hadn’t done before – they required not only fast and precise fingerwork, but also asked you to throw in some technique. You were playing these games on a plastic guitar peripheral, which required strumming and whammying and some hammering-on, and said plastic guitar had a certain geek-chic going for it. The games were also undeniably social in nature – playing by yourself was never the point, and it was never nearly as much fun. Rock Band amplified that exponentially, adding real people to the mix and requiring that they actually be talented enough to carry a tune and play the drums. They’re getting a little tired now, but the core concept is still undeniably fun with the right people.

Rock Band Unplugged has none of these qualities.

Plastic guitar peripherals absent, you must play the game using the PSP’s face buttons and directional pad. Fun fact: you’ve always been able to play Guitar Hero and Rock Band this way, but how many people do you see doing it like that? The answer is none. None people. Because it’s not fun, and it’s a little confusing, given that your controller lacks the big colored buttons that match with the colors on your television screen. Rock Band Unplugged is really a much more traditional rhythm game along the lines of Parappa the Rapper or Guitaroo Man, requiring that you press buttons in a certain sequence to the rhythm of the music you’re listening to. Absent those games’ senses of style and original music, though, you’re left pushing buttons on Rock Band’s boring interface to the strains of AFI’s Miss Murder, which cannot possibly be anyone’s idea of fun.

The game’s main failing is its complete lack of multiplayer, in the demo or in the full game. You’re playing all of the “instruments” and so you’re all alone for the duration. Take the sometimes-drunken social party game element out of Rock Band, and I have trouble seeing the point. The console version comes, in bundle form, with three peripherals – you’re not supposed to play these games by yourself. In single-player form on the PSP, the excitement of playing Rock Band Unplugged falls somewhere in between listening to music on your iPod and playing a video game.

Absolutely pass on Rock Band Unplugged, no exceptions, no buts, no excuses made. Brand fatigue aside, this game puts nothing new on the table and, to boot, entirely misses the point. If you must have more Rock Band and you’ve got $40 burning a hole in your pocket, I’d recommend downloading some more tracks for the version you probably already own.