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Rock Band 2
Graphics: 8
Gameplay: 9.5
Sound: 9
Control: 9
Replay Value: 10
Rating: 9.2

There's no doubt about it that last year it was Rock Band that was easily the best music game, boasting not just a guitar but also a microphone, and more importantly, a drum set! I've spent copious amounts of time with the game, most of it spent behind that drum set too. So as soon as I heard word from MTV and Harmonix that the second one was on the way, I couldn't have been happier. Up until today, the original Rock Band was still, without a doubt the best party game available, no matter what genre you can name. Last year, I fell in love with the game, thanks to its track selection and especially the drums. Well, this year I've fallen in love with the improvements made to the experience.

If you recall, the drum set suffered from an epidemic of broken bass pedals, largely because of the weak plastic design, and because of how hard you had to press down on it. The other complaint were how loud the drum pads were when struck. My personal complaint was that not having proper hats and cymbals hurt the realism.  Furthermore, I wanted to have a guitar with buttons at the lower part of the neck for solos and such, on top of a quieter strum.

Sounds like we're wishing for a whole lot, aren't we? Well, perhaps not to Harmonix. What makes Rock Band 2 an even more engaging experience is that all of the issues brought up in last year's games have been addressed...and then some! The drums have now been enhanced a variety of ways: there are now expansion ports in the back of the drum controller that'll allow for the addition of hats, cymbals, and even another pedal for double-bass action! So my biggest complaint with the drums has been addressed, and I can honestly say that playing Rock Band 2 with a complete drum-pad set has the ability to breed drummers. On top of that, the standard drum set is totally wireless, and that would fall under the "and then some" category.

When you begin mashing on the drums, you'll have to take into account that they are velocity sensitive, so the harder you hit, the louder your hits will come through the speakers. With that in mind, hitting harder will not result in making more noise from the drum pads, as they now use a quieter material that absorbs the impacts. Lastly, the bass pedal is a lot softer to press down, and is made out of metal this time around, so unless you're some sort of freakishly weird superhuman giant, you shouldn't be breaking this one.

I still find using the guitar awkward, and even though there are buttons placed at the lower-end of the neck, I'd still like to see two rows of four buttons, one on top of each other, to simulate a guitar a bit more accurately. It's worth mentioning that the strum is now dead silent, so no more having to open your guitars to remove the clicker. And because the guitar is also wireless, a new feature found on it, and the drums, is an optical sensor that performs a sync and calibration on its own.

For the would-be drummers out there who find themselves struggling with the drum set and its bass pedal, the training mode now has a Drum Trainer where you can practice drum fills, beats, or just freestyle without anything else in your way. The Fill Trainer has 45 different drum patterns for you to master, while the Beat Trainer has 76, and they're something I highly recommend spending time with. Lastly, when in the Freestyle Mode, there's a metronome which you can toggle on or off, as well.

The karaoke aspect of the game works well, but it doesn't seem to be as accurate as Sony's Singstar franchise. Still, because few, if any of us, sound like the singers in the game, perhaps Rock Band 2 is better off for it. I can do Dave Grohl, I can do Cobain...but I sure as hell can't do Lemmy, my throat simply can't handle that. Maybe if I smoked three packs a day or something...otherwise, I'll have to whisper-cheat my way through those tracks.

While I personally preferred the louder, grungier setlist of the original Rock Band, I'm certain many will still find this playlist to be absolutely amazing. What's great is that tracks from Rock Band can be added to Rock Band 2, so owners of the original won't have to switch back and forth between both games. Unfortunately, there is a $5 charge to perform the export. And for those that want more, there's a plethora of stuff you can download already, from artists such as Serj Tankian, Muse, Queens of the Stone Age, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, The Offspring, Scars on Broadway, Weezer, The Ramones, Radiohead, 30 Seconds to Mars, Blink 182, Smashing Pumpkins, and many more. 

All of the songs in the game, including ones you download, you'll be able to enter into a customized playlist. When creating a playlist, sorting through the tracks can be done in a variety of ways, by alphabet, genre, and difficulty. For parties, a No Fail modifier will enable a track to scroll along during a party, and allow players to pick-up-and-play the game at will, without having to worry about the track ending once they stop. Of course when there isn't a party going on, the Tour is where you'll want to be as you take your band through a campaign to the top offline or online for up to four gamers. Quickplay modes include, Solo play, Band play, Tug of War, and Score Duel.

Visually, the game has remained identical to last year's, so don't expect to see anything new. You still have a band that performs on a stage, and you still have a scrolling "highway" on your screen that displays your hits. Perhaps the image is a little cleaner in some spots, but ultimately there aren't enough differences worth mentioning.

There are a few things that I wish Harmonix addresses for Rock Band 2, or for the sequel. I'd like to see the volume of the respective instrument you're playing to increase slightly, as it can sometimes be a little tough to hear the drums over the guitar, vocals, and bass; or the bass over the guitar, bass, and vocals, and etc. Of course that problem doesn't affect the vocals, as they're the loudest part of the songs. The audio comes through with great clarity, though, and I highly urge people to play this game on a really nice surround sound setup. Blasting away with Dolby Digital enabled was like heaven to my ears, and playing the game will become a little easier, as you'll be able to hear each song clearer.

The original Rock Band gave me all the confidence in the world to not be worried about Rock Band 2. There was never any doubt in my mind that Harmonix would out-due the original every which way. On top of including the songs from RB1, they've also gone and fixed nearly every single issue we've complained about, and then some! While I'd like to see a patch that alters the mix of each song by increasing the volume of the instrument you're playing, it still doesn't hurt the experience much at the end of the day. Go out there and grab your copy, or bundle of Rock Band 2, you won't regret it.

10/28/2008   Arnold Katayev