People Living in Competition

bostoncover.jpgIn case there were any doubt that EA and Harmonix are trying to turn Rock Band into a whole platform instead of just a videogame franchise, the release of the Rock Band music store should put that to rest.

They did such a good job with the design of this thing, it’s almost eerie. It’s cleanly and clearly divided up by individual songs and song packs, organized by artist name, song title, genre, release date, or difficulty. Each listing gives you album art, the album name, genre, and release date, plus a breakdown of the difficulty for each performer in the band. And the biggest thing missing from the Xbox Live Marketplace version: you can listen to a preview of the song.

The only downside is that you can’t download songs in the background, so you might have to listen to the 30 second preview of “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots repeated over and over again while you wait for the whole song to get downloaded. That can cut down on the impulse buys — if it’s a song that you’re not exactly crazy about but want to just give it a spin (like, say, “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots), you might already be sick of it by the time it’s ready to play.

But the whole thing is perfectly — insidiously, even — designed to make you happy to give EA, Harmonix, and Microsoft more of your money. It’s right there in the game menu, with all the slick UI of the rest of the game, so you don’t have to interrupt the faux rockin’. Downloadable content is totally the way to go with these things; I turned up my nose at the “Rocks the 80s” expansion pack for Guitar Hero, even with the promise of “Heat of the Moment” and “The Warrior.” But if I could’ve downloaded those songs, I would’ve hit the “buy” button even before the press release got cold.

And if there were any remaining doubt that Rock Band has rendered Guitar Hero impotent, then that was put to rest by last week’s release of “The Boston Song Pack,” which is all the songs on Boston minus “Let Me Take You Home Tonight.” (“Foreplay/Long Time” was already included in Rock Band).

I’ve already said — repeatedly — that playing “More Than a Feeling” in Guitar Hero is one of those transcendent moments of videogames, where standing in front of a TV and holding a big piece of plastic can make you feel bathed in the light of awesomeness. As it turns out, being able to follow that up with “Peace of Mind” takes the whole thing up another level. (And really — the only reason “Peace of Mind” doesn’t get more credit as one of the best classic rock hooks ever is that it had the misfortune of getting put right after “More than a Feeling.”)

All that said: “More Than a Feeling” in Rock Band just isn’t as much fun to play as it was in Guitar Hero. It could be just that I played it so much in Guitar Hero that I unwittingly memorized it. But I suspect it’s more a difference in what the two games are trying to do.

Guitar Hero was unapologetically and gloriously an air guitar simulator — the notes they called out are the ones you pick when you’re describing a song’s hook and go “Bow now now now now! Doo do doooo dooo do Take a look a-head! Doo do doo doooo dooo!” So you didn’t see much of that “Instead of playing with a plastic toy, why don’t you learn how to play the real guitar?” nonsense — it’s nothing like a real guitar, it’s just about the fun of listening to a song and pretending you’re playing on stage before a crowd, without having to deal with any of that “talent” or “practice” nonsense.

My musically ignorant impression of Rock Band, though, is that they’re trying as much as possible to call out the real guitar parts of a song. (Until the sections of Nine Inch Nails tracks where your guitar inexplicably turns into a piano). Last night I played enough of “More Than a Feeling” on Medium to get 100%, but when I tried it again on Hard, I was sent crying and shamed back to the main menu. I could see and hear how the notes it was asking me to play correspond with goes on in the song’s real guitar part, but they’re not the same as what I “hear” on a casual listen of the song. Plus it was making me play chords and shit.

Either way, comparisons to “real” music are still silly, because these games aren’t about creation, but appreciation. It’s play; you’re enjoying music in a way that you don’t when you’re just listening to it from a record. Which is essentially the promise of interactive entertainment. You could say that Rock Band is better at music appreciation, because it shows you how the different parts of a song interact with each other. You could say that the original Guitar Hero is better, because it gets away from the tedium of “real” music and puts everything into the experience.

I don’t really care as long as they add more Van Halen and Pixies.