While “The Beatles: Rock Band” isn’t the first music video game to showcase a popular band, it’s the first to justify devoting a whole title to one artist. With input from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, the folks at Harmonix Music Systems have created a game steeped in the Fab Four. Its crisp audio, lush visuals and careful craftsmanship make the title both the ultimate fan service and a game that forces new and casual fans to engage with and absorb the group’s music in a way more akin to hunching over a phonograph, liner notes in hand, than listening to your iPod on shuffle in the car.
Where “Guitar Hero” games devoted to Aerosmith and Metallica spiced things up by mixing in tracks from other bands, this game features the Beatles and no one else. It’s a great move. More than any other rock ‘n’ roll act, the Beatles weren’t just a band. Beatlemania was a cultural watershed. The Fab Four’s songs might be the lone musical force capable of uniting a baby boomer, Gen Xer, millennial and whatever they’re calling little kids these days for an evening of banging on fake plastic instruments.
As in recent full-band games, players use instrument-shaped controllers to play along with prerecorded tracks, with one player on bass, one on guitar, one on drums and up to three singing the Beatles’ signature harmonies. On-screen cues tell you which buttons to press, which drum pads to hit or which words to sing. Get it right, and you’ll hear beautiful music. Mess up, and you’ll have to start over.
Perhaps in recognition of the game’s multigenerational appeal, “The Beatles: Rock Band” is noticeably less cruel than similar games. It’s impossible to fail while playing on the easiest difficulty setting in the game’s main mode. And unlike bands in past “Rock Band” titles, the Beatles aren’t booed off the stage when you flunk out; the song just ends.
The action takes place in four- to seven-song chunks, featuring beautifully animated cartoon Beatles. Early on, these chapters represent historic venues at which the Fab Four played: The Cavern Club in Liverpool, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Shea Stadium in New York and the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. The group stopped touring in 1966, so animators set the next several stages in Abbey Road’s Number Two studio. But instead of watching boring footage of the band laying down take after take, we’re treated to what the developers called “dreamscapes,” colorful music videos that take cues from the band’s numerous film and video projects. The video for “Octopus’s Garden,” for example, is set underwater. In “I am the Walrus,” the band members don the iconic walrus and eggman costumes from the cover of “Magical Mystery Tour.”
After three stages of these dreamscapes, the game concludes with the group’s final 1969 concert on the rooftop of the Apple Corps headquarters in London.
But this game isn’t just a collection of cool cartoons starring John, Paul, George and Ringo. As with the remastered albums releasing alongside the game, the music is The Beatles as we who grew up in the cassette, CD and mp3 eras have never heard them. Because of the game’s structure, technicians had to separate each component of a song, so that if the bassist was playing badly, other parts of the song could still be heard. Because many components were recorded on the same take, a certain level of technical wizardry was involved. Giles Martin, son of original Beatles producer George Martin, likened the process to taking a cake and reducing it to its component ingredients before putting the whole thing together again.
Whatever they did, it sounds fantastic. Even though “The Beatles: Rock Band” is clearly meant to be a social experience, true Beatlemaniacs will relish one-on-one time with the game. I hit music nerd nirvana when I piped the soundtrack through the front channels of my surround sound, cranked up the volume and played along solo with Paul’s bass on “And Your Bird Can Sing,” undiluted by any warbling or drum-banging from my usual bandmates.
While the incredible care taken with the game has resulted in a polished, essential experience, a couple of decisions detract from the experience. The game’s between-chapter animated movies and unlockable photos, studio banter and archival video footage do a great job fleshing out the Beatles for those of us who know their story. But it’d have been nice if the game included more expository material for younger players. Kids hearing this music for the first or second time might know that they like it, but not why it was so important. Obviously, there’s a fine line between too much information and too little. This is a game, after all, and not a documentary. But even something as cursory as bios of each band member would have gone a long way.
Even though the 45 songs in the game compare favorably with other single-band titles, such as Activision’s “Guitar Hero: Metallica,” it’s hard not to think of the folks paying $250 for the most expensive special edition of the game and think the package should have included coupons to download more tracks when they’re available.
Additionally, it would have been nice if Harmonix had included an easy way for fans to just watch the videos and listen to each song. You can set the game to “performance mode” which eliminates most of the video gamey on-screen cues, then play the songs in Quick Play mode with the “no-fail” option turned on. But it’s not an intuitive set-up, and it doesn’t get rid of the score or meter showing you how much the crowd is loving you.
“The Beatles: Rock Band,” rated T, is available for Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The standalone game costs $60, while a bundle packaging the game with controller replicas of McCartney’s bass and Starr’s drum kit, plus a microphone and stand, sells for $250. Replica controllers modeled after the guitars used by Harrison and Lennon are available separately for $100 each. For those not wanting to splurge, the game is compatible with most recent guitar and drum controllers. Reviewed on the Xbox 360.