At Electronic Arts’ recent studio showcase, I tried out keyboards on “Rock Band 3” and got the opportunity to sing in front of a roomful of people, the first time in my life I did not have the benefit of a couple of adult beverages to help shed my inhibitions. While at EA headquarters in Redwood Shores, I played bass on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” keyboards on Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” (a song I chose) and sang on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I didn’t have the benefit of backing vocalists on that one, so I got to go nuts and explore all the different parts a little bit.
Before I get to my impressions of each song, a few words on the preview set-up are in order. The folks running the show set up a mock stage, complete with smoke machine, strobe lights and speakers. The stage wasn’t elevated, but it was so far the closest I’ve ever gotten to playing in a band on a stage in front of a room full of people. Fun times. A setup like that is something “Rock Band” die-hards should all experience at least once, be it at a preview event, charity fundraiser or a bar. Anyway, here are my thoughts on what I played:
“Just Like Heaven,” The Cure: Obviously, because I played bass on this song, the experience was more like “Rock Band 2” than anything else I did. If you’ve played any of the previous “Rock Band” games or its rival franchise, “Guitar Hero,” you know the drill. A colored note chart scrolls down the screen, and you press corresponding colored buttons on your guitar and strum as the notes cross the bottom of the chart. As I said in my earlier preview of the game, “Rock Band 3” will support a Pro Mode for guitar and bass, but I’m nowhere near the level of being able to pull that off. I could only watch in awe as other folks tried it. I will say, though, that I’m in full support of more Cure songs showing up in the “Rock Band” games. “Close to Me,” “One Hundred Years” and “A Forest” would be great places to start for downloadable content.
“Sister Christian,” Night Ranger: Of the songs available to play in the demo, none of them beyond Metric’s “Combat Baby,” which someone else had just played, really excited me as a “keyboard” song, so I picked this one for our band in hopes that somebody would take vocals and crack me up. Apparently, game journalists are pretty self-conscious folks, though, because the whole time I was in the room with “Rock Band 3,” only one person besides me sang. At any rate, keyboards threw me for a loop. When selecting a difficulty level to play on, I chose “medium” despite having never played before. My rationale was that, on guitar or base, medium only uses four buttons on the guitar neck instead of all five. I assumed that on medium difficulty, keyboards would work the same way, and I wouldn’t have to be sliding my hand around to press down five keys with only four fingers.
I was wrong. Medium on keyboards requires you to press five keys. (Harder difficulty settings require you to use more of the keyboard.) I didn’t yet have a feel for the keyboard, and my hand was constantly getting lost as I tried to play. I started off horribly, got gently heckled, found my way and then got lost a couple more times. To make matters worse, a cameraman shooting video for some show or website decided to get up close and personal and film me during a particularly rough stretch. Man, you haven’t lived until you’re standing on a fake stage with a camera guy right in your face and, like, strobe lights and smoke machines going off. The pressure is intense! No wonder bands lip sync and pantomime during video shoots. It was everything I could do to keep from cracking up. When “Sister Christian” had finished, the game said I’d hit 70 percent of the notes, but I sure as heck didn’t feel good about it.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen: I’ll be honest. I can’t stand listening to this song, but of all the tracks available to preview, it was one of the two I’d most want to sing for sheer silliness. (The other was “Sister Christian.”) After playing a couple of songs and having everyone else treat the mic like it was infected with the plague, I decided to just go for it and own “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And did I ever! (Even though the game and “Bohemian Rhapsody” support the same style of vocal harmonies introduced in “The Beatles: Rock Band,” I didn’t have the luxury of backup singers.)
I can’t sing at all, but I excel in “Rock Band” because I can hit most of the notes if I sing in what I’ll charitably describe as a goofy, effeminate falsetto. So that’s what I did. I got 96 percent accuracy on either hard or expert and entertained a roomful of people. It was also a hoot for me. You know how you don’t really know how your own voice sounds? Well, thanks to the stage set-up and the fact that I had a speaker right above my head that pumped my own singing voice directly into my ears, I do now. And I sound like a drag queen trying to impersonate Queen Elizabeth II. Luckily for me, I have no qualms about looking silly. Fun times.
In short, I think everyone who enjoys the “Rock Band” games needs to experience it in a setting like this. The same crew who put on the Ümloud! fundraiser for Child’s Play last year is planning another one for this Dec. 9, a Thursday. Save the date. I’ll post more about it when more things become official.