In the reviews I’ve seen, the most common approach is to dismiss Rock Band 2 as a $60 expansion pack for Rock Band – mostly more of the same with some new songs and features. This is fair, to a point – I mean, they didn’t even bother to update the main tutorials! And, in fact, the game plays very close to its predecessor with some key differences:
- 84 new songs, up from 58 in the original, plus a promised 20 bonus tracks to download in coming weeks and 55 of the original Rock Band songs that can be imported for measly $5. So when I first launched the game, I had more than 210 songs to play thanks to all of the downloadable songs I had bought, which are all compatible between the two games.
- No more separate solo game. Instead, there is just plain ol’ Career Mode, which can be played solo and/or with bandmates (though be careful if you play with someone who doesn’t have a Live account!). You can have friends play in your band and drop out at your whim. I believe it’s even possible for the band to play without the leader, though I haven’t tried it. This new game dynamic is not without its downside. It’s much more time consuming to unlock all 84 songs for Quick Play; you’ll probably turn to Challenge Mode rather than skipping around cities. Which brings me to…
- Challenge Mode. This area is parallel to your Tour and offers increasingly difficult setlists and collections of albums, artists and collected songs you’ve purchased or imported from the original Rock Band. The best part is that fans aren’t on the line, so you can save between songs on those longer setlists and come back later – perfect for busy gamers. It won’t take long to unlock more challenges than you’ll know what to do with, though you will see the same songs over and over again unless you have a vast collection of downloads.
- Online Challenges. Every few days or so, a new online challenge pops up that you may want to try. Some are ranked by stars (including fractions) and others by consecutive notes hit . There are challenges that require a specific instrument, so drummers and vocalists can face off with their peers. Some require that you own specific downloadable tracks, which is a subtle form of marketing - but so far there are plenty of challenges that don’t require you to buy anything extra. And it can be nice to put your purchased content to good use.
- Drum Trainer. This new training mode teaches some basic drum riffs and offers some spiffy fill options, if you want to show off or become a better drummer. A more formalized lesson program would have been helpful, but if you’re a self-starter or experienced drummer looking to improve your skills further, this might be just the thing.
- Guitarists now have Hammer On/Pull Off chords in some songs, adding a small but interesting new layer of challenge.
- Fan caps have evolved from not earning any fans once you hit them to severely limiting the number of fans you get per set. For instance, at Medium skill level after my first half million fans (give or take) I now max out at 6000 fans even if I play several songs in a set. At my current rate of fan gain, it will take about 50 more sets before I can break the million mark! If I increase my skill level and keep the star level up, I should gain fans faster. But when I earned three stars on a song on Hard, I only got 3000 fans - so unless I greatly improve my skills or seriously cherry pick my songs it may be a wash.
- More ad hoc opportunities. As with the tour mode in Rock Band 1, you sometimes get an offer to gain more fans at the expense of cash (assuming you haven’t hit a fan cap, in which case you’ll be stuck with the cap’s max) - but now there are more types and you can hire certain “staff” to improve your chances of getting them. Sometimes they’ll offer to substitute a random song for one you selected, or shoot a music video of your band. These are fun diversions, but watch those penalties. I didn’t read the fine print and ended up losing 25,000 fans in trade for a few hundred dollars, and now that’s going to take 5 gigs to make up unless I bump the skill level.
- No Fail Mode and Breakneck Speed. The first new mode disables achievements, but allows young and unskilled players to flail alongside those who can make it through a song on at least Easy. Breakneck Speed (sometimes called “hyperspeed”) makes the notes come faster, which spaces them apart more and, some argue, makes Expert songs easier if you know them well enough to handle the accelerated pace.
- Improved caching means load time between songs is pretty short, so you’ll spend less time waiting and more time playing particularly on the longer setlists.
There were some nice surprises in Rock Band 2: “Nine in the Afternoon” by Panic at the Disco and "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter" by The Main Drag were cool new tracks that hooked me right away. And I was glad to find some eclectic choices ranging from Elvis Costello to System of a Down. I’m not an expert player so I can’t speak to the Expert difficulty, but the Medium songs are mostly easy for me and the Hard ones quite a bit harder – and without a penalty free solo mode to play in, I haven’t found the incentive to improve my skills as I did with the first game. I will probably try some setlists at the Hard difficulty in Challenge Mode, but it’s not the same as working your way through the skill levels and it hasn’t really enticed me yet.
We’ll see what happens when I get the new bundle later this month.