The Beatles left a formidable swath of culture-changing music in their wake. The world of modern popular music can really be divided into “Before Beatles” and “After Beatles.” Before The Beatles, artists didn’t have control over their music or albums. There were no cohesive albums, just a smattering of songs that didn’t really have a beginning, middle or end. Artists weren’t marketed in quite the same way either. Now, major pop artists are a brand, and for better or worse, we have The Beatles to thank for that one as well. The revolution that started with The Beatles has continued down to this day, and every musical act for at least the next twenty years was either a reaction for or against them.
In other words, The Beatles are not the kind of group that you can make a quickie half-baked game out of. They have their own mythology, art style, and history as well as a tremendous catalog of songs. Also, as the Kurt Cobain/Guitar Hero 5 debacle has shown us, when you’re dealing with an artist that is socially significant, you darn well better give them the respect they deserve. It’s OK to joke about that artist (Kurt Cobain suicide jokes or Yoko Ono jokes), but when it’s time to discuss their contribution to society, it’s important to give them their proper due.
I’m a bit of an amateur Beatles historian myself, and in preparation of the launch of The Beatles: Rock Band I sat down and watched the eight installments of The Beatles Anthology for one major purpose. I wanted to see how realistic this game was and how well it matched up with the real Beatles. This review also has another major purpose: If you’re buying the Wii version instead of the 360 or PS3 version, can you expect the same experience, or will you be receiving a gimped version the game?
First, the nitty-gritty. Obviously, most everyone understands what guitar-and-drum based rhythm games are by now. If you’ve played Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you’ll probably understand what you’re doing in The Beatles Rock Band. The underpinnings really haven’t changed. I’m more of a fan of the way Harmonix does things than the way Neversoft/Guitar Hero works, since Harmonix seems to understand the “fun” aspect of these game a little better, while Neversoft has a tendency to focus on difficulty. Of course, those are broad, sweeping generalizations that may or may not have changed with the recent release of Guitar Hero 5, but if you feel the same way you’ll be glad to note that Harmonix’s handling of the Rock Band franchise is on its best behavior here.
The note groupings make sense. The melodies are tight. You feel like you’re able to flow naturally from one note to another. The separate difficulties feel right. Easy feels easy. Hard feels hard. Expert is manageable on some songs, and darn near impossible on others (hello, “I Saw Her Standing There” on bass). I do have a complaint though: I don’t like the way Harmonix handled the blockings for hammer-ons and pull-offs here. They don’t always feel natural. Sometimes, you’ll expect to hammer-on three notes in a row, but they demand that you hit one note, hammer on the next, and then hit the third. It’s a little clunky. Still, for the most part, just about every song works really well.
Another thing to note are the graphics. My big fear was that the game would look substantially better on the 360 or PS3 and I was going to be horribly upset that I was playing it on the Wii. Before I played the Wii version, I demoed the 360 version for a bit and watched some videos in order to see what I should expect. Of course, the Wii version doesn’t look as good as the HD consoles. That’s not to say it doesn’t come close in many parts. Most of the concerts look almost identical, and it’s really only in the later dreamscape sequences that there’s any big differences. Even still, they aren’t outrageous differences, merely not as many people on the screen, some stretched textures, or graphics that are a little jaggier. You won’t be missing too much with the Wii version.
In fact, that’s kind of the common thread through this game. Almost everything that is available on the HD consoles is here as well, including achievements. I have to hand it to Harmonix for including achievements since that’s been one of my big sticking points with Wii games. Harmonix didn’t have to put them in, but they did and it’s most welcome. Really, the only thing that this version is missing is the ability to download “All You Need Is Love,” and I can live with that.
One observation: When watching the Beatles Anthology, I noticed that in a lot of these performances, the Beatles were sweating like crazy, especially in Shea Stadium. I know it’s hard to pull off, but I wish that they would have done more with that. As it is, the Beatles look more like idealized representations of themselves instead of how they really looked. I mean, they made Ringo look nicer! He’s not as ugly in this game as he is in real life. I would have preferred a little more authenticity, but that’s just stickler talk. I’m sure no one else noticed or cared that John must have cut himself shaving before the Abbey Road performance. Seriously, look at the front of his neck in movies of the rooftop concert. This is the kind of stuff I care about, so take my opinion about authenticity with a grain of salt.
We haven’t even touched on the music yet. Obviously a game with nothing but Beatles music is a tricky proposition. If you don’t like Beatles’ music, you won’t like this game. However, for those of us who do, this is a veritable musical cornucopia. Almost all of the hits are here. Every Beatles fan has a song that they wish would be in here, and for me that song was “Yer Blues,” but others have complained that “Help!” and “Let It Be” aren’t in here, which I also find a little weird. I suppose some songs had to be cut to make room for others, but you could have cut “Boys” to make room for “Please Please Me.” You could have cut “I’ve Got A Feeling” to put in “Let It Be.” And can you imagine how much fun a singalong to “Hey Jude” would have been? The good news is that the downloadable albums should rectify those issues shortly, and I’m looking forward to filling the gaps with more tracks even though it’s bull that I should have to pay for tracks that should be in there.
One area where Harmonix had dropped the ball in the past is in single-player. Rock Band 2’s single player is painful. Seriously, if I have to play “One Step Closer” one more time, I’ll be one step closer to the edge. I’m about to break. Beatles Rock Band’s single-player, on the other hand, is excellent. You play through their career, unlocking the next phase in their career after you’ve finished all the songs in a chapter. Along the way you unlock photos and videos, which many times reveal tidbits that I didn’t even know. Once you’re done with all the songs, you’re treated to one of the best closing animations I’ve seen, and you have the ability to play their songs in challenging setlists. The downside is that the single-player is a little short. You can finish it in about three to four hours if you try, but kudos to Harmonix for finding an area of the Rock Band formula that didn’t work and fixing it while simultaneously giving you a compelling reason to play the single-player game.
Multiplayer is a joy. We had an emergency Rock Band party at my house with a group of friends, and it was a lot of fun to see people singing and playing along with songs that they knew almost by heart. With Harmonix’ emphasis on accessibility, almost everyone could take a turn on the guitar and drums and jump in almost immediately with very little confusion. We didn’t have an opportunity to try out the harmonies, but I don’t think that would have went well with our group. They were less interested in harmonies than just belting out the tunes, and that’s okay. For those who are interested, the harmony training is really well made, and The Beatles did harmony so well it should be relatively straightforward.