When Rock Band launched onto the rhythm game scene in 2007, it quickly reinvented the genre, making music games with only one instrument peripheral a thing of the past. Bringing gamers together like never before, Harmonix followed up with Rock Band 2 in 2008, which was another fantastic achievement. This year, the series went handheld with a PSP installment, as well as finally bringing the Fab Four to rhythm games with The Beatles: Rock Band. Add a well-received iPhone game to the list, and Harmonix is having a terrific run. Because of their track record, I had high hopes for Lego Rock Band, despite the fact that I initially thought it was a bad April Fools’ joke. Even with only 45 songs, and gameplay clearly designed for a younger audience, the core fun of Rock Band still shines through in this game. Unfortunately, the repetitive career issues from the first game in the series have made a return, and some other issues hold Lego Rock Band back from being as strong a title as the other installments in the franchise.
Like pretty much every game in the genre, Lego Rock Band follows an up-and-coming music group trying to make it big, starting with small shows and eventually recording albums and making music videos. Of course, there are several notable differences in this game’s career mode, beginning with the fact that all of the band members, as well as their entourage and anyone else they encounter, have all been Lego-ized. There is actually more of a focus on the band’s career in this game than any other, with cut scenes and special gigs that can propel the group to new heights. Also, because the tone of Lego Rock Band is a lot sillier, there are plenty of moments that add humor to the game, like having a baby octopus try out for your band (only to find out that you have a strict “No Octopi” policy). The story adds a lot of charm to the game, making it feel different than its predecessors while still maintaining an all-ages tone.
The core gameplay is basically the same, with the exception of notes on each highway being replaced by Lego bricks; up to four gamers can join in at once, taking the roles of guitarist, bassist, drummer, and vocalist. All of the components onstage are made of Legos, and some real life musicians have gotten the Lego treatment as well, with the likes of Queen and David Bowie appearing in special performances. A new difficulty level, Super Easy, has been added to appease the youngest gamers. In Super Easy mode, any button can be hit on the guitar or drums to play along, and an auto bass kick can be turned on as well. While the core Rock Band audience will have no need to ever drop down the difficulty to Super Easy, this assures that if you have young children or non-gamers in your house who just want to play along, they can do so. Additionally, with the exception of specific challenges, the entire game is in permanent No Fail mode; instead, if a player performs poorly, he or she will drop out for a few seconds, losing some studs before rejoining the rest of the band. While these changes may seem to simplify the game a bit too much, the other difficulty levels are on par with past Rock Band games, so if you want to continue playing on Hard or Expert, you’ll find the same level of challenge you always have. The other major change to the songs themselves is the option of playing shortened versions of the songs included with the game. This was designed for children with short attention spans, and usually ends songs after a few verses, although sometimes it will cut a track short a little abruptly.
Because each band member is made of different Lego components, there are seemingly endless options as far as character customization. Hairstyles, heads, torsos, and legs can be swapped out to make your musicians as serious, or as ridiculous, as you want. Members of your entourage are also customizable, as are instruments. Though you don’t have many selections at the start of the game, more are unlocked as you progress through the career. Lego studs are used as currency, and can be spent to buy new clothing, accessories, instruments, or to hire staff. Unlike previous Rock Band games, you can pay to hire multiple entourage members, which have a pretty big effect on the fans or studs earned after each performance. Some are required to advance in the career, such as the manager or music video director. While the vehicles will start out normal, with a van and a tour bus, eventually you will be able to purchase a pirate ship and a hovercraft. Unlike the previous games, in which vehicles were just given to you after certain performances, Lego Rock Band tasks you with actually purchasing new means of transportation at different points during your career. However, I didn’t find this to be a problem, and was never at a loss for studs.
Like the other Lego games, Lego Rock Band features a main hub for the story mode, from which you can continue your tour, check out your stats and hire staff in the office, replay special gigs, visit the shop, or play any song in free play mode. In addition to standard songs and small setlists, Lego Rock Band will prompt a Rock Challenge at certain points in the game. With multiple band members, the note highways will drop in and out, allowing the band members to take turns hitting sequences of notes; it’s actually reminiscent of the PSP installment in the series, Rock Band Unplugged. These challenges will task you with using the power of rock for various reasons, like clearing out a haunted house or escaping from a robot dinosaur. The songs used for Rock Challenges are usually appropriate to the situation, and they’re a nice addition to the standard tour.
While a lot of Lego Rock Band’s positive aspects shine through early on, some of the negatives quickly become apparent as well. There are only 45 songs in the game, far too few for a music title that’s not specific to one band. As always, since musical tastes are so subjective, you’ll likely love some of the songs and hate others, and overall the track listing is varied and eclectic. Hits like “The Final Countdown” and “Ghostbusters” mingle with teenybopper fare such as Sum 41’s “In Too Deep”, giving both older and younger gamers something to enjoy. However, because of the way the career is set up, you will find yourself playing the same songs over and over again just to advance. This was a problem in the first Rock Band, and it is even more apparent in this game because there are fewer songs. At one point, after sleepwalking through a performance of the Incubus song “Dig”, which bored me to tears, I was forced to play it a second time immediately in a surprise setlist. This can be annoying even with songs you like, so when it occurs with tracks you don’t ever want to play again, it can be frustrating enough to make you stop playing altogether.
The career also suffers from having unclear objectives, which can make it difficult to progress even if you have more than enough stars and fans. Since the Rock Band series (excluding The Beatles: Rock Band) does not follow a linear career path, in which you play through a straightforward list of songs in order, there is more to opening up new songs and venues than simply completing the tracks you already have unlocked. In Rock Band and RB2, you could call upon a “manager” with the push of a button, which would give you specific information about what you needed to do next in order you advance. In Lego Rock Band, however, I found myself often unsure about what I needed to do, playing gig after gig in hopes that I would be prompted to do a special performance. In particular, I spent way too much time trying to find the record producer, who I needed in my entourage to proceed; a message on the menu told me to return to the office to hire him, but he was nowhere to be found. After playing several gigs hoping that I would unlock the mysterious producer, I ended up having to search online for a solution, and found out that I was supposed to have played “Accidentally in Love” a few venues back to find the producer. I had skipped over that song, having more than enough stars and fans to do so, and the game gave no indication that the tune was necessary for the career. I don’t know if it was a glitch or just bad game design, with the developers assuming everyone would play every song before moving on to a new venue, but it was extremely frustrating.
Lego Rock Band, while not a bad game, is easily the weakest in the series. I was disappointed, because after seeing the game in action a few months ago, I really thought Harmonix was going to do something great by working with Traveller’s Tales and merging the two properties together. It’s a fun game, and a good option if you’re in dire need of an all-ages music title, but longtime fans of the series probably won’t find this as satisfying as any of the other Rock Band games. Being able to import songs from Rock Band 2 and working with your pre-existing DLC (as long as it fits an E10+ rating) definitely helps, but the lack of online play is another huge strike against it. Despite having the strongest story of the franchise and plenty of charming moments, Lego Rock Band ultimately feels like a $50 expansion pack.