The Beatles are one of the most popular and enduring bands in history. Four decades after the group disbanded, the Fab Four’s music seems to be just as popular as it ever was. Even those too young to remember or understand how they changed the world in the 1960s can still appreciate the beauty of their songs. When Harmonix and MTV Games announced that they had acquired the rights to use the music of The Beatles last year, many fans of both the group and the Rock Band series were ecstatic. One thing was made clear, however: this would not be a Rock Band game. It’s now nearly a year later, and The Beatles: Rock Band is on the verge of launching. Though some things have changed, this is clearly very much still a Rock Band game, as the title states. However, it is hard to complain when Harmonix has done such a good job developing the series to begin with. The Beatles: Rock Band, while not quite the brand new experience it was originally promised to be, still delivers the timeless music of the world’s most beloved rock band in a way that any fan of The Beatles can enjoy.
While Rock Band tasks the player with creating and naming a band, and then taking it on a world tour, The Beatles: Rock Band sticks to the established timeline of the band’s rise to the top. While not every single aspect of the group’s past was included in the game, historic venues like the Cavern Club, Shea Stadium, and the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters make an appearance. These locations have been recreated with a great deal of attention to detail, which makes each chapter feel both familiar and comforting. Abbey Road Studios, where the band recorded much of their music, also serves as a location for several chapters of the game. While some may not like the fact that Abbey Road is used for multiple parts of the game, while each venue is only featured once, it actually makes sense because the band stopped playing live shows in their later years. Songs that don’t fit a particular venue are performed here, with the band starting out in the studio, and the scene transforming to an artistic interpretation of each particular tune.
These sequences are known in the game as Dreamscapes, and they are truly a highlight of The Beatles: Rock Band. In most music games, concentrating on playing the instrument keeps the player from observing background activity, but Dreamscapes command the gamer’s attention. It is impossible not to notice them; the psychedelic colors and patterns seem to encompass every part of the game screen. Of course, there are even more things to see if you take a moment to step back and watch others play. “Octopus’s Garden” takes the Fab Four underwater, “Here Comes the Sun” has them leaving the studio to enjoy a beautiful day outside, and “I Am the Walrus” is as trippy and bizarre as the lyrics to that song. While the venues are certainly fun, entertaining, and accurately recreated, the Dreamscapes are truly memorable and beautiful.
At the beginning of each chapter, a short sequence gives a brief overview of that time period for The Beatles. Devoid of voiceover, the use of images, sound bites, and animations are a perfect introduction to each year of the band’s career. After each portion is completed, a Chapter Challenge opens up, which is essentially just a setlist of that particular chapter’s songs. If these challenges had been a bit more varied, they really could have gone a long way towards extending the Story Mode. That brings me to the game’s biggest issue: its length. As previously announced, The Beatles: Rock Band ships with only 45 songs. Yes, the argument can be made that unlike Rock Band, fans are guaranteed to love most (if not all) of the tracks, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a full priced retail game with barely more than half of the songs that came with Rock Band 2. Because of the number of tunes, Story Mode can be played through in a single sitting with a determined band, with the entire thing (not including Chapter Challenges) being completed in less than four hours. Even just ten or fifteen more songs would have gone a long way towards making the campaign of The Beatles: Rock Band not feel so short.
Other than the Fab Four themselves, the biggest addition to The Beatles: Rock Band is the inclusion of harmonies. Up to three people can sing at once, with one singer taking the lead and the other two harmonizing. While this can seem a little confusing at first, after completing the vocal tutorial it’s actually pretty straightforward. With three singers, the same number of arrows will appear at the top of the screen where the lyrics scroll. The markers are different and each represents a separate singer, allowing vocalists to see the level at which they are singing and stay on the same harmony throughout the song. The implementation of multiple vocalists allows up to six people to play instead of four, or lets guitarists and bass players also act as back-up singers. This is a great feature, and one I would like to make it into the regular Rock Band series eventually.
For bassists, guitarists, and drummers, however, the gameplay remains largely unchanged from Rock Band. Overdrive is called, appropriately, Beatlemania, and multiplies the band’s score depending on how many members are using it at once. It is activated in exactly the same way for the guitar and bass: properly strumming a highlighted series of notes to store power, and unleashing it with a tilt of the instrument. For drummers, the solos used in the Rock Band series to unleash multipliers are gone; instead, Beatlemania is activated by hitting a glowing green note at the end of a series of correct beats. This is a little disappointing, and though I understand that unleashing crazy drum solos would not have properly emulated Ringo’s style, I feel like drummers could have been given another way to activate Beatlemania. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the core gameplay, it does make The Beatles: Rock Band feel like just an extension of the series and not the brand new experience it was promised to be.
The unlockable photographs and videos, however, definitely help the game feel more complete. Depending on your performance, pictures of the band, accompanied by some text explaining the context, can be unlocked after each song. There are also a number of band videos that even longtime Beatles fans will find new and entertaining, showing the Fab Four warming up for a concert, or making a Christmas recording for their fan club. Though not actual gameplay, these gems are sure to make any Beatlemaniac happy. The extras also give players incentive to get more stars and complete the Chapter Challenges in order to reveal every last unlockable piece of media.
The production values on The Beatles: Rock Band make for yet another treat. The graphics look like they have been tweaked and slightly improved since last year’s Rock Band 2, with the character models of Paul, John, George, and Ringo being wonderfully animated. As previously stated, environments look fantastic, having been created with an astounding amount of attention to every last detail. While the music sounds amazing, I was equally impressed by the sound bites that occur on loading screens, which use recordings of the band chatting or preparing for the impending performance. It’s a small touch that really adds a lot to the immersive Beatles experience. Some additional adjustments have been made to suit the game’s content; players will no longer get booed if they perform poorly or fail a song, for example. Also, with the wide appeal in mind, setting the difficulty of any instrument to Easy automatically engages No Fail Mode, making it simple for inexperienced players to jump in and enjoy the game. Like Rock Band 2, players can engage in an online band, but nothing beats having half a dozen people in your own living room rocking out like never before.
The Beatles: Rock Band is definitely a fantastic journey through the career of what is possibly the world’s most beloved music group of all time. It won’t turn those who hate The Beatles into sudden fans, but it does have the power to draw in non-gamers like no game ever has. There is no doubt that it is on the short side, and even though plenty of downloadable content is on the way, I really think there should have been more songs on the disc. Also, despite the additions and changes, this isn’t quite the “built from the ground up” gaming experience that was originally described. The Beatles: Rock Band is exactly what the title says: Rock Band infused by the music of The Beatles. In the end, it is a terrific game that Beatles fans, regardless of gaming experience, will want to play ceaselessly.