If politicians really wanted to ensure victory by securing the votes of a single group, they’d be wise to focus on people who have a boxful of plastic instruments in their garage. The rhythm-game boom of the mid-’00s was a massive one, with studio Harmonix enjoying two separate billion-dollar franchises in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Both, in case you were nowhere near civilization at the time, hinged on “playing” guitar-shaped peripherals in time with licensed tracks. This being a full-blown craze, neither series stopped there. Plastic drum kits and singing came along soon after, and then DJ Hero launched with a playable turntable, and then some games tried bringing real instruments into the mix. There were a lot of alt-rock songs involved. And then it all went away very, very fast.
But now, almost a full decade after rhythm games peaked, Harmonix wants to give the genre a grand rebirth in virtual reality. And despite its flaws, Rock Band VR might just make that rebirth possible.
Rhythm games already mesh well with the immersive capabilities of VR—Audioshield for the Vive and Thumper for PSVR are standout titles on their platforms—but Harmonix’s play hinges on the power of the Oculus Touch handheld controller. Attaching the Touch to the neck of any Rock Band 4-compatible guitar allows it to be tracked in space, which makes the whole VR thing possible. Folks who bought Oculus Touch controllers last year actually got the necessary guitar adapter in the box. (If you misplaced yours like I misplaced mine, don’t despair: Oculus seems to be prepared for that contingency, and is referring people to customer service for replacements.)
Like every other game in the franchise, Rock Band VR has a story mode that chronicles your band’s rise from dingy supporting act to label-dazzling headliner. (The band is called Audioblaster. They may have once played some “bad kids” on an episode of The O.C. There’s a guy named Stalker Jerry who comes to all your shows.) This being VR, you’re actually standing onstage, looking out at the crowd as you play. You might not have a body, but you have a perfectly virtualized version of your real-life plastic guitar—its position is extrapolated from the Oculus Touch.
At first, I hated the chords. My fret hand got so tense that when I walked away from the game it felt frozen in some sort of perma-claw. Hell, I hated Rock Band VR.
Rock Band and Guitar Hero gameplay hinged on you pressing individual notes in time with a scrolling chart, but Rock Band VR scuttles that tradition entirely. Chords—actually, chord combinations you play in sequence—are the coin of the realm here. (Since the guitar is virtualized, you can see exactly what notes you’re playing.) The chords themselves don’t matter, as long as you play them in rhythm and in varying sequences; the more distinct combos you play, the more points you get, and the closer you get to being able to shift into Overdrive mode and RIP OFF SOME FACE-MELTING SOLOS.
All of this is covered in the first of two surprisingly thorough tutorials that you have to complete before you get to the game’s story. The second, which sets up “Virtuoso” difficulty level, explains how to play chords and combos using different hand positions up and down the fret board.
At first, I hated the chords. My fret hand got so tense that when I walked away from the game it felt frozen in some sort of perma-claw. Hell, I hated Rock Band VR. I hated that when I shifted into Overdrive during a solo, I didn’t know if I was supposed to just noodle around or keep playing combos. (You can do both, but the combos turn into “riff” combos that jack up your score. Also, you get extra points for head-banging, jumping around, and generally acting as Ted Nugent-y as possible, except for the crossbows and the threatening-the-president thing.) I hated the corny-ass banter that my bandmates engaged in, and I hated the goat that my drummer Wes brought to a show one night. (Though I did love how my lead singer got so freaked out by the goat that he made a Black Phillip in The Witch reference.) I hated that the game’s “classic mode,” which let me play Harmonix franchise classics like “Eye of the Tiger” and “Through the Fire and Flame,” felt so much more finicky than it had in the non-VR games.
I kept playing, though, and eventually the genius of the new chord-combo system sunk in. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were always about playing in your living room at home—accompanied by friends, or just jumping around like a goof while you tried to crack that weird-ass solo on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.” But in VR, the entire experience is built around immersing you in the rock-god fantasy. There’s a virtual mic that’ll amplify your voice if you lean into it. The crowd makes eye contact with you as you move around the stage (you can walk, but it’s safer to “whammyport” to various new locations). Your playing becomes less about dogmatic adherence to the note-scroll and more about futzing around within the constraints of a measure or section to try something new. And when your solo actually does go from fumbling to face-melting? The rhapsodic expressions gazing up at you from the front row—not to mention the trippy blobs of color shooting out of the head of your guitar that I’m trying not to overanalyze—will let you know.
Are there problems? Absolutely. There’s no multiplayer, so you can’t rock alongside—or against—other people. Sometimes the music you’re playing drowns out the actual song your band is performing. The 60-track song list is more filler than killer. The game has trouble registering some fast chord changes. (The classic mode really is finicky, though that could also be the fault of a janky strum-bar.) If you try to put the guitar on while you’re already wearing your Oculus Rift instead of vice versa, you’re in for a world of tanglin’. Overactive solos can dislodge the Touch controller from its holder, making the guitar seem as though it’s dangling upside down in midair. Still, when you just tore down the club and you’re about to launch into The Who’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” as an encore, the smile plastered on your face will be anything but virtual.