"We never thought we'd end up as androids". The confused but amused words of Sir Paul McCartney at E3 this summer, where The Beatles: Rock Band was presented. It was unlikely that someone would make a rhythm game out of The Beatles, even for Harmonix, but now when the android quartet has reached our consoles it is as clear as a cymbal beat: video games as a medium has never been taken more seriously than this.
Harmonix has obviously treated The Beatles: Rock Band as a prestigious mission; the project absolutely shines of extra care, research and attention to detail. It's also noticeable how Paul, Ringo and the Beatles widows have contributed; this games totally breathes Beatles and rock history, which elevates it above other mixtape-games. Instead of stereotypical rockers we get to play with a real, pre-packaged super group. It's similar to Guitar Hero: Metallica, but since I've always preferred the white album to the black it of course gets more interesting. Individual taste perhaps, but this isn't any old band we're talking about: these are the guys who basically invented and/or popularized phenomena such as the music video, the concept album, feedback, backwards recordings and arena rock. And great songs, of course...
Number one songs in the billboard doesn't make a great game however, and this is not a review of The Beatles' music, but of how well it and the band work in a music game. We get to follow the Liverpool lads amazing career in a chronological order: from harmless pop songs, via Sgt. Pepper and moustache-fueled psychedelica, to hippie beards in the late sixties. As a framework for a video game this works perfectly and because of how many music genres The Beatles tried out (and even invented) the setlist is really varied and in spite of its age it still feels fresh.
I mean, come on. Know what I mean? Revolution, Day Tripper, I Am the Walrus, Get Back, I've Got a Feeling on the same freakin' disc. If you get to really dig five songs in another music game you're lucky, and here you get 45 of them. Granted, that's about half of the songs in Rock Band 2 but the fact that no song is a filler is of course a great compensation. That so many songs have been granted a unique visual backdrop is also luxurious and when we reach the band's studio days (1966 and onwards) the regular background animations blossom to something extraordinary, with acid-spiked fantasy landscapes (Harmonix calls them "dreamscapes") as a surrealistic backdrop. After beating half the game you're going to finally get what "caleidoscope eyes" mean...
If you're looking for minute-long drum solos and intense guitar masturbation however, you're not going to find it here. A lot of people have been worried about The Beatles: Rock Band's difficulty. Is the game challenging? Yes and no. It depends on what instrument we are talking about. The guitar parts bar is set quite low and getting five-star runs is more common than not. Songs like Birthday and Revolution on the expert level is quite demanding though.
The three part vocal harmonies is a great new addition to the franchise though, and a real challenge. Three people can share the burden (or joy, if you're someone else than me) of singing and either follow the lead vocal or take a shot at the harmonies at certain parts of the song. Even though three people do the singing they count as one person. Nailing the right pitch in songs like Day Tripper when the rest of the trio try to do the same requires some serious practice, but is really rewarding when you get it.
If a feeling of emptiness fills you after the rooftop concert is over, do not despair. First and foremost; Harmonix is going to make complete albums available for download this fall. Abbey Road is first out (we get to play the entire medley as one track, yey!), then Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in November and December, respectively. The Beatles: Rock Band also has some great bonus material like film clips, photos and trivia about the band.
So there's nothing else to do but applaud Harmonix who has pulled of one of the greatest challenges in video games history so far. The Beatles: Rock Band even makes you look back. Not only at the sixties and music history, but the last decade of video games and the boom of the industry. If you think about it, the first decade of the new video game millennia is going to be remembered by its party games and mainstream boom, and how the industry has won huge respect in the popular cultural sphere. Just as an octopus' garden, it's as logical as it is surprising: The Beatles: Rock Band is the most significant game of the decade.