Review: The Beatles: Rock Band (Wii)

Here comes the fun

We've seen the market quite saturated with numerous Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes, and at this point we’d need something extra special to pique our interest in the genre. The Beatles are happily just the right thing. They’re the perfect band for a music emulation game to take as its focus, their repertoire being one of the most highly acclaimed and varied in recent history.

Its creators knew that they'd have to design a great game to justify the prohibitive licensing fees, and that's just what they delivered. Everything feels authentic and lovingly crafted, and the result is an immersive ambiance that transcends the experience of the average Rock Band game. It feels closer to placing the needle on the band's original vinyl than downloading their greatest hits to your iPod, something truly worthy of the Beatles name. This alone sets it apart from most other games.

Once you're firmly intoxicated in this inarticulately wonderful aura, you'll discover that it's a lot of fun, too. The enjoyment of playing those fake instruments to this list of tracks makes it the perfect party experience, and you can rest assured that you won't have to skip that one song that everyone hates. There are none to dislike on this compilation, and that's an incredible asset in itself. Even a so-so Beatles song beats an average one by most bands.

The variety of gameplay is great as well, boasting an expansive list of forty-five songs as well as almost thirty downloadable tracks, each with its own unique vibe. As the band developed, their style changed dramatically, resulting in great degree of variety in their repertoire. Whether you're after the fast-paced pop of "Twist and Shout," the sultry, driving "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" or the meditative, Indian influenced "Within You Without You", this list delivers and does so beautifully. Another layer of variation is the fact that inclusion of four instruments - guitar, bass, drums and microphone - means that there are four very different ways to play each song. On top of that, each of the boys takes a turn at the mic, each with his own individual vocal range. Just because you can easily five-star John, then, doesn't mean you won't have to work hard at George.

Each song is accompanied by a music video of sorts, either a recreation of a live performance or a "dreamscape" constructed to match the feel of the song. These are quite beautiful and enjoyable to watch, though one is compelled more to focus on the notes at hand rather than enjoy the scenery. It's very cool and impressive, real eye candy, and will continually please and remain pleasant once the eyegasm fades. Without a doubt, the game looks as gorgeous as anyone could hope it would. And it sounds as great, too, with digitally remastered songs and a lot of love put in to isolating each track from the original master and fun Beatle banter to hear while waiting for each song to load.

For those unfamiliar with the series, players emulate members of a band using plastic “instruments,” all of which feel quite intuitive to manipulate. Handling the guitar and bass scantly feel like playing their musical counterparts, while the drums are closer to the real thing. If a friend wants to play along and can't figure either out, they can still have a great time at the microphone. Play well and perform a special move to trigger Beatlemania and multiply your points, play poorly and you'll fail, having to start all over at the beginning (unless you turn on "No Fail" mode). If you need to bone up, try the impressive training mode, which isolates any section of any song that you'd like to practice.

The meat of the game is story mode, available in both single and multiplayer. You play through the history of the titular band from the tiny, intimate Cavern Club to their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show and so on, culminating in their famous rooftop concert. It is a joy to watch the band mature and to play along with their music as it changes in tone and grows in complexity throughout the journey. You can earn up to five stars depending on how well you perform and unlock rare photographs and video clips for doing so, and after each segment you can play the chapter challenge and try to five-star each song in the set. The creators' reverie is obvious, but here it serves as an arguable detriment to the experience gone are any mention of the band's darker days. It makes for quite a joy ride, but a full-fledged, true to life plot with all their ups and downs could have provided a richer experience. The game then serves as more of an homage than a historically accurate portrayal, which in the end is fine, but will impair the experience of those who enjoy complex narrative. Not that the authenticity suffers at any other point, the creators even including an explanation in the instruction manual of other little things they had to alter - who's really playing the tambourine and so forth.

Centering around the history of one band means that all the little perks of creating one from scratch are gone. There's no fans to be gained, no costumes to be unlocked, and very little customisation whatsoever. It cements the experience as solely belonging to The Beatles, so those for whom Big Head Mode is a must-have, be warned. This isn't about creating your own rock band, it's about celebrating and emulating the Beatles, period.

There's also Quickplay mode, perfect for social gatherings, which lets you pick a song or build a playlist from the library for single or multiplayer use. Then there's the competitive modes Tug of War and Score Duel, both of which pit two players against each other on the same instrument in slightly different ways - the former has players alternating between different sections of the song while in the latter mode, players perform the song in its entirety. While the developers included online functionality, it's quite unfulfilling to perform a song with someone who's not there. The latter two modes are fun but require finding a friend on a separate Wii or purchasing multiple guitars or drum sets, and the spirit of this title is one of cooperation rather than competition, making Quickplay by far the best of these three modes.

To correspond with the group's partiality to harmonisation, the developers included a feature that allows your friends' voices to join your own. Unfortunately, it's a bit tricky to differentiate between whose pitch arrow is whose, but if you're willing to spend some time puzzling it out, you're in for a treat. This puzzling is somewhat contradictory to a party atmosphere, though, so it's a sad fact that it's not more user friendly.

The difficulty is quite fair, both simple and complex songs making up the mix. The game shows you how hard each track is on a baseline scale, and one may alter this over four difficulty levels from easy to expert. The biggest change from one to the next is on guitar/bass, where hard and expert utilise the fifth key. Mastering the technique required for this is truly one of the most satisfying experiences in a video game.

We found the scoring system to be flawed, however, much to the detriment of the single player experience. You acquire points as you progress through a track and then earn up to five stars at the end. A good job on easy, medium, hard or expert will result in more stars, though you'll earn more points on a more challenging setting. Not only does this make deciphering scores a bit of a chore, but takes the oomph out of earning prizes (rare photographs and footage) in Story Mode as these are unlocked solely by gaining stars. Why try for five stars on expert when you can get the same reward for said achievement on easy or medium? While one might muster enough willpower to challenge themselves thusly, the self-gratification engine only goes so far before running out of steam. Worse still is the fact that no matter who plays on Quickplay Mode, there is no way to tell the difference between your score and your friends'. The friendly competition factor is regrettably damaged as a result, unless you’re willing to keep a ledger or something.

The developers also tackled the problem of Wii games not having accomplishments - those quirky little goals that give you a little something extra to feel good about yourself for achieving - by adding in as a feature of the game itself (rather than a feature of the console that utilises game content, as on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360). For those gamers to whom being awarded a trophy for maintaining Beatlemania for a minute or getting a 550-note streak while playing "I am the Walrus" on drums sounds appealing, this will certainly add even more replay value to the experience.

Conclusion

If you're planning on throwing a party and you've got a Wii but not The Beatles: Rock Band, go out and buy it right now. It's incredibly fun and easy to pick up, as well as looking and sounding simply gorgeous. With an unbeatable track list including plenty of stylistic variation and a great range of difficulty, The Beatles are the perfect foursome to inject new life into the music emulation genre. Though an overly simplistic scoring system takes away from single player mode, this game's still extremely fun and satisfying with practically endless replay value.