Rock Band vs Guitar Hero 3: Day 2, The Newbie Experience

I put the Rock Band drum kit together today. It’s big. It looked pretty big in the store but in my living room it seems to expand. And it really seems like it’ll require a stool; I don’t think that playing standing up is going to work for very long, or very well. The drumkit stand seems like it’ll break down pretty easily, but the ‘drum heads’ are all one big, rather large, piece, so I’m a bit concerned about storage.

On the plus side, they aren’t as loud as I’d feared they would be. There’s a Rock Band demo kiosk in the local Best Buy, and those drums are pretty darned loud. The sticks are regular drumsticks, and the drums at the store are plastic so the whole time someone is playing they’re bashing plastic with a wooden stick. Loud and unpleasant. But the drums that I got have a rubberized surface and aren’t too bad as far as noise goes. I still don’t think I’d practice my RB drum solos in the middle of the night though, out of respect for other folk in the apartment building.

As I mentioned in my last post, as of about 2-3 weeks ago I’d never played one of these games. Guitar Hero III was my introduction to the genre. Today I experienced Rock Band for the first time and I thought I’d compare the newbie experience.

Both games offer tutorials, but Rock Band’s guitar tutorial is longer and more informative. However if you fail the tests, you have to listen to the whole explanation before trying them again. In Guitar Hero if you fail you can just retry the test right away. Some guy named Izzy narrates the Rock Band tutorial and he’s fine. In GH3, the “god of rock” and some other character take turns. They’re pretty corny, but y’know, it’s just a tutorial; I guess its not a big deal.

In both games I jumped right into their version of Career Mode. Guitar Hero III gives you a couple of pre-made characters to pick from in order to represent yourself on-stage. They’re all pretty creepy/goofy looking, and as you play you can spend the money you earn from your tour to unlock other characters. Rock Band has a pretty simple “create a character” feature; about as complex as you might find in an MMORPG. But at least you do end up with a more unique character than the ones in GH3.

Basic gameplay is almost identical. Notes come sliding down a display at you and as they cross a target area you have to hold down the corresponding fret-button and hit the strum bar. As you play, certain series of notes fill up a bar with “energy” and once it gets full, you raise up the head of the guitar to trigger “Star Power” (GH3) or “Overdrive” (RB). As this energy drains, you get bonus points for all the notes you hit. As you play well a crowd meter raises, and if you miss notes, the meter drops. If it drops too low you fail the song and have to start over. In both games you get star ratings up to 5 stars. Rock Band does have a few extra features: for one thing, there’s a visual indication of when you can play more than one ‘note’ on a single strum (called hammer-ons and pull-offs). The ‘extra’ notes will be slightly smaller. In GH3 you just have to estimate if notes are close enough together to get away with this. Rock Band also has guitar solos that earn you bonus points if you do well, and ‘big finishes’ which are a kind of free-form song ending section. Still, it’s going to be very easy to jump back and forth between the two games, I think.

Being a newbie, I choose Easy mode on both games. As of this writing I’ve ‘beaten’ GH3’s easy mode, with star ratings of 3-5 on most of the songs, and 1 or 2 that I keep failing. I found that the difficulty of the songs really bounced around in GH 3, at least for me. Part of that could be subjective; I find it’s a *lot* easier to beat songs you’re familiar with vs ones you don’t know.

Over on the Rock Band side of things, I’ve beaten about 8 of the 43 (I think?) Easy songs, getting 5/5 stars on all but the last, where I got 4 stars. The first few Rock Band songs are really nice and easy and very fun to play. It seems pretty clear that the GH3 folks expected most people to be familiar with the series, and Rock Band is intended more for absolute beginners when it comes to Easy mode. (In both cases Easy Mode only uses the first 3 frets.)

My initial feeling is that the Rock Band guitar is nicer than the Guitar Hero 3 guitar. Please, if you’re an expert in these games and disagree, don’t flame me. But leave a comment explaining why I’m wrong; I fully admit I’m new to this stuff. But I really like the quietness of the strum bar on the RB guitar, and it being slightly bigger makes it feel a little bit less toy-like. At the same time, I’ve heard LOTS of reports of Rock Band guitars breaking, though the developers say they’ve identified the problem and newer copies of the game come with a better-made guitar.

The other big difference I’ve noticed is that Guitar Hero 3 features “boss battles” a few times during the career. These are a kind of guitar duel where you earn ‘weapons’ by hitting certain series of notes correctly. You then fling them at the enemy and it’ll mess him up by speeding up the song, or making his display blink, or a button stick, and so on. And of course, your NPC opponent does the same to you. These battles really broke up the flow of the game for me, and really reminded me that I was playing a game, not a musical instrument.

Rock Band, so far at least, has no such gimmick. In fact in general the Rock Band presentation feels a bit less silly, a bit more mature, and a bit more ‘pure’ than what Guitar Hero 3 offers. I have to say that so far I prefer it. Do keep in mind that I’m playing for the fun of fooling myself into thinking I’m actually playing an instrument, and not because I’m looking for a huge cliff of challenge to climb. More competitive gamers might prefer the boss band battles of GH 3.

I’ve saved the best for last, though. I managed to convince my girlfriend to pick up the Rock Band microphone. Her singing, me playing guitar. Luckily she’s a good singer…while anyone can play the guitar parts in these games, the singing (and, I suspect, the drumming) are going to require some actual talent.

Anyway… man, THAT was a blast. Really, really fun. Within a few moments we were both bopping to the music, jamming out, lost in the rock and roll fantasy.. heck, I even caught myself harmonizing a few times. The only drawback was that it seems like most of the songs need to be unlocked by playing through a career, and there were only a few unlocked songs that suited her voice. It’d be nice to have more female vocalists among the ‘easy’ songs.

To sum up, as of right now, were I to have to choose one of these products, I’d go with Rock Band. I like the guitar controller more, I dislike the Boss Battle gimmick in GH 3, and Rock Band seems to have a more gradual learning curve. We’ll see if that opinion holds up over time.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get some time in on the RB drumset.