E3 ’09: The Beatles Rock Band – Hands-On

Today was a weird experience for me: my first E3 demo in 10 years where I wasn’t writing for GameSpy. The Harmonix folks were showing off The Beatles Rock Band game at the MTV booth, and I sat in on a presentation before playing it for myself.

The booth housed a pretty roomy presentation area with a large stage, where five Harmonix and MTV folks took us through three songs: “I Feel Fine,” “Get Back,” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Yes, I said five people: the game now supports three-part harmonies, meaning you can have up to SIX people playing together: bass, guitar, drums and three separate vocalists. I’m not sure how conducive the Beatles catalogue is to partying, but if anything, the support for multi-part harmonies means you can have more people playing instead of watching.

If there was a theme running through the presentation, it was Harmonix’s desire to make the game more accessible to players. The “No Fail” option is now a toggle from the difficulty selection screen instead of buried in a far-off menu, making it easier for bands to turn on and off. Any band member who picks the “Easy” difficulty automatically triggers No Fail mode.  

Although I’m still not a fan of the Rock Band guitars as Expert-level peripherals (they continue to break all sorts of basic user interface design rules), the new Beatles-inspired guitars are undeniably gorgeous. There are three: John Lennon’s Rickenbacker; George Harrison’s Gretsch, and Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass. If anything, the gear’s so pretty that I want to experiment with ways of tweaking the fret buttons and strum bar so they won’t be so frustrating to play on Expert. The drums are basically the same as the previous Rock Band drums, just with some cosmetic tweaks and a Beatles bass drum cover emulating Ringo’s (which will be included).

In-depth with the new multi-part harmonies: all the parts are considered part of one vocalist track, and the game supports just about any USB mic (the Harmonix folks specifically mentioned the peripherals from Lips for the Xbox 360 and SingStar for the PS3). In band play, you can disable harmonies completely and have just the one vocal line, or you can enable them and you’ll see extra pitch lines in the vocal area. The score is largely dependent on hitting the main vocal, and then you get bonuses for hitting perfect two- and three-part harmonies. Instead of the old pie meter, there are now three small horizontal meters that fill up. It’ll be hard for newcomers to immediately sort out what the right pitches are for the harmonies, but there’s something inherently cool about a bunch of gamers singing “Here Comes The Sun” in three-part harmony. In a few months, I suspect it’ll be the kind of thing where it’ll be hard to go back to Rock Band without harmonies.

During the presentation, Harmonix’s John Drake took time to talk about the game’s visual style. It’s not clear if every song will have a unique background, but at least different eras will be represented in different ways: some songs might show the band playing in a bar in Liverpool, the Ed Sullivan show, or Shea Stadium, while other songs might be presented in what are being called “dreamscape” settings. For example, “Here Comes The Sun” is set on a colorful mountainside, while “Octopus’s Garden” is set — where else — under the sea.

After the presentation, we got to head out to the other half of MTV’s booth to actually play the game. If you’ve played Rock Band, there’s virtually no difference — the interface has barely been tweaked. I spent most of my time on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun,” “I Am the Walrus” and “Day Tripper.” None of the songs seem too difficult, but that’s not really the point — these are iconic, classic songs that are just fun to play, and 9.9.09 can’t come fast enough for me.