Rock Band has never really made me feel like a rock star on the account of my being rather poor at it. Sure, I could rack up some five star ratings on Normal mode after a few weeks’ practice, but anything on Hard difficulty or above, where the note structures best resemble the songs you’re playing, and I’d start to fumble about with wrong notes and missed chords. I was like a modern Hendrix…but if Hendrix had stuck to playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
What Harmonix is doing with Rock Band VR, then, has me intrigued. I first saw the game at GDC last year where I displayed my instrumental inadequacy for all the world to see. While you’ll still be able to access the more traditional modes franchise veterans are used to, the experience has also been honed to really try and capture the sheer ecstasy of playing live music.
A new game mode built specifically for VR won’t require you to battle with the traditional note structure seen in the past games and countless spin-offs. Instead, Rock Band VR is far more liberal with how it lets you play songs in this new mode. You make up the chords to tracks by simply holding down any combination of multiple notes that fit the loose suggestions. The only real challenge comes from changing those chords at the right time. Alongside the visual ques, the Touch controller mounted to the end of your guitar will vibrate as a countdown for when to switch.
All you really have to do is hold a few buttons and strum along. It sounds overly simple, and it is; this edition of Harmonix’s franchise is far more concerned with letting you fully embody the role of a faultless rock god. It wants to give you the freedom to look out at the crowd as you play, move around the stage using the guitar’s whammy bar to teleport. As scary as its sounds, this is a game that is trying to make you forget who you are as you pull that Oculus Rift over your head, undoubtedly making a complete idiot of yourself in the real world, but having the time of your life in the virtual one.
We first saw this new game mode at PAX West and it’s gotten even better in the few months since. I found myself tempted to get carried away even when in a room with a bunch of developers. I managed to contain myself, simply nodding along to a beat, but little touches like being able to hit a drum symbol with your guitar stock certainly make it tempting to let loose. There’s a great air of thrashing excitement as you watch your backing singer throw herself into her microphone, or look back at your drummer to start a song.
The challenge will still be there for those that crave it, but this new direction is much more appealing to me and I suspect the many Rift owners that simply like to get lost in what they’re playing. It’s just a shame Harmonix hasn’t brought this experience to Rock Band’s entire line of instruments yet since Rock Band VR is a guitar-only experience; imagine meeting up with your friends online and really playing in a band together. But perhaps that’s best saved for another time while the studio finds its feet with this guitar-only test run.
Rock Band VR is following a hugely interesting trend of VR games watering down their core mechanics in favor of the experience. Harmonix doesn’t want you to be struggling to get to grips with tracks and getting frustrated, it wants to capture the essence of being a star that can do no wrong.
The trade-off, I think, is absolutely worth it; I can see myself spending many a VR session in my room, curtains closed, flat mates out, and me belting out the words to Gold on the Ceiling, dancing like a fool as I pretend that I’m god’s gift to mankind. Indulgent? Sure. Exhilarating? Absolutely.
Rock Band VR is due for release on Oculus Rift with Touch in early 2017.