Battle of the Bands: The Beatles

In the two years since the full-band rhythm genre was launched with , the popularity of musical rhythm games has started to decline, with unit sales dropping almost 50% this year versus last year. It is certainly understandable; there are only so many plastic instruments a person needs to buy. The novelty of the genre has largely worn off as well, with the saturation point long having been exceeded by Activision churning out four full games this year alone.

As with any other sequel, there has to be some sort of evolution in form to remain interesting. The novelty of first person shooters would not have been sustained without the improvements in control systems and graphics. It is not just the technical improvement but innovation in gameplay that keeps this genre alive, as seen in brilliant titles like 2K Games’s or Valve Software’s .

developer Harmonix, a company founded by musicians, seems to understand this better than Neversoft, who seems to be shoveling games out the door as fast as they can code them.

Compare this with , which has subtle visual cues like the slight shaking of the note rails when you hit the bass drum pedal, or a crowd that will show a very slight cry of disapproval when a long note streak is interrupted before resuming their cheers. The instrument you are playing in also has its presence enhanced in the overall mix, because if you were actually playing in a band, that’s how it would sound.

Harmonix is a developer that understands the value of such subtleties, and they permeate every inch of . Very quiet ambient sounds play when you go to a submenu while the details at the edges move ever so slightly, supported by a visual style that is nothing short of an artistic marvel.

If there is this much detail in the menus, you can imagine the gameplay to be the same. Indeed, there is just as much. However, the core gameplay of is not changed very much from . The greatest improvement is the addition of vocal harmonies, and what harmonies they are! For vocalists, is a delight, particularly when the second and third vocals vary from the lead vocal. Harmonix has taken a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, and with the visual and narrative enhancements, this turns out to not be a problem.

With , Harmonix is clearly spelling out the evolution of rhythm gaming. It is not the quantity of notes on the rails, but their quality. Rather than looking at the notes as a challenge to conquer, they are instead turned into something to experience. When you play the bass lines of Paul McCartney, you are focused intently on how his playing supported the composition of the songs. This may lead to plastic guitarists actually preferring the bass in this game.

This attention to quality shines through the visual representations of the band members themselves. The historic venues and artistic dreamscapes behind the members look so good that you may lose focus on the notes you are supposed to be playing. These wouldn’t matter if The Beatles themselves didn’t look right, but they strike the perfect balance between realism and style. This contrasts with the resurrected musicians in the series that look like they came straight from the uncanny valley.

As the venues change from small clubs to large stadiums to Abbey Road Studios, the appearances of The Beatles change slightly to denote the passage of time. When the final rooftop concert ends in Story mode and the final coda of “The End” plays, players feel that they have experienced The Beatles’ own journey from the optimistic “I Saw Her Standing There” to the howl of John Lennon in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

There is no other comparable experience in a music game today. It feels more like a reverential documentary that you can participate in than the grab bag of songs stuffed in ’s own titles focused on specific bands.

Worry not if you have never been a huge fan of The Beatles, as you have been hearing their influence in every pop song you’ve grown up with. There is no better way to interact with their music more deeply than to indulge yourself in the experience that is .

For rhythm game fans, this title is a must, and if you have never played a rhythm game before, this artistic achievement of a game is a great reason to give it a try.