Rock Band VR is available for Oculus Rift and requires Oculus Touch.
In the wee hours leading up to Rock Band VR's release, I felt inside like I was actually set to go on stage. Since the very first musician-emulation game all those years ago, there's been a plastic guitar following me around from Rock Band to Guitar Hero and back again. Now, with the upcoming VR union, there's an undeniable excitement in the air. I can almost hear the crowd, the feedback, the countdown…
Life of a roadie
In preparation for the game's release, I set up my Rock Band guitar to work with Oculus Rift. You use the connector that came with your Touch controllers to mount the right-handed controller on the headstock of the guitar; the entire process takes about two minutes.
The second pre-emptive step I took — and this one is optional — was to set up my computer speakers to also blast out sound while playing. Headphones are great, but in this case having some bass while playing really makes a difference.
Beginner guitar lessons
Once you don the Rift, you're treated to a much-needed tutorial. The way Rock Band works in VR is much different from the original games. There is a classic mode where you can experience the vertical-scrolling screen, but it seems like it's there as a nostalgic throwback rather than an integral part of the game; more on that later.
In the older Rock Band titles, playing what is now called classic mode, you had strict guidelines on what buttons you had to push and how fast you had to strum, it was possible to actually fail a song and get booed off the stage. Not anymore.
Instead of having to hit, say, the yellow button and the blue button at the same time, there are seven different chord shapes to learn, including octave, muted arpeggio, power chord, bar chord, muted power chord, and single note. These chord shapes can be played on the upper portion or lower portion of the fretboard, and they can be played in different positions, known as chord roots.
You can play any chords you want, in whatever order you want, as long as you keep some sort of rhythm with your drummer and it makes sense within the context of the song. If what you're playing sounds good to you, the game will let you continue, for better or worse.
This new VR playstyle is pretty much a complete overhaul of the game's mechanics, and it makes the game feel way more natural. That's not to say there aren't objectives during songs. If you're going for a high score, you want to try to hit combos, which are basically patterns of chords stretched out over the bars of a song. There are also lead chords that, when hit properly, fill your Overdrive meter. Tip your guitar up towards the ceiling to trigger it; a purple wash fills your vision, bright notes shoot out of your guitar, and you receive double points while you play. Already sounds like a lot to remember? We're only scratching the surface.
Advanced guitar lessons
The first tutorial teaches you how to play the game at the Rock Star skill level, while the second teaches you how to play at the Virtuoso level. The latter level involves a secondary layer of difficulty: chord followings. On top of getting the chord shapes right, creating combos, and hitting lead notes, you also have to worry about switching chord roots at timed intervals that show up on the song map. Upon a root switch, you can either play the same chord shape or a different chord shape; it doesn't matter as long as it's in a different spot on your fretboard. Successfully following chords fills a secondary score counter that is unique to Virtuoso mode.
It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of it, going back and trying Rock Star mode doesn't deliver the same feeling when you're rocking on stage. Virtuoso mode, while a bit more difficult, certainly feels closer to playing a real guitar. Once you've played a song enough times and feel like you know it well, you can switch over to Monster mode which removes the cues in the song map. It's you, the band, and the crowd; your ear is all you have to guide you through.
Rock Band VR's new playstyle and new level of immersion rewards both serious players who try for perfect, gold-star ratings — there's a leaderboard for each song and each venue associated with the storyline — and anyone just there to jam out, headbang, move around, and shred all they want. It might seem at first that there are a lot of mechanics to pay attention to, but once you get the hang of them, the game makes you feel pretty close to an actual guitar player.
Meet the band
You're one-fourth of the band Autoblaster, and you have your first gig opening for another band at Pedro's, a local taco shop. You look back at your drummer and give a nod to let him know you're ready, and from there you're free to move around the stage to get a different perspective. From the moment the lights go on until the final note is strummed, you feel like you're really there. This is as close to being in a real band as you'll get without, well, being in a real band.
Unfortunately, the story of Autoblaster isn't very long, and it's told through snippets of backstage, pre-show conversations. You play gigs together at increasingly larger venues, and a group of devoted fans follows you around. It's not your regular rise to fame story — there are no trashed hotel rooms and worldwide tours — but it seems realistic and I would have liked to know more about what happens to my rail-thin bandmates. If you're going in expecting a thrilling story, you'll no doubt be disappointed with what is on offer here.
Once the story is finished, you're welcome to go back and replay any venue, or you can switch to quickplay. Here you're able to create your own setlist from 60 songs and you can choose where you play. This is also where classic mode can be found.
If you've played previous Rock Band or Guitar Hero titles, you're no doubt familiar with the vertical, scrolling screen that has a very strict rule on what buttons to hit and when. Playing classic mode in VR, there is no stage, no crowd, and no bandmates. It's just you floating in a void, and it's anticlimactic when switching from the new experience. While the rest of the game caused no dizziness or imbalance no matter how much dancing and swaying and headbanging I did, playing classic mode should be tackled sitting down; at least to start. Something about the continuous upward scrolling had an unconscious part of my mind telling me to take a step forward, which I obliged on more than one occasion.
Besides the game modes, venues, and setlists, there's really not much you can personalize. From trailers and images before the game's release, I went in with the expectation I'd be able to change my guitar, but you're stuck with a black and white Strat. You also can't swap out any guitar pedals, can't change your bandmates' costumes, nor can you choose what backdrop is behind the band.
The Rock Band series, at least until now, has always been about gathering a bunch of plastic instruments in your living room and hacking away with friends. The whole VR thing and the new way the game is played sort of makes that difficult. It's a shame that there's no other instrument support, especially since the Rift has a microphone built in, but it's understandable once you've played the game for awhile. I can't, however, see a reason why there is no online multiplayer implemented in classic mode, which is the place for competition.
Nevertheless, if you treat the Rock Band name as a bit of a misnomer — at least based on what we used to think of Rock Band — and go in expecting an immersive career as a guitarist in a band, you should have a ton of fun. Despite a lack of features and an overall feeling that this game is the foundation for a ton of add-ons, the effect of VR on a classic genre creates something special.
Music lovers out there; this is your VR game. Whether you play guitar in the real world or have never felt the weight of a real electric, Rock Band VR has something you'll enjoy, though it does feel a bit limited when it comes to extra features.
The new free-form song map allows you to play how you see fit, and the chord changes in Virtuoso mode move your hand around enough that it feels similar to actual chording. Classic mode is still there for anyone who prefers to play vertically, but the complete overhaul the primary gameplay has seen is so much fun I didn't find much reason to switch over. From the lights in your face to the crowd singing along, Rock Band VR delivers an immersive look into what it's like to stand on stage and shred.
- Gameplay overhaul is a success
- Deep immersion
- Song list has something for everyone
- Not clear whether or not we're getting add-ons for the platform
- Story is limited
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