I wasn’t really sure what to expect when heading into Rock Band VR. I love the series, so more of it is always a good thing, but I knew this was something completely different. Perhaps that is the best way to describe it: something different. It’s an entirely unique take on the formula that some may be tired of by now. It’s way different than even Rivals, though VR goes in the opposite direction in the “barrier to entry” category, requiring some serious hardware just to get started.
With all of that known. Rock Band VR is in a weird spot. If you already have the necessary setup and enjoy Rock Band as a series, you probably already have it? If you don’t have everything, you’re likely not going to plunk down hundreds of dollars in order to play “Everlong” in virtual reality. So maybe you’re just morbidly curious as to what the heck this game is. That’ll do for now.
Rock Band VR (Oculus Rift)
Publisher: Oculus Studios
Released: March 23, 2017
The first thing that has to be made clear is that this is not at all like traditional Rock Band. There is a Classic Mode that allows players to enjoy charted songs like every other game in the series, but it’s a no-frills extra mode that is not going to entice anyone by itself. I love that it is there, but it’s more of a cherry on top than the main draw to the product.
It’s also important to consider the barrier of entry here. Players will need a VR-capable PC, the Oculus Rift headset, the Touch controllers, and a wireless Rock Band guitar. I have only tested it with the Rock Band 4 wireless guitar for Xbox One, so I cannot comment on any other inputs. For the seven of you who fit this extremely small demographic, let’s continue.
Rock Band VR eschews the highways of colored notes in favor for a more realistic band experience. As the guitarist on stage, players are free and encouraged to look around at their bandmates, teleport around the stage, and ham it up for the audience. While it is possible to go for high scores and nail perfect sections of the song for bonus points, Rock Band VR works best when you just let go and, oh god this sounds corny, live in the moment.
Out above the audience is the breakdown of the song itself. The display will show what section of the song is currently being played (bridge, chorus, etc.) as well as if there are any specific chords that “should” be played during certain bars of the song. While notes as the Rock Band audience knows them are gone, there are chords and chord combinations that keep the track sounding more or less like it is supposed to. There are difficulty levels that affect how often the specific chords come up, but this only really affects the score.
The tutorial does a great job of introducing all of this at a palatable rate. Even those who are not musically inclined like me will come to understand how each chord sounds and recognize which combinations sound good back-to-back, even if it’s more or less wailing away on the controller. The strum speed is completely up to the player, for better or worse. If I want to play Weezer’s iconic “Say it Ain’t So” at a breakneck guitar speed, the game allows me to do that. Though I think that may be a crime against humanity, so I personally recommend against it.
In Story Mode, players go on tour with a pre-set group of band members and play a variety of predetermined setlists at different venues that more or less all look the same. There are some in-game cutscenes that take place before the shows that start to build a narrative, but it’s nothing super enticing, especially for those who have played past titles in the series and know the tried-and-true “rise to greatness” plotline. It’s enough to see through until the end if Quickplay isn’t exciting enough, at least.
While there are star ratings and leaderboards, I recommend just going with the flow and ignoring the scoring aspect. This is definitely meant to be an “experience” more than anything else, and to take it too seriously would likely lead to frustration. I’m sure you can game the system by playing a specific speed or only hitting chords at a specific time, but that would defeat the whole purpose of why this game exists. It’s a stage experience and a good one at that.
There are some janky moments in the gameplay, though. Changing strumming speeds always sounds awkward, as the two chords that play back-to-back during the time change never sound right. It makes changing speeds somewhat undesirable; I almost always stuck to the same speed for long periods of time, if not the entire song. Rapid chord changes are similar — they don’t quite work well and sound bad.
There are some really neat touches though that make it easy to forget the wonkiness. Pedals on the stage can be switched on and off by looking at them and pressing the whammy bar (this is also how you teleport around the stage) and allow for some control over the type of sound the guitar makes. When standing next to the drummer, it’s possible to hit the crash cymbal with the neck of the guitar — how cool (although useless) is that?! Overdrive can be extended by headbanging along with the rhythm. Guitar solos are a breathtaking spectacle; as notes are played, colors shoot out at the audience from the neck like magical unicorn ejaculate, and it feels wonderful.
As usual, a lot of the enjoyment anyone receives from this particular Rock Band game is tied to whether or not the setlist is “good” enough. The best part about Rock Band VR is that even if a song isn’t quite your cup of tea, you get to play it as you wish. There are a handful of tracks that I would never ever listen to if given the option, but playing them was still a great experience. That being said, the enjoyment from the songs I truly do love was lessened somewhat as the notes aren’t quite what I expect.
In general, as much as I enjoy the experience of Rock Band VR, it’s hard to imagine coming back to it time and time again. The DLC songs cost more than they do in the console counterparts and can only be played on guitar, so those who don’t typically play guitar like me may not have a long-term interest in the product. The experience is wonderful and I am excited to introduce others to it, but its lasting appeal is a hard sell, especially for those who can simply jump over to traditional Rock Band and play any other instrument.