Several years ago rhythm action videogames like Rock Band and Guitar Hero were all the rage, with gamers eager to jam away on plastic guitars to their favourite pop and rock songs from the last few decades. That interest waned however as the genre struggled to offer anything new and improved. Then in comes virtual reality (VR) with an entirely new way of immersing players, and so Oculus supported Harmonix in creating a newly updated version for the technology, Rock Band VR, which has hit all the right notes.
First and foremost, Rock Band VR isn’t the experience you may remember from the original titles. Over the course of development Harmonix has learned that while staring at a confined area on a TV works for normal consoles that methodology wouldn’t (or couldn’t) transfer into a VR experience, it’s just too ridged. And so the studio has built a far more open, free-playing system that allows you go for 5-star highscores or just rock out anyway you dam please.
And this new system has certainly benefited Rock Band VR. You now find yourself on a proper stage, with band mates, pedals, and swappable stage locations to make that feeling of immersion evermore apparent and grounding. When playing a song, you’re no longer fixed to the exact chords and changes of the actual tune – you still play it of course but there’s no failing it as such. Instead the studio gives you a bar that floats above the crowd with certain areas highlighted with particular notes to play to maximise your score, if you wish to adhere to it.
By that reasoning you may think you can just thrash anything out and it’ll sound ok – which it kind of does – but to delve into the rich sound variations takes time, with much more to master than the original versions. It’s a much more easy going videogame than its forebears, the pedals let you tweak the sound how you wish, and with the more modern guitar (this was a Fender Stratocaster) with its higher note buttons, let you chop and change the sound so the same song can be played multiple ways.
But there is something missing. This style of gameplay feels like the saying ‘winning doesn’t matter it’s the taking part that counts’. There’s no direct difficulty to it, you won’t get booted if you can’t keep up or just play rubbish. When you perfectly completed a song on the original title at the hardest difficulty there’s a sense of elation that comes with it, whether you managed to repeat the performance never mattered, the score always stayed as a reminder of the hours of practice put in. Whereas the core Rock Band VR experience doesn’t have that, it wants you to feel good no matter how bad you play.
There is a flip side to this, Harmonix has added a classic mode which brings back the traditional scrolling neck for those that want it. Seriously though don’t bother. The addition perfectly illustrates why the studio veered away from this design in the first place. It just doesn’t do VR justice in anyway shape or form – the videogame would have got a 1-star if it had stuck to that.
Rock Band VR is definitely built around having as much fun with the experience as possible. There’s no right way or wrong way to any of it, just the sheer enjoyment of playing some classic tunes in a far more relaxed manner. Does it sometimes feel a bit much having to wear a headset, strap a guitar to you and have an Oculus Touch in the mix as well? Yes, yes it does, but quite frankly you probably won’t care when thrashing out some Bon Jovi.