There is simply no way that when Vicarious Visions was working on Band Hero that they didn’t know that it would be an object of ridicule. Yet another music game in a terribly crowded landscape, this one with an unabashed connection to top-40 radio is hardly a surefire route toward street cred. Having accepted this then, Vicarious Visions was free to take that pop music focus and drive it as hard into the ground as they possibly could. What they ended up with was a clone of Guitar Hero 5 that couldn’t be further apart from its source without giving up the plastic instruments altogether.
For one, the dismissal of “guitar” from the game’s title is no accident, as Band Hero‘s treatment of the guitar is almost to the point of forgetting that it exists. No previous game in the Hero series would, for example, have allowed you to pass a four-plus minute song on Expert by playing less than 250 notes, as Band Hero‘s “Wannabe” (yes, that’s the Spice Girls) does. No previous game in the Hero series asks you to play the bagpipes with a plastic guitar (though, admittedly, Guitar Hero 5 did feature pianos and trumpets), as Band Hero‘s “In a Big Country” does—it even structures a song-specific challenge task around those bagpipes!
Clearly, this is not a game for rock ‘n roll gods in training; Band Hero‘s willingness to depart from the tried and true clichés of what it means to rock set it apart from the rest of the series, allowing for a refreshing (if still familiar) take on the four-plastic-instrument model of rhythm gaming.
It would be easy then to deride Band Hero by calling it something like Guitar Hero: Pop Edition or something similarly demeaning, but that’s not exactly the focus, either. The motivating factors here are the inclusion of children and casual players, a focus on multiplayer, and the ability of music to prompt spontaneous and genuine smiles. By never quite taking itself too seriously, whether through the inclusion of a kitsch classic like “YMCA” on the tracklist or the winking nod to male players singing No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”, Band Hero succeeds on all counts, successfully treading the line between faithfully holding to a proven concept and expanding the reach of that concept to an audience that had to date been left in the cold by the entire genre.
That said, this move toward inclusion has predictably seen a few problems crop up in the execution that distract from the overall experience, most of which result from the process of trying to accommodate too many people at too many times.
For example, it’s become common practice to kind of snicker at the words that get bleeped out in the various Rock Band and Guitar Hero games for the sake of maintaining the “T for Teen” rating—vocalists playing songs with bleeped out words from, say, System of a Down or Nine Inch Nails often insert the missing words as a point of pride. Still, it’s a practice that’s widely understood given that an M-rated fake-instrument game simply isn’t going to sell. That said, one would think that the ESRB would show some leniency toward the inclusion of questionable words in iconic songs when deciding on a rating. Removing the word “whiskey” from the chorus of “American Pie” is utterly ridiculous especially when you consider that “don’t give a damn” escapes uncut from Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat”. Is “whiskey” such an awful word in that context as part of an utterly classic song? It’s possible that any ire for such omissions should be directed at the ESRB rather than at the developers of Band Hero, but regardless of who’s responsible, it detracts and distracts from the game.
The other issue is one of motivation—when the emphasis is so directly on casual and party play, there’s very little motivation to try and get better at the game. There is very little motivation to play on higher difficulties given that the quickest way to the most stars (the trigger for the unlockables and progression in the bare bones career mode) is to play on lower difficulties and ensure high scores and success in the various challenges. Why bother playing Expert if you can unlock just about everything on Medium?
Still, that only points to the idea that this isn’t about single-player play or Expert play or serious play of any sort. Band Hero only really works as a social, tossed-off experience (or, alternately, Guitar Hero for kids), but when it’s played as such, the tracklist and the excellent Guitar Hero 5 make it fantastic as a party-style experience. As much as “Wannabe” isn’t a guitar song, it’s serious fun with four vocalists; as much as Taylor Swift doesn’t have anything approaching street cred or rock ‘n roll attitude, you’ve gotta admit that “Love Story” is catchy as hell. Don’t play Band Hero by yourself—you’ll be disappointed. Pull it out three drinks in, however, and you’re good to go.