'Rock Band' for iPhone Knows the Words, but the Tone Is Flat
In bringing "Rock Band" to the iPhone and iPod touch, Electronic Arts has taken a game designed to be played on big, specialized controllers in a spacious living room setting, and shrunk it down to a 3.5-inch touchscreen. The iPhone version of "Rock Band" is fun for what it is, but scaling it down so much makes it barely resemble the full version at all.
When it comes to games, Apple's App Store isn't just a flea market where independent and small-scale developers can earn a few bucks peddling momentary amusements for 99 cents a pop. Giant game makers like EA, Capcom and Ubisoft (via Gameloft) sometimes set up shop, and when they do, they're not afraid to charge top dollar, as App Store games go. They'll usually take one of their hit console or PC titles -- "Assassin's Creed," "Madden," "The Sims," "Resident Evil" -- and strip it down to the key elements. Then they'll slap a $9.99 price tag on it and let name recognition do the rest.
Usually these games were not originally designed with a touchscreen interface in mind, but sometimes that's not a problem, and the premium game is well worth the relatively premium price.
But sometimes the control limitations of the iPhone just ruin the playing experience, and that 10-dollar game just sits there on your "junk app" screen (we all have one). The play control was just too unwieldly, interest waned, and Level 4 was never attained. Maybe you'll get back into it if you're stuck on a long plane ride or something. Someday.
The sad scenario above may apply most often to action games like first-person shooters, where instant tactile feedback makes a big difference in the whole kill-or-be-killed transaction. "Rock Band" doesn't exactly suffer the same fate -- in fact, it's incredibly easy to control. It's just not nearly as fun.
The options you get in the iPhone/iPod touch version of "Rock Band" are similar to those of the console version. Quick Play will let you whip through any song in the play list for a short session; World Tour lets you work your band's way up from a tiny club to a giant venue, Multiplayer links your iPhone to a friend's via Bluetooth for cooperative play, and Music Store lets you download new songs.
Aesthetically, things look great for an iPhone game, but the small screen forces some compromises. For one, you can't design your own character. That's not such a big deal, because you won't see much of your character anyway. Your view of the stage looks mostly like it's from way back in the cheap seats -- none of that live concert cinematography you get from the full version. But that's only practical. It's more important to see the color bars that indicate which notes you'll need to hit next.
The built-in song selection is somewhat small -- 16 tracks -- but you can buy more at the rate of two for a buck. A sample of titles: "Ace of Spades" by Motorhead, "Sabotage" by The Beastie Boys, "Move Along" by All-American Rejects, etc.
Players get the standard range of choices for instruments: guitar, bass, drums or vocals. Each gives you a row of four icons to keep watch over and tap as colored bars scroll down at you, corresponding to the rhythm of the song. No fake plastic guitars to strum or drum sets to bang on -- just icons to poke.
I tried all four parts in various songs, finishing up with vocals, and that's what really threw me off. I picked a song, waited for the music to get going, then proceeded to sing into the phone's mic. The real "Rock Band" has a microphone, I figured, so why shouldn't this one?
Hey, why is my meter sinking so fast? And why am I being pulled offstage? How bad can I possibly be?
I learned that the vocalist part is actually controlled by tapping icons as well, not by singing. Oh well, I suppose this is more practical when you're on a bus or a plane.
"Rock Band" on iPhone is by no means a boring game. There's a wide range of difficulty offered, and it can actually get pretty intense when it's solo time in a difficult song.
But despite its fidelity to the look and feel of the real game in terms of menus and sound effects, shrinking this game down to iPhone size squeezes out a very vital element. It's like playing "Dance Dance Revolution" with a stylus on a Nintendo DS. It might be fun, but it's just not "DDR."
The real "Rock Band" is made to be played in a big room on a big TV with big speakers in a big group of friends. The faux instruments are ridiculous, and the control is nothing like playing real music, but doing a Pete Townshend-style windmill on this little plastic guitar while getting cheered (or booed) in surround sound and watching your purple-haired avatar leap around onstage -- that's what really makes the game fun. It's what compels people to spend way more than the cost of the game disc on things like extra controllers. Take all that away and put it on a little touchscreen, and you've basically got "Tap Tap Revenge" with different window dressing.
And maybe "Tap Tap Revenge" really did rip off some key gameplay concepts of "Rock Band" and take it to the App Store first. Or maybe it ripped off "Guitar Hero." Or maybe "Rock" ripped off "Guitar" and "Tap" ripped off both, and the concept as a whole was stolen from "Donkey Konga." Whatever -- all these games are fun, but more so when they stick to the platform for which they were originally designed.