Activision and Harmonix Want Us to Rock Like It’s 2007 (And That’s Fine By Me)

Guitar Hero LiveWith the obvious recent announcements of Activision’s Guitar Hero Live and Harmonix’s Rock Band 4 it is safe to wonder about the once mega-popular gaming genre that had seemingly jumped the shark. Has it been long enough? Why has it taken this long? I don’t have nearly enough storage space for more plastic instruments!

One thing will always remain constant: people love music and want to immerse themselves in it. Many attend concerts, some form cover bands, others hang out at karaoke bars every weekend. Others strap on plastic instruments and hammer away to their favorite guitar riffs.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of RockEverybody remembers the story, Guitar Hero was the popular lightning in the bottle that Activision and Harmonix jointly created, it was  a success that was built on the understanding of music and note charting that Harmonix had and the incredible peripheral that Red Octane built. When the two went their separate ways and Harmonix made Rock Band with MTV Games and Electronic Arts, Activision saw to keep churning out Guitar Hero, making Red Octane build more guitars and bringing in Neversoft to design the game. While their skill at note charting was not to the same degree as their predecessor’s, Neversoft managed to create several zany iterations of Rock Band until 2010’s Warriors of Rock.

On the Harmonix front, Rock Band saw a gamut of success from music purists with three core iterations of Rock Band. With their multiple instrument approach, weekly expanding library and mastery over creating challenging, yet playable tracks, Harmonix had a formula that worked. Sadly for Rock Band 3, arguably the best in the series, nobody bought in to the additional keyboard or pro controllers and fans of the franchise were feeling burnt out and claustrophobic in their plastic instrument cluttered living rooms.

Rock Band 2So it’s been five years since Rock Band and Guitar Hero filled every corner of retail space, why is it the right time for them both to be making a comeback? Doesn’t the same problems of overlap and oversaturation remain? Of course they do.

But we missed this genre.

Nothing has brought friends together in a space to play a game like a solid multiplayer rhythm game. Not even the dancing games like Dance Central or Just Dance have had the mesmerizing effects of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Shouting “Star Power!” at your bass player to get the bonus up in Guitar Hero, nailing those perfect drum solos on expert in Rock Band, battling with each other in Guitar Hero III. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were at the frontlines of gaming’s biggest foray into mass media popularity.

But what about the problem where they wore out each other’s welcome?

Certainly Activision has been guilty of beating franchises into the ground, and Guitar Hero was no exception to this story. Despite both franchises offering solid features in Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3, nobody cared enough to drop down all that money into more plastic instruments for barely any new gameplay offerings. While Activision may have stressed the issue, Harmonix was sucked into the whirlpool and did not do enough to differentiate themselves.

Guitar Hero Live2015, I hope, is different. Harmonix is continuing down the path that they know best with Rock Band 4. Retaining their massive back catalog, focusing on the four player band experience (and ditching the key-tar) and bringing players back together. This is the experience that I missed and craved. In a sort of greatest hits move, Harmonix is firing on all cylinders, giving fans the experience they are known for and that they expect.

So it turns out that Activision and Guitar Hero are the wildcards. They have gone in a completely different direction with their next iteration, Guitar Hero Live. The focus is once again only on the guitar, no more copying Harmonix’s formula, Activision is dead set on creating the best guitar experience on consoles. Rocksmith’s strong performance is evident that people clearly want something in this vein, even if Rocksmith is grounded in reality.

Guitar Hero LiveAs for that reality that Rocksmith provides, Activision is watching that. With former DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames taking over, gone are the cartoony, over sensationalized characters of the sixth and seventh generations and now we have scripted reactions, in FMV form, at simulated concert venues, complete with band mates, crowds and roadies. They react to your great play, they react to your poor play. It’s an interesting concept that seems like it belongs in the days of Sega CD and the 3DO, but it seems to work. So I’ll let the gameplay be the judge. Don’t want that live experience? Activision is amping up their DLC library with Guitar Hero TV which replaces the scripted reactionary video with downloaded music videos that you will play along with.

And lastly, the guitar.

Guitar Hero LiveActivision is changing the way the guitar frets work, to further differentiate themselves from Rock Band’s classic five-button configuration. Now it is three frets, each with two buttons, making a total of six buttons to play. Just the thought of quickly processing the change between top and bottom frets confuses my left hand. Making the challenge greater is that Guitar Hero Live will be using black and white note indicators, doing away with the colored combinations of yesteryear.

When companies compete, the consumer wins. Now that Activision and Harmonix are finally competing with individual products, instead of fighting for who has the best version of the same idea, we can finally enjoy the unique offerings each has.

The music rhythm genre was once on of the most popular genres available and oversaturation killed it. Hopefully a wiser, patient strategy will take place and if Activision is to be believed, no longer approached on an annual basis. This is the perfect time for a comeback tour. Let there be rock.

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Amplitude is Almost Here and I Can’t Wait

AmplitudeHarmonix Games’ revival of their famed Amplitude franchise is looking spectacular, thanks to a new trailer that was released today.

Put into production after a successful 18 day Kickstarter campaign, the PlayStation exclusive rhythm action game revives the cult classic series that Harmonix claimed fame for prior to their work on Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Players are challenged to create music tracks by successfully activating sections of a song. Each song segment (bass, rhythm, highs, vocals, etc.) are activated by rhythmic combinations of three button presses, similar to successfully activating a section in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. After a segment is successfully activated, it stays running for a limited time and a different segment can be jumped to (typically with the shoulder buttons) with the goal of adding more segments.

New to the series is the addition of a cooperative multiplayer mode where multiple players can stay on dedicated segments to create more complex tracks. It is a natural evolution for a company that saw incredible success in its work in cooperative rhythm games.

Newcomers to the franchise might notice many similarities between Amplitude and the colorful Rock Band Blitz. Blitz shared many of the concepts that made Amplitude and Frequency popular, with Blitz having a focus on Rock music thanks to the vast Rock Band library.

Amplitude is set to release this Summer for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3. Harmonix will be showing the game off for the first time to the public at this weekend’s PAX East convention.

Harmonix Toys With All Our Emotions

Rock Band 3Last week was a pretty busy week for Harmonix Studios. The design team best known for their development of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises launched three new tracks for Rock Band 3 last week, nearly two years since their last DLC update.

…oh?

While the tracks themselves were from established and popular bands (Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, Avenged Sevenfold) they weren’t exactly long absent tracks or chart burners. The timing of the release begged the question, why? Harmonix had ceremoniously pulled the curtain on their weekly DLC outings for Rock Band back in 2013, with the highly appropriate American Pie as their plastic instrument swan song.

So why after two years are they suddenly dipping their toes in the water?

Easy answer, new consoles are out and there is a gap in the plastic instrument music space. This theory holds water as Harmonix issued a voluntary survey to its mailing subscribers and the public asking about what they want to see in a new Rock Band. Topics ranged from importance of DLC, bundling of instruments, to online play and a career mode. There’s not much tea leaf reading required on this one. Harmonix wants to make a new one, they just need to find the right opportunity.

Dance Central SpotlightAfter making some fairly well received motion controlled games in their Dance Central series and to a lesser extent, last year’s Fantasia, Harmonix is probably itching to get back into what they do best. Creating note charts for popular music.

Harmonix is in an interesting situation where they have such a overwhelmingly positive relationship with both Sony and Microsoft. With Microsoft, they designed the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Dance Central games and with Sony they are set to bring back their cult favorite Amplitude thanks to a short Kickstarter campaign (even though that game got delayed until Summer). Rock Band proved to be a huge financial boon to publisher Electronic Arts but quickly fizzled out thank to saturation in its competition.

AmplitudeTruth be told, those plastic instruments were a chore to maintain and took up a ton of space in any den. Between Rock Band and Guitar Hero I have six guitars, two drum sets and two microphones all occupying space in my closet. And I never purchased any additional guitars after the original Rock Band.

But Rock Band was my jam. Something about playing Boston online at 3 AM with my headphones on was surreal. Forming a band out of strangers, getting your friends over to play the random assortment of downloaded tracks in my library, Rock Band was a pure experience that has never been replicated. Where Guitar Hero excelled in competitive music gaming, Rock Band brought individuals together in a performance.

And honestly, that is what music is all about.

Destructoid – Harmonix survey asks what you want from a new Rock Band experience

 

E3 Early Impressions

Leave it to a couple of expected announcements, some really nice gameplay footage and a couple surprises to get me excited about E3 again.

First off, Microsoft seems to be trying (a little too desparately) to integrate casual online functions and gaming with the Xbox 360. A bit of it was highlighted previously with the New Xbox Experience and things like 1 vs 100 Live. Now they’re adding social networking functionality via Facebook and Twitter. I think this is a novel idea and one that could potentially be a nice little feature.

The other is Natal, or the 360’s answer to Wii motion/IR. Sony already has SIXAXIS, which is ok, but nothing spectacular. Natal promises to be different by using a camera to track whole body motion, something that sounds similar to the PS2’s EyeToy or the Xbox Vision camera that came out a couple years ago.  My take on motion control is it can be a bother at times, especially when you are forced to use it. Some games make good use of motion sensitivity like Uncharted had a little bit of it and several Wii games are exceptional at it. But for the most part it’s Microsoft tapping into a gimmick that all its competition has. Although if Steven Spielberg is helping announce it, I suppose all is forgiven…

Now onto some game impressions…

The Beatles Rock Band – I had heard a lot about it before and  I’m already very excited about it. I love the new guitars and the idea to chronicle the Fab Four’s career. Watching it in motion is something else. Going from Liverpool to the United States, playing the various stages of their career from performing on TV, to stadiums to their LSD trip period. The Beatles looks like an incredible experience. Throw in not two part harmonization, but three and this looks like the step that the Rock Band / Guitar Hero formula needed to take.

Left 4 Dead 2 – You knew it was coming, just not this fast. Coming at the end of the year, Valve is bringing the sequel to the one of my favorite games of last year, Left 4 Dead. Four new survivors (which unfortunately means no Louis…aww) take on the zombie horde at the same time as the first game, just in new cities, including French Quarter New Orleans amongst others. There’s a new focus on melee combat with weapons like baseball bats, frying pans and (yay) Chainsaws. I’m hoping for custom characters, so we’ll see.

Halo ODST – The “expansion pack” has become a spin-off, and apparantly that spin-off deserves a $59.99 MSRP.  Impressions from the first gameplay trailer are good, it’s still very Halo-ish. But I wonder how is one normal ODST supposed to fight the Covenant in a Master Chief like fashion, without having any Spartan abilities. I see a silenced sub-machine gun and really that’s about it. The campaign looks very good with a lot of interweaving stories including Reach and what might be the first Covenant assault on Earth.

Halo Reach – Here’s the game that looks to hoist the flag as a true descendant of Halo. Reach is a story that has already been published and many know about but the teaser trailer looks to bring chaos and a massive Covenant army assaulting Earth. There also looks to be many Spartans. Excellent.

Forza Motorsport 3 – The trailer looks really wonky. Choreographed stunt driving at high speeds looks all fine and good, but Forza isn’t exactly known for it’s tricks. Drifing in Forza has always been something I’ve been curious about after watching videos on YouTube so maybe there will be a bit more of a focus on that. What I can say, is that the engine has been revamped, it will run at 60 frames/sec and there will be as many as 400 cars in the next installment. Drops October.

Crackdown 2 – The game that everybody bought to get into the Halo 3 Beta turned out to be not half bad. Crackdown 2 looks to have a more detailed cell-shaded engine and all the superpowers that made the first one fun. It also looks to have something more monstrous going on than taking down crime gangs.

Metal Gear Solid Rising – Leave it to Hideo Kojima to steal the stage at Microsoft’s press conference. MGS Rising will be a new Metal Gear, focusing on an older Raiden. Hopefully between MGS2 and MGS4, during the time he goes rogue. I like the idea, Raiden is a much better character now than he was after MGS2. It has been anounced for 360, but Kojima is likely to announce it for PS3 later.

Final Fantasy XIII – Nothing new on FFXIII yet, except a release window. Looks to come out on 360 March 2010. Ps3 Simultaneously? Is Square focusing on the 360 or the PS3 release in America? It’s hard to say. Why wouldn’t they announce a solid PS3 window?