Harmonix recently invited me to a pre-PAX event to try out the upcoming game Rock Band VR, coming to Oculus Rift later this year to coincide with the launch of the Oculus Touch controller. As a longtime fan of the rhythm game genre, a real-life guitar player, and someone who even spent some time working on the Guitar Hero and Rocksmith franchises at Activision and Ubisoft, I couldn’t pass up such an invitation.
Anyone familiar with the Rock Band or Guitar Hero games will understand the basic premise of Rock Band VR. The point is to use a plastic guitar controller to play along to your favorite popular songs while attempting to hit the right notes and maintain some semblance of rhythm to maximize your score.
Rock Band VR uses the guitars from Rock Band 4 or certain Rock Band 3 instruments. There will also be guitars sold just for this Oculus Rift version of the game. The game requires you to clip a special Oculus Touch accessory to the headstock, which tracks the virtual guitar’s movement inside the headset. Once you have that configured, you just strap on your plastic guitar and Oculus Rift headset, and you’re ready to go.
The game will launch with 60 songs across a variety of genres, so there should be a little something for everyone. There are also plans for DLC support to expand your song library. Unfortunately, none of your DLC purchases from previous versions of the game will carry over, meaning you’re going to have to pay for it all again. This isn’t surprising given the new VR format and platform, but it still stinks to have to pay for songs many of us have probably purchased multiple times by now in a variety of formats.
What’s New in Rock Band VR?
Rock Band VR has undergone some major changes in order to work on the Oculus Rift platform. First and foremost, Harmonix is going back to their roots, and this is only a guitar game. I asked if they could give me any hints about future plans for drum, vocal, and bass guitar support, but for now, Harmonix is focusing on getting the guitar down pat.
You play in a first-person perspective on stage with your guitar, surrounded by cartoonish bandmates and a virtual audience rendered in a graphical style reminiscent of the art from previous Rock Band games. One particularly cool moment in the demo was looking back at my virtual drummer and giving him the nod to get the song going. You can teleport to various locations on the stage, so if you want to play to certain parts of the audience, or take center stage for a solo, just looking at a location and hitting the whammy bar will transport you there instantly.
The next big change you’ll notice in Rock Band VR is the absence of the old note track. According to the Harmonix rep, it just didn’t work in the Oculus headset, and really took you out of the experience of being on stage. Instead, there’s an overview of the various song sections floating above the crowd. The note indicators have been replaced by a set of lights on the side of the virtual guitar’s headstock that indicate proper finger placement when fretting chords by pressing down on two or more buttons on the guitar’s neck.
How You Play
Playing along in Rock Band VR is as simple as holding the correct chord shape and hitting the strum bar in time with the rhythm. When it’s time to change chords, the guitar controller will give a slight buzz in your hands, and the chord indicators on the virtual guitar will flash inside your headset. For beginners, just nailing the initial chord shapes and changes and playing along to the basic rhythm is good enough.
For more advanced players, the game uses similar tech to Rock Band 4 and can detect several playstyle modifiers that boost your score. You can move the chord shapes up and down the neck, and the game rewards you with higher scores for doing so in synch with the song and the rest of your band. You can also change chord shapes in time with the beat and the sound of the music, or even play around with your own chord shapes to modify and experiment with the guitar sounds. It feels like as long as you have some rhythm and follow a basic pattern, the game will recognize that and reward you accordingly.
Some familiar Rock Band staples return, such as overdrive mode. Just as in previous games, tilting your guitar upright into a rock star pose activates overdrive. The biggest difference here is that you can see your guitar glowing in your hands when overdrive is ready. Once you activate overdrive, the entire venue lights up, and you’re treated to a dazzling light show as your guitar shoots out balls of energy and other graphical flourishes.
Just playing along to the 60 included tracks and upcoming DLC is sure to be fun, but Harmonix has also built in several objectives for each song. These objectives include things like staying locked into the beat for a few bars or nailing chord change combos. There are even a few fun ones like nodding along or headbanging to the beat, which takes practice to keep up while concentrating on playing. You can check these challenges and your progress by staring down at the stage where a set list or stomp box might normally reside, which is a nice touch.
What I Played
I went through a quick tutorial that made sure I understood the basics of the game. Then I immediately dove into Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and Van Halen’s “Panama,” two of my all-time rock favorites that are also a good way to put the guitar playing to the test. Both songs were a blast to play, and I definitely had my share of guitar god moments as I jumped to center stage for an epic solo or vamped to the crowd with my best rock poses.
Is Rock Band VR Ready for the Big Time?
Rock Band VR is already extremely fun, even in this early state. Best of all, it actually feels like a real game you’d want to sink several hours into to master, versus just a gimmicky VR “experience” whose novelty would quickly wear off. While it’s unfortunate that this game is taking a step back in terms of instrument support, it makes sense to focus on just one core instrument to really nail it and make sure that’s fun, especially since VR is such a solo experience.
This actually leads to one big point to consider: Rock Band games are at their best with a group of friends in a party atmosphere. For some people, the idea of playing in an isolated VR environment by themselves may be a turn-off. If you’re OK doing solo gigs and aren’t afraid to look a little silly doing your best rock god pose all by yourself, then Rock Band VR has plenty to offer.
Rock Band VR will be available for Oculus Rift when the Oculus Touch controller launches later this year.