Well, the hallowed day has finally arrived. Assuming you’re willing to spend $600 on an Oculus Rift and its accompanying Touch controllers, then another $70-ish on a plastic guitar and a copy of the game, then you can finally—finally—play Rock Band on a PC.
It’s really more like a Guitar Hero game of course, and lacking the huge DLC back catalog of its console counterparts, but still. Rock Band. On PC.
All the world’s a stage
I’ve been messing with Rock Band VR off-and-on for the last two days. The first thing I’ll say: Much as I hate the idea of rebuying my entire song library piecemeal, this game desperately needs DLC. It’s been a while since I’ve been limited to only the pack-in soundtrack on a Rock Band game, and oof, it’s rough.
Not that the soundtrack here is bad. Quite the contrary. It’s basically a “Greatest Hits” collection from Harmonix’s Guitar Hero and Rock Band days. Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” makes an appearance, as does Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” The Killers’ “When You Were Young,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” and the list goes on. It’s about the safest soundtrack I could imagine, benefiting from moving to a new platform where, oh yeah, nobody owns any songs yet.
But with 60 songs total, it does mean that the odd stinker really cuts into the number of tracks available to you. With Rock Band 4 on my Xbox I have something like 500 songs to choose from between various disc imports and DLC. If I don’t like a song, I just never play it. Here, that’s not really an option.
The good news is I plan to keep playing. Hell, as someone who owns both a Vive and Rift, I’d say Rock Band VR is the first game to give me a reason to actually leave my Rift set up, rather than wrapping up a 2-4 hour experience and then stashing it in a closet until the next Oculus exclusive.
Oculus clearly thinks so too, packing in the Rock Band VR adapter with Touch purchases rather than making Harmonix distribute it. Dig out your Touch box and you’ll find a little oval of plastic, which affixes to the back of your Rock Band guitar. Both the Xbox One and PS4 guitars work, though you’ll need Windows 10 and the accompanying dongle for the former or a Bluetooth connection for the latter. The right-hand Touch controller then slots over the headstock and through the holder.
It’s bizarre and causes some weight balance issues, making the guitar neck heavier than the rest, but once in-game the tracking works excellently. Twist the guitar, throw it up in the air, smash it on the ground, whatever—you’ll still get position-tracking.
In fact I’d say Rock Band VR is the perfect program for Oculus Touch. My main complaint during our review was Oculus’s subpar tracking system, which had issues if you reached up high, reached down low, or (in two-sensor mode) turned around and occluded the controllers.
With Rock Band VR your hands are always around waist level, and it’s a stage so 90 percent of the time you’re facing forward. And if you do turn around, you’ll still know where “Forward” is, which is equally important. Rock Band VR is Touch’s optimal use case.
It’s not the Rock Band of old though. Not officially, anyway. Rock Band VR is more interested in simulating the feeling of being on stage, the “feeling” (loosely) of playing guitar for a crowd. As such, Harmonix ditched the iconic note highway and doubled down on the “Freestyle” tech it used for solos in Rock Band 4.
Strum along to the beat and the guitar just plays things. What it plays is sort-of controlled by the player—different combinations of fingers produce arpeggios, power chords, muted power chords, single notes, and more. The game then loosely fits “What You Played” to the song itself, rendering out sections of “Through the Fire and Flames” as if they were played with arpeggios, power chords, muted power chords, and so on.
Sometimes it sounds great. Sometimes it sounds terrible. I understand why Harmonix went to this system—it frees up the player’s eyes, allowing you to feel more like you’re putting on a concert. You can look down at the crowd, watch the drummer, hang out with the bassist, or whatever, all without worrying too much about what you’re playing. Compared to the desert-dry eyes I get whenever I actually play Rock Band, this iteration is downright relaxing.
It's a bit too relaxing though, at times. There is a scoring system built in, based around executing combos. Alternate between power chords and muted power chords for two bars for instance and you’ll score a bonus for the “Alternator” progression. There's a surprising amount of depth to this system, and I've definitely improved the longer I've played.
Like Rock Band 4’s solos though, freestyle doesn’t feel near as satisfying as nailing a tough sequence of notes. The tech is impressive, and when you make a song sound unintentionally great with a weird power chord breakdown in the middle or whatever, well it tickles some creative musician part of your brain. In some ways it’s more like playing guitar than actual Rock Band.
But in other ways, less. There just isn’t much asked of the player. Show up, play some stuff, relax. It’s a conscious decision, meant to allow the player freedom to focus their attention elsewhere. The problem is there’s not much to focus on, past your first song or two. The act of playing a song doesn’t change much, and there’s only so many times you can try and mess with the drummer before you’ve been-there-done-that. Even for those willing to give freestyle a shot, I think it’ll become a bit stale long before the note highway did/does.
The one thing that's kept me playing freestyle is the campaign. It's not quite as involved as Rock Band 4's "Behind the Music"-style expansion, but it takes the same tack: Trying to make you feel like you're part of a real band. You're treated to some backstage moments with your band members, some silly venue gimmicks, and it's an overall lighthearted and fun take on what being in a rock band is like.
Though again, returning to the setlist issues: Whatever a show asks for, you play. And some of the sets are bizarre, like "Someone just stuck Carrie Underwood into the middle of these classic rock songs for no reason."
Luckily the note highway is still there to fall back on. Accessible from the main menu, “Classic Mode” just puts you in an empty void with the note highway stretching out before you. From there? It plays like Rock Band, same as ever. Or, you know, Guitar Hero.
It plays like the best version of those games, in some ways. No more “Standing Slightly Off-Angle From The TV So You Can’t See Very Well.” No more “Someone Walked In Front Of You By Accident.” And no more “Your Instrument Occupies Only A Quarter Of This Very Crowded Screen.”
None of that. In Rock Band VR it’s just you and a gigantic, oversized note highway. I’ve actually really enjoyed it, insofar as it’s just “Me playing a Rock Band guitar in an empty virtual room, in my empty actual room.”
Part of me laments the fact Harmonix didn’t put together a full-band experience here, as it would be great to play with friends or strangers over the internet, with some sort of basic position tracking on all four. I think that’s the missing piece, the aspect that would really put Rock Band VR over the top and make it a must-have. As I’ve gotten older and it’s gotten harder to get friends together to play Rock Band, some sort of virtual solution would’ve been the best compromise.
But as it is? It’s Rock Band, on a PC. Sort of. There are missteps—a few overlong tutorial sections, a “safe” soundtrack, and freestyle mode might not hold your attention for as long as Harmonix hopes.
It’s an excellent use of Oculus’s tech though, both as a simulated stage experience and as a use-case for Touch that doesn’t constantly break. Freestyle lacks complexity, sure, but it nails that “Being a rock star” feel for a few songs. And when you’re done? Classic Mode’s there to fall back on.
Rock Band VR’s not exactly a must-have, but it’s up there—at least for people who haven’t burned out on the plastic instrument genre. Me? As long as Harmonix keeps supporting it with DLC I’ll probably keep checking back in, snagging a few songs, and putting on a show.