Harmonix’s Rock Band series has always been a pleasure to play. Unlike karaoke games such as SingStar, Rock Band put you in the limelight and let you feel like an absolute rock god. You could play on the easiest difficulty and still feel like you had just smashed out the best performance of your life. The crowd roaring, fireworks fizzing out of the front of the stage, and your avatar looking like an absolute badass.
The trouble is, at the end of the day all you were doing was matching coloured notes together to earn as close to a perfect score as you could. It wasn’t guitar playing, it was mimicry. For Rock Band VR, however, Harmonix has come as close as you can get short of playing an actual guitar – it’s brilliant.
Current Oculus Touch owners may be perplexed by the plastic Rock Band-branded wedge of plastic that came in the box. There’s a reason for it, Rock Band VR uses your current Rock Band guitar – all the way from Rock Band through to Rock Band 4 on both Xbox and PlayStation – paired with a single Oculus Touch controller to map the guitar’s position inside virtual space. Slip on your Oculus Rift, look down, and voilá, your guitar is strapped to you and you’re ready to roll. It’s there the similarities with traditional Rock Band end.
Instead of that fretboard stairway rolling towards you, Rock Band VR takes a far more freeform approach to play. Here you make use of power chord shapes and strumming in time with the beat to create your own music. Rock Band veterans will find it jarring at first, but in time – and at a harder difficulty level – everything just clicks.
This is how Rock Band should have always been. Instead of paying attention to the intricate timing of notes flying at you, you can focus on rocking out. You feel like a rock star and, thanks to the presence of your band mates on stage, you really feel like you’re part of a rock band.
To help with the immersion factor, Harmonix has added in little touches here and there. If you turn to your bandmates while playing, they’ll make eye contact with you, maybe throw a sideways smile your way, or even turn and rock out with you. As the crowd takes up basically all of your main field of vision, they also react dynamically to what you’re doing. If you’re performing well, they’ll go wild, but if you decide to look at someone in the crowd they’ll react accordingly – either start whooping and clapping or becoming nervous you seem to be paying them so much attention.
These sound like inconsequential additions, but it’s this attention to detail that makes Rock Band VR feel that much more immersive. Looking down at your virtual guitar and seeing exactly where you’re pressing the keys is both helpful and exciting, but to make a really convincing VR experience, Harmonix knows it’s the small details nobody’s really consciously paying attention to.
Thankfully, there isn’t very long to wait for your chance to start your own rock band as Rock Band VR launches on Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch from 23 March. Looks like it’s time to dust off that plastic guitar so you can feel like a rock legend once more.