‘Rock Band VR’ Impressions — Bringing Out Your Inner Rock God At PAX West

Imagine standing on a stage, crowd cheering in front of you. As you look to the drummer behind you, the drummer begins his countdown and the band queues up the next song on your setlist. The bassist jumps into the fray as the first beats of the drum ring out. A ticker clicks like a metronome to your left, counting down your downbeat to start playing along. You strum the first notes on your guitar, playing a bar chord on your five-button guitar, as Rock Band VR, the next installment in the series from developer Harmonix, fully engulfs you into its world.

Rock Band VR places you directly on the stage with your guitar, pitting you as truly one of the band mates in a way not done in the series before. Gone are the highways of notes cascading in front of you drawing your attention. Instead you’re greeted by a swarm of fans, all hanging onto each muted bar chord or sustain you play on your way to becoming a rock star. The Oculus Touch title simulates and immerses you like no other rock band title before. And it works.

Rock Band VR PAX West
The downside is that Rock Band VR doesn’t house any multiplayer, and while the series has really benefited from including other band members and instruments (hence Rock Band being the name), the VR unit doesn’t allow for anything other than the guitar. However, to make up for this, Harmonix is giving players a full campaign, where your bandmates are more than just generated sprites on the screen and are actual crafted characters.

Also gone from Rock Band VR are the cascading highways of button combinations that so define games of the genre. Instead, the game uses a more free-flowing playstyle, teaching you a few chords from the beginning, as well as some simple eighth- and sixteenth-note passages on the strum bar to get you started. What you hear is emulating the rhythm and chord you are playing. While chord placement doesn’t matter (a bar chord can be played on the Green and Yellow or Blue and Red buttons and sound the same) the type of chord you play changes the sound. So going from a regular bar chord to a muted bar chord will make some audible difference. Additionally, Rock Band VR rewards the player when they line up chord progressions and changes with the phrase, meaning that if you’re a musician or have an ear for music, your reacting to what you hear can help you. On the flip side, the game doesn’t penalize you for missing a downbeat or chord change, allowing you to just enjoy playing the music.

Rock Band VR doesn’t really hinder you per se from just letting go and “going hard” as my buddy who accompanied me to the appointment here at PAX West said. It really envelopes you in the experience. Rock Band VR also allows you to move about the stage using the whammy bar, meaning if you want to provide some extra percussion, you can warp to the drummer and bang away on the cymbals with your head stock.

While it is a bummer that there is no online co-op, the inclusion of the campaign in Rock Band VR shows that this isn’t just some gimmick. Additionally, the studio has been working on this game since last year, and it shows. Rock Band VR has been one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in VR to date, certainly the most immersive in an Oculus title.

Rock Band VR will release around the same time as the Oculus Touch controller launch. For fans of the traditional Rock Band experience, Harmonix is planning on including the cascading notes mode as well, giving players the nostalgic experience they’ve come to know.

[Images via Harmonix]