3 – Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Seems bizarre saying this of a game whose graphics solely consist of little neon outlines of 2D geometric shapes, but GW2 is definitely the title that’s benefitted most from our recent upgrade to an Enorm-O-Telly. Before, it was merely a brilliant, addictive old-school arcade style twin-stick shooter which improved over its predecessor in pretty much every conceivable way. Yeah. That’s all it was. On the big screen, though, it’s even easier for the game to suck you into the zone, into a place where you’re no longer giving any conscious thought to controlling your ship and playing almost entirely using the Force. It’s even easier to get swallowed up into its absurdly simple, absurdly beautiful abstract world, particularly in Pacifism mode where your ship has no guns and you’re focussed entirely on mere survival.
I hesitate to say this, but it’s true – on the Enorm-O-Telly Geometry Wars 2 is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a psychedelic experience. Yes, I know, I need to get out more.
On top of that, GW2 was the first game in ages to make score-attack gaming compelling for me, which it did through the simple but brilliant move of making the high-score of the person above you on your friends list permanently visible in the top right of the screen. This means that you always have another seemingly achievable target to aim for making it difficult to turn the game off till you’ve passed that mark and promoting entertainingly petty, tit-for-tat rivalries (damn you, Numjerlunker! Damn you to HELL! Stupid young people with their stupid young people’s reflexes) with your FunSquare Live nerd-o-chums.
With the exception of the magnificent Pac-Man Championship Edition it’s the best original game on the Live Arcade service by miles, and for 800 points (about £6, give or take) it’s an absolute bargain to boot.
2 – Rock Band / Rock Band 2
Talking of bargains, Rock Band plus its sequel/expansion pack/general tidy-up of rough edges cost a hundred and seventy quid plus I don’t-even-want-to-think-how-much on downloadable additional songs.
I realise that may not fit everybody’s idea of a bargain.
But for that Christ-HOW-much? you’re effectively getting at least three full (and absolutely massive – more than 150 songs between the two disks) games in one – a Singstar-esque karaoke game (with better music than any Singstar game ever), the traditional Guitar Hero style button-matching guitar rhythm game and, best of all, the tie-around-your-forehead, Christ-my-arms-my-arms-the-music-it-is-trying-to-KILL-me drum section. It’s comfortably the game I’ve played the most this year, it’s the only game we own (other than the splendid and just-missing-out-in-this-roundup Fable II) that everyone in the family is into, and it’s the only game we own that 80% of us can play at once. And still regularly do. I’m not much for multiplayer gaming as a rule but when I think back to my favourite moments in gaming in 2008, 4-player Rock Band with all of us screaming into the chorus of Hard To Handle is right up there.
And talking of playing in the zone as we were (no, really, we were) – Harmonix’s rhythm games have always been the Daddies Of The Zone for me. The thrill of something like Guitar Hero wasn’t just based in the combination of two of life’s greatest joys – videogames and air guitar – it was also in those moments where your fingers take over and get you through a phrase with absolutely no input from your brain, where you stand like a statue, become part of the machine (SEE: the very last flourish of guitar at the end of the solo on Sweet Child O’ Mine or the riff leading into the chorus of More Than A Feeling).
That deaf dumb and blind kid sure play a mean plastic guitar. Or something.
Rock Band initially seemed a little weaker than its predecessors in that area, at least on guitar. The necessity of filling the game with songs that were more-or-less fun for all four participants seemed to dilute the challenge to the point that on Medium difficulty only one song on the disk required a retry to get through.
There was only one thing for it. I was going to have to bite the bullet and make the dizzying, terrifying leap to the Hard difficulty level. I’d tried a couple of times on earlier Guitar Hero games and ended up dyin’ at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, my brain totally unable to cope with the completely new skill I was being asked to develop. See, on Medium difficulty you’re only asked to hit the first four buttons on the fret so very quickly learn that green corresponds to your index finger, red to your middle, yellow to the ring finger and blue to your little finger. After a certain amount of confusion and faff it becomes second nature and it’s merely a question of your fingers keeping up with the notes on-screen. When you jump to Hard, a fifth button comes into play, meaning that you regularly need to shift your hand up and down the fret to cover all five. So not only are the finger-to-colour links that have become hardwired in your brain completely screwed up, but also you’re having to start considering each song tactically, planning exactly where to move your hand to make hitting the notes as easy as possible.
This is where Rock Band’s gentle difficulty curve was a blessing in disguise – the transition was still difficult, but the presence of more manageable songs encouraged perseverance and the brilliance of Harmonix’s game design is evident when you realise that your skills are developing even when you don’t realise they are. It happened jumping from Easy (only three buttons/fingers needed) to Medium back in the original Guitar Hero. I spent a week with my little finger aching like a pantfish and thinking “I’m never going to get this, never ever ever”, then almost overnight something clicked and I was totally comfortable with it. It happened again here – without any warning, I went from struggling along like the ham-fisted goon I am to managing runs of green-to-orange and back without a milisecond’s thought and, ah, THERE’S the zone again, I’d been wondering where it had gotten to.
Rock Band – and in particular Rock Band 2 – is chock-full of cool little touches that show how much the developer loves and understands this sort of game. If you’re doing the solo vocal tour, the game automatically edits out the long instrumental sections of songs like Green Grass And High Tides or Won’t Get Fooled Again so that you’re not sitting for five minutes with nothing to do. If your whole band is performing well, the crowd start singing along with the song, which is spine-tinglingly awesome the first time it happens. The song library is sortable in pretty much every useful way imaginable – alphabetically, by difficulty level for any individual instrument or by the overall band difficulty, by band, by musical genre, by decade and probably by a couple of other criteria I’ve forgotten. You can select specific characters to fill out the rest of the band if you’re playing with a less-than-full set of chums.
I’d love more customisation options for the characters – four different general move-sets and about ten different faces per gender isn’t really enough. I’d love the ability for the rest of the band to sing backing vocals (I mean, not that we didn’t do that anyway, it’d just be nice for the game to recognise and reward it). The archetypal “lead guitarist plants his foot on the stage monitor and wails away” is an egregious absence from the performance animations. Rock Band 2’s tracklist isn’t as strong as the original game’s, with far fewer crowd-pleasing, recognisable songs – this was less of an issue in the Guitar Hero series, but it’s almost impossible to sing something you don’t know beforehand.
These are all just quibbles, though. Rock Band is comfortably the best fake-instrument game ever made, comfortably the best in-room multiplayer game ever made and the game that revealed my middle son’s affection for the Sweet. That’s pretty good going, even for *coughcoughspluttermumble* pounds.
The Rock Band Charts
Top Five Best Fun Songs To Play (Solo)
Tied 5. Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots (Vocals) / Everlong – Foo Fighters (Vocals)
4. Roam – The B-52’s (Guitar)
3. Wanted Dead Or Alive – Bon Jovi (Vocals)
2. Hysteria – Muse (Guitar)
1. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones (Drums)
Top Five Songs That Caused The Most Distress For Innocent Passersby When I Was Trying To Clear Them For The Vocal Solo Tour
5. Electric Version – The New Pr0nographers
4. Highway Star – Deep Purple
3. Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden
2. Ballroom Blitz – The Sweet
1. Maps – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Top Five Best Fun Songs To Play (Band)
5. Hungry Like The Wolf – Duran Duran
4. Dani California – Red Hot Chili Peppers
3. White Wedding – Billy Idol
2. Are You Gonna Be My Girl? – Jet
1. Hard To Handle – The Black Crowes
Top Five Favourite Mis-Sung Lyrics
5. “I’m a leading man, and my eyesight’s bleeding also into cats, also into cats!” (This Ain’t A Scene It’s An Arms Race – Fall Out Boy)
4. “And for a thousand men are swimming every day” (Don’t Fear The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult)
3. “Sheeps… running out the door… Sheeps running out, sheeps run, run, run, run!” (Creep – Radiohead)
2. “Burns like a redwood dolphin…” (Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones)
1. “Ooh my little pretty one, my pretty one, when you gonna give me some Times New Roman?” (My Sharona – The Knack)
“Streets Of London” Award For Songs We’ve Now Played More Often Than The Original Artist
5. Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor
4. Say It Ain’t So – Weezer
3. Epic – Faith No More
2. Blitzkreig Bop – Ramones
1. In Bloom – Nirvana
Top Five Albums That Need To Be In This Game
5. Appetite For Destruction – Guns & Roses (Paradise City, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome To The Jungle, oh my!)
4. Shoot Out The Lights – Richard & Linda Thompson (Genius guitar, vocals in a range I can actually sing and the awesome title track.)
3. Bat Out Of Hell – Meat Loaf (Don’t judge me.)
2. Road Apples – The Tragically Hip (I’d be happy with Up To Here or Fully Completely as alternatives.)
1. Raw Power – Iggy & The Stooges (My favourite rock album ever.)
1 – Fallout 3
Yeah, I’m still playing it. It’s still great.