Chunky plastic guitars feel new again in Rock Band VR

A new rhythm-based mode coupled with a classic note highway mode nearly save a shallow tracklist.

I just played a ripping guitar solo to close out The Final Countdown to a crowd of puppet monsters. In reality, I’m standing at my desk. It’s littered with empty bottles and old coffee mugs. My coworker is saying something about what a dork I look like, trying to frame me up for an embarrassing photo to tweet. Another is worried I’ll knock something over the next time I swing my guitar up or bend over to get a closer look at my whammy pedals. 

Meanwhile, I’m trying to land on a feeling somewhere between joy and adrenal horror as the song fades into silence. I forgot I’m standing at a desk. My arm pulses with a dull ache from strumming harder than a metal band’s lead guitarist, and as I lift the Oculus Rift off my head I suddenly feel like I’ve stepped from a crowded rock venue into a vacuum. 

The audience doesn't always behave... naturally. 

Despite the creepy character models, Rock Band VR is still engrossing. It’s not the best iteration of Rock Band out there—the setlist doesn’t have the variety and strength of its bigger console releases and the new scoring system only feels like the beginning of a great idea, but it’s a fun music game that makes incredible use of sound and rewards showmanship over fancy fingerwork.

A new rhythm 

Instead of the traditional note highway, Rock Band VR uses a more freeform rhythm-based system (though there is a classic mode) based on chord progressions determined by different button-press combinations on the fretboard. One chord is activated by pressing down any single button, another by any two consecutive buttons, another by two buttons with one button separating them, and so on. How fast you strum with a given chord determines the sound and rhythm of the guitar part. Switching chords between measures in varying patterns fulfills combos, score bonuses that contributes to a star rating. 

Combos only exist to encourage experimentation and expression, for better or worse. If you want to play single-string 32nd notes through the entirety of Birds by Coldplay, then you’re free to do that. You’re never punished too much for playing whatever chord combo you want at a rhythm of your choosing for any of the songs—the traditional note highways and fail states don’t exist, but if you have an ear for music then you’ll notice certain rhythms and chord combos will sound awful and incoherent at any point in a given song.

The Rock Band VR tracklist

Check out the Rock Band VR tracklist here. It’s a pretty safe slice of classic rock hits and modern pop songs, but without a deep catalogue of DLC to pull from so far, it feels slight. 

Faster rhythms tend to sound better as songs climax and vice versa, though the rules aren’t universal. I’m no maestro, and mucked up plenty of good tunes with awful chord progressions, but the particular joy of Rock Band VR isn’t in the satisfaction of playing a prescribed note arrangement. It’s in intuiting a chord progression and rhythm that feel good to play (which can still sound awful, but whatever, chase your bliss).

That being said, the limited chords and rhythms wear themselves out quickly. There are only so many ways to combine rhythm guitar samples over the Final Countdown before the song starts to feel old, and it’s already well worn. As freewheeling as the rhythm guitar is, I had more fun trying to nail the cues, where prescriptive chords are marked in short intervals and hitting them grants a score bonus. It made me pine for a mode where chords and rhythms were marked throughout the whole song in challenging combos. As much as I enjoy converting Maroon 5 into riff-heavy metal, I want to hear the ideal version of a given track and to feel the satisfaction of hitting every chord on time. 

Rock your body 

Build up enough combos and eventually you’ll be able to pop Rock Band VR’s version of star power by tilting the guitar up. What follows is a common experience at live shows, where every note played during a sick solo shoots magic guitar juice into the crowd. This is how U2 became famous.

A small attachment comes with all Oculus Touch controllers that functions as a dock on any supported Rock Band guitar. Stick in a Touch controller and the guitar tracks in VR without a hitch.

To prolong the guitar juice stream, you can literally headbang to the beat. It’s a strange sight, especially to onlookers, but I wish Rock Band VR experimented more with music visualization, psychedelia, and gestures. The crowd is a bit too stiff and dead-eyed to work as a verifiable rock venue simulation, but if I hit a guitar solo in Ghost’s Circle and demons suddenly appeared and I started breathing fire and the crowd’s skin melted off all at once—yeah.

The new music system could work without a VR headset, but the sound design is top notch, a testament to the quality of the Oculus headphones despite their modest appearance. More than once I lifted the headset because I thought incidental crowd chatter was someone trying to talk to me, or a sign that guests had shown up to our office. The audio is of high enough quality and positioned so well in virtual space that I mistook ambiance for the real deal. It’s one of the only VR experiences where sound is the bigger sell.

For old-timey Rock Band and Guitar Hero players like myself, classic mode is the game’s savior. I’ll never tire of tapping along to a complex series of colored blocks. More importantly, it’s the only way to play a traditional Rock Band game on the PC. Standing at the head of the note highway while they come careening towards you is surprisingly exciting in VR. To the mode’s detriment, the crowd and venue have been replaced with a black void, likely to ensure a smooth framerate. Even so, some of the faster songs suffered from jittering on occasion, but never often enough to sabotage a run. It doesn’t appear to be a widespread issue, so long as your PC is up to snuff.

Rock Band VR is not the reason to own an Oculus Rift. A shallow tracklist and limited musical expression clip its wings and it's hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on proprietary hardware and yet another plastic guitar, but it’s still one of the better games you can play with an Oculus Right and Touch controllers right now.

More importantly, it’s the only way to play Rock Band on a PC. This might be it, period.

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