Rock Band VR review: It’s neat, but it’s not a breakthrough experience

In Rock Band, you pretend to be your favorite music group. In Rock Band VR, you pretend to be a cover band that doesn’t quite get the songs right.

Rock Band VR may be more of a fundamentally different experience than what you’d expect from a Rock Band game. Good virtual reality games don’t just tack VR onto an existing design. They are built specifically for VR, so to a point Harmonix Music Systems and Oculus Studios had no choice but to make Rock Band VR a fundamentally different experience.

A glorified port wouldn’t cut it.

While some of these necessary changes undercut the illusion of being a rock star, there are enough elements carried over from the main Rock Band games that fans of the franchise ought be satisfied with Rock Band VR and find a game that will become a core element of their Oculus Touch lineup.

Above: Bass player Maddy (left) and drummer Wes (right) hanging out in the band clubhouse.

What you’ll like

How to be a VR rock star

In the main Rock Band games, the camera is mostly set behind the audience, looking out at the stage. Rock Band VR flips the camera to the first-person perspective of a guitarist (you) looking out at the crowd and the venue.

Derek, Maddy, and Wes (the other three members of your band) are featured in brief backstage cutscenes where they argue about who wrecked the band’s van, what costumes they’re supposed to be wearing for a Halloween show, and whether or not to capture the goat that another band left behind. The story elements are short and endearing.

Once you hit the stage, you see how Rock Band differs in VR from its past incarnations. Rather than matching notes that scroll down a vertical track, you follow a horizontally scrolling “song map” that provides cues for playing chords, not notes. For the most part you play the chords free-form, earning points for repeating patterns of chords that you make up as you go along. You also earn points by following chord prompts that ensure you’re in the correct key and making the most appropriate sound for that part of the song.

Where the main Rock Band games are about precision, its VR cousin gives the player leeway in how to perform the chords. A two-fret chord requires you to hold down two side-by-side frets. Which frets doesn’t matter, which gives you four different fret positions you can use for a two-fret chord. A three-fret chord has three different positions you can use, and so on.

Focusing on chords versus notes is a smart accommodation for VR. In the main Rock Band games, you can glance down at the neck of your guitar and see where your fingers are positioned, which comes in handy if you need to move them quickly and aren’t good enough to do so purely by touch.

You obviously can’t see your fingers in Rock Band VR, and that might make it difficult for new players to be precise. A classic mode is included with Rock Band VR almost as though Harmonix and Oculus wanted to prove a point about why the changes to the traditional Rock Band formula were required in order to make for a satisfying VR experience. I only played a few songs in classic mode because it was so dissatisfying when presented in VR.

Above: You can change positions around the stage, in this case jamming next to Wes, the band’s drummer.

Rock Band VR uses motion to sell the illusion

Successful VR design also depends on how well players are allowed to project themselves into the virtual space. Having your hands tied to a guitar means no hand-tracking, and hand-tracking has become a quintessential element by which VR developers help fool the brain…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

I have a crazy passion for #music, #celebrity #news & #fashion! I'm always out and about on Twitter.
Sasha Harriet

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