Gaming & Technology

'Rock Band' innovates again; 'Guitar Hero' watches

In the last month, the Rock Band and Guitar Hero rivalry took another turn, and again, it looks as if the new kid on the block is outfoxing the original.

The Beatles: Rock Band debuted with another innovation — vocal harmonies — from the brand that's becoming known for them. Rock Band was the first of the two series to introduce multiple instruments. It also was the first to launch an extensive music store to download additional tracks.

Guitar Hero has made some improvements with Guitar Hero 5, notably the party play mode that allows people to drop in and out of gameplay, but it's still just another Guitar Hero.

Meanwhile, the brains behind Rock Band are working to solve one of my longtime complaints: The backup vocals are sometimes cooler than the lead singer's.

The Beatles: Rock Band takes a stab at this, allowing as many as three vocalists to play. But it's not executed perfectly. The harmonies require at least one person to be a lead singer, and those singing them are required to have additional microphones and not just Xbox 360 headsets. That makes it tough enough (and pretty much means you're buying a mike stand).

Compounding that, the lyrics are shown at the top of the screen as part of the main vocals. That makes it nearly impossible to play the guitar and drum lines shown at the bottom of the screen and follow your harmony pitches and lyrics up top.

Effectively, it takes six people — guitar, bass, drums, lead vocals and two backup vocalists — to re-create the Fab Four.

The ideal scenario would be to place the harmony lyrics next to the person's instrument of choice.

I'm confident that Harmonix, the brains behind Rock Band, will work it out.

As for the rest of the game, the career mode is short (nothing like the Band World Tour of previous games), but you'll find a wide variety of Beatles songs — hits including Yellow Submarine as well as lesser-known songs, including Dear Prudence. It is ridiculous that some of the best songs, among them All You Need Is Love, were left off, although that one was immediately available for download for an additional price.

Guitar Hero 5 is solid, too. For folks who aren't Beatles fans, it's the obvious choice. And Activision is running a deal: If you buy GH5, you'll receive a free copy of the upcoming GH: Van Halen. GH5 is another solid entry for Activision, but it's not innovative, and that's what we need in our music games.

That's because there are only so many good songs out there. Sure, GH5 lined up some great ones, but many songs are starting to show up on both Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and are primarily available for download by the single track.

Case in point: Excitement didn't begin to describe how I felt about Tom Petty finally showing up with American Girl and Runnin' Down a Dream on GH5. A few weeks later, I learned that Rock Band's downloads included Runnin' and I Won't Back Down, which is even better.

This shows that as music games have evolved, they've become less about the songs and more about the innovation. And when that's the case, Rock Band is the lead act.