Since it was first announced in December of last year, a virtual reality Rock Band game has been one of the most tantalizing prospects for the Oculus Rift. Developer Harmonix has built multiple game franchises on making players feel like superstars: you could master wailing Queen solos on a plastic guitar in Guitar Hero, form a musical ensemble with your friends in Rock Band, and perform complicated dance routines in front of a Kinect in Dance Central. Dropping people right into a game — one of the main selling points of VR — feels like a natural next step. And at an Oculus showcase event at GDC, Harmonix gave reporters a brief first hint of what that might look like. I came out of Rock Band VR convinced that I want to play guitar in virtual reality very badly, but knowing almost nothing about the actual game.
Though its name implies otherwise, Rock Band VR will only feature one instrument: the guitar. (Awkwardly, Activision acquired the Guitar Hero moniker back in 2006.) It uses the Rift headset and one Oculus Touch controller, which sits in a solid, stick-on holster at the head of your toy guitar and acts solely as a motion tracker. Inside VR, you're given a first-person view of a stage and your instrument. As with its flatscreen counterpart, the environment is a little simplified and cartoonish, as are your virtual bandmates and the crowd in front of you. But the sense of space feels very real, and so does your Touch-equipped guitar, which responds to real-world movement. Swing the plastic controller forward, for example, and you'll thwack the mic stand in front of you in VR. In order to start the GDC demo, you run through a pre-show checklist that includes tasks like glancing back to check your amp, or looking at the drummer to kick off the song.
As the aggressive beat of Aerosmith's "Walk this Way" kicks off, though, things start to look very familiar. At the foot of the stage, you'll see the standard "highway" of incoming notes to hit, along with a score indicator. While it offers a more convincing visual illusion, Rock Band VR plays just like any other rhythm game: hit the correct keys at the right time, watch your audience cheer or boo depending on your performance, and end with a solo that sounds perfect as long as you mash buttons fast enough. If you already have a Rock Band game, you can even stick the Touch on your old guitar.
The main benefit of VR is blocking outside distractions
The developers have added little touches that take advantage of VR's gaze tracking. You can stare at a series of effects pedals on the floor to activate them, set off a fireworks display, and watch the bassist turn and acknowledge you when you look at her. But overall, Rock Band VR just drives home how big the gap is between playing a real concert and noodling around with a prop guitar. Unless you're an absolute expert, you'll still spend most of the song with your eyes glued to the note highway, especially on higher difficulty levels. The main benefit of virtual reality turns out to be just blocking outside distractions, rendering the immersive environment moot. You can't even physically channel the frenetic, head-banging spirit of rock'n'roll without risking a pair of $600 goggles.
The team recognizes this disconnect and hopes to change it. They haven't been working on Rock Band VR all that long — I was told development started in October — and the GDC demo apparently doesn't look much like the finished product will. For that version, Harmonix wants to break the feeling of being "tethered to the monitor," watching something that no real musician would see during a set. It's not clear that they've figured out a solution, although they promise that "it'll come together in ways that make more sense" by release. For now, it's still a lot of fun, if not yet something that realizes the concept's full promise.
This isn't Harmonix's only virtual reality project. They're releasing a music visualizer for Sony's PlayStation VR, and there's a third title that the team point-blank refuses to talk about. (As a former Dance Central devotee, I have some admittedly unlikely hopes for it.) But Rock Band VR is by far the most exciting idea so far, even if this demo raises questions that Harmonix doesn't seem to be addressing in the short term. How might motion controls work with drumsticks or a lead singer's microphone? When will we be able to play with friends instead of on our own? Does Harmonix have a guitar with special VR features in the works, instead of just a mount?
Rock Band VR will come out after the Oculus Touch controllers ship later this year, and there's currently no price or release date on the table. But Harmonix has at least produced evidence that the concept of being a virtual rock star is ound — not that any of us really needed it.