Virtual reality spinoffs of major games sometimes get promoted as an immersive, physicalized version of a thing people already love — Fallout 4’s VR version, for example, looks so far like Fallout 4 with teleportation. But Rock Band VR, announced back in 2015 and released today, experiments with a lot more than new hardware. It’s a major twist on the guitar rhythm genre that’s weird, deep, and messy, and while I’m not sure the game always works, I can’t stop playing it. I just wish the barriers to everyone else joining me weren’t so high.
The Rock Band series is already known for its elaborate custom guitar controllers, and with Rock Band VR, you also need an Oculus Rift VR system along with the Touch motion controllers. To play, you affix a Touch controller to an ordinary Rock Band 4 guitar with a small adhesive mount so the game can pair its movement to an almost identical model in the game. None of the setup is very hard, but it involves a lot of equipment, and arranging a headset cable around a plastic guitar that’s attached to a black half-moon controller is as inelegant as it sounds. I’ve also had problems with the mount peeling off, although Harmonix says this isn’t supposed to be typical. Either way, I’d recommend looping the Touch wrist strap around the guitar as a stopgap in case of disaster. (One more tip: put the guitar on first, then the headset.)
If you’re able to get past all of this, there’s an intriguing new take on Rock Band’s decade-old formula waiting for you. Where the older system gives players a running stream of individual notes, Rock Band VR asks you to produce one of seven chord patterns on the five plastic “frets.” It’s not exactly like a real guitar, but it’s also using a very different metaphor for playing music. When you press down two buttons next to each other, that’s no longer “the yellow note plus the blue note,” as it would be in Rock Band. It’s one unified shape, and the colors all refer to whole chords, which you can move up and down the neck. Rock Band VR still offers a classic mode with the old system, but it’s only a minor extra feature here.
The game is also looking for chord progressions — simple patterns that fit into four- or eight-bar sections. It suggests specific riffs at some points, but you’re often expected to make up your own. You earn Overdrive power by completing progressions, and get reduced points for simply using the same pattern over and over. I love this system’s light strategic elements and its use of simple music theory. Its flexibility suits something like a Ramones or Nirvana song, where hitting an exact series of keys with mathematical precision isn’t the point. In some ways, it feels like a real instrument.
In other ways, it’s a bit overcomplicated. Rock Band VR is the kind of game you’d get by holding a good brainstorming session and using every single idea on the whiteboard. The system I’ve described above, which is already more complex than ordinary Rock Band, covers about half of what you can do. There’s the solo system drawn from Rock Band 4, and the feature where you extend Overdrive by headbanging in the Rift. (I avoided this, because while I was never afraid the Rift would come off, I was scared it might jostle the guitar mount loose.) There are the high-level “Virtuoso” and “Monster” options, with added features that make them more like different game modes than difficulty levels. There’s a 17-step startup tutorial, and you will almost certainly need it. I’ve played this game for hours on Virtuoso, and I genuinely could not tell you how I achieved my highest scores, which is a little frustrating now that I’m going for the game’s elusive gold star ratings.
At the same time, Rock Band VR can also be extraordinarily easy. You’ll make a lot of chord progressions by accident, and the crowd remains ecstatic even if you don’t get a single one right. (I tried this; it was hilarious.) The music rebalances depending on what chords you play, but it almost never sounds incompetent or unlistenable — just somewhat better or worse. This makes Rock Band VR more approachable than its predecessors, but without failure, it struggles to provide feedback. Your performance quality is weakly correlated with how good the song sounds, and the game signals success with lots of labels and icons. But you can’t perfect your skills by fixing obvious audible mistakes, and your reward for success is mostly score-based.
Because Rock Band VR is focused on chords, you also don’t really get to do any of the fancy fingerwork that was so satisfyingly challenging in the old system. Instead, the game offers freestyle sections where you’re turned loose to play whatever you want. As far as I can tell, it still awards points for staid four-beat chord progressions, which are translated into guitar solos that sound roughly the same across every song — from “Eye of the Tiger” to Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells.” Granted, this isn’t a universal opinion; my colleague Ross Miller loved this system in Rock Band 4.
Harmonix has welcomed the idea of people treating Rock Band VR as a toy, and the game includes a freestyle mode that lets you play whatever you want, which is a fun and valid approach. But it will be a shame if people end up ignoring the the game’s many fascinating ideas because they aren’t pressed to delve into them.
When I first played Rock Band VR, I was worried the Rift would turn something social into an isolating fantasy. But the Rock Band name is a bit of a red herring. If Harmonix hadn’t sold the franchise, this would almost certainly be Guitar Hero VR, where single-person play is much more acceptable. Future games could expand with more instruments and players, but for now, it feels like a complete experience. It’s got the kind of song list I’d expect from a non-VR rhythm game, and despite the issues I mentioned above, it does feel as though you’re slowly learning a song as you replay it. The temptation to go back over and over to attempt a perfect run of progressions can be irresistible.
As far as the rock star fantasy goes, it’s aspirational in a modest way. In Rock Band VR’s story mode, you’re the newbie guitarist for a small-time band called Autoblaster. Your first gigs are at half-empty bars, and the big final show is celebrating your debut album with a large, but not superstar-level, audience. This is a lot more than most musicians achieve, but you’re not Slash or Jimi Hendrix. You’re not even the band leader. It feels steeped in the current ethos of VR game development, where wild achievements like face-melting solos are less compelling than more realistic-seeming tasks, like hitting the transitions on a Black Keys song. It would be even more compelling if I didn’t find my bandmates, endowed with solid voice acting but corny dialogue and Slenderman-esque proportions, somewhat annoying. When they’re right next to you in VR, they’re even slightly terrifying.
While I’d love to see Rock Band VR made more accessible, it feels like the kind of project that could only be made for VR — and not for the usual reasons. Most of the game would translate just fine onto a flat screen, barring a few motion control mechanics. (Although it’s published by Oculus, so don’t get your hopes up.) But virtual reality is a great place for Harmonix to try new, weird mechanics in a low-risk environment. The Oculus Rift platform has a limited audience that doesn’t expect a lot of genre-specific features, because VR genres barely exist yet. Rock Band VR is a full-fledged game, but at least for now, it’s not bearing the mantle of the entire series. Getting an Oculus Rift might be too much commitment for many Rock Band fans, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see its ideas spread beyond VR in the years to come — albeit not without some polish.