What We Liked
Rock Rock Till You Drop: If The Dark Knight was the most anticipated sequel of the year, then Rock Band 2 wasn't that far behind. The good news is, just like Dark Knight, this follow-up delivers everything you hoped for and more. Eighty-four new tracks -- all master recordings -- along with hundreds more available on download (for a fee) and improved new equipment (wireless baby!) make this the must-own title for the upcoming holiday season. If your kids haven't bugged you for it yet, you know they will. Heck, use your kids as an excuse to buy it for yourself.
The Jams: As with any of these music titles, it's all about the song list. The game ships with 84 master recordings (no more "as made famous by") and you can sign up for 20 bonus tracks that will be delivered in the coming weeks. Highlights include Everlong, Livin' on Prayer, PDA, White Wedding, Ramblin' Man, Aqualung, and Eye of the Tiger. There's also a new Jukebox mode that allows you to just listen to the songs without playing them. If you own the original Rock Band, upload all of those tracks for a $5 licensing fee and they will be seamlessly integrated into your Rock Band 2 Tour experience. Most important, all previously downloaded tracks automatically load up into the game at no charge.
Improvements: Some of the annoyances from the original title are gone. For example, you can now create a band and advance through the Tour mode with or without your bandmates, whereas in Rock Band you had to create different bands for each set of friends you wanted to play with -- and for going solo. It's a subtle change but it makes a huge difference. You can be a hero and unlock all the tracks while your friends aren't around. The other subtle change that was sorely needed is the ability to create custom setlists at any time, eliminating the need to go back to the menu between songs. This comes in handy during Rock Band parties: Tell people they can play one setlist at a time before giving the instrument over to somebody else to jam. New features also include the "No Fail" mode (for the kids ... and the occasional inebriated adult).
Video Killed The Radio Star: Besides the new songs and the wireless equipment, by far the biggest difference is the treatment of the stage players behind all those dancing notes. The graphics, animations and stages (New York's "Empire Square Garden" and Chicago's Palace Hotel Ballroom are two of my faves) have come a long way, and every so often the song you choose is turned into a music video (think the iTunes silhouettes with more detail).
The New Gear: The coolest equipment upgrade is the new wireless drum kit ($89.99). The kit assembles in just minutes and runs on three AAA batteries (included). The biggest improvement over the wired drum kit (released with Rock Band 1) are quieter drum pads and a slightly more sturdy feel. Also improved is the foot pedal which has a medal plate over the top instead of plastic. The wireless kit also features connections for digital cymbals due later this year, and then there's this kit for the really hardcore. Our lone complaint is the omission of the bridge part that allows you to properly connect a wired headset to the drums. But even then it connects in the front which is inherently dangerous as you flail away. We recommend the wireless headset instead. The new wireless guitar ($78) has a different finish (burnt wood) and a softer strum bar than the original.
Take The Show On The Road: Log on and compete in new setlists every day to see how you rank to the rest of the world's pseudo-rockers in multi-day band battles. The setlists can be quite interesting. For example, the other day I competed in a "Seattle" setlist that included a Pearl Jam (Alive) and Soundgarden (Spoonman) track. When you are logged into XBOX Live some of the online challenges are integrated into the Tour experience. Also create a band completely online and play seamlessly as if you are all in the same living room.
What We'd Change
Paging Eddie V.: I don't know about you but I still can't the hang of those second set of buttons on the guitar fret board, meant for solo-ing and finger-tapping. It's just not clear when a solo is coming up and, even worse, when the solo ends, so you end up trying to finger tap regular notes and kills your note streak.
Repetition: How many times do I have to play "We Got The Beat" to unlock the next gig? When you play a song as part of a "Mystery Setlist" or "Custom Setlist," that score should count for that song in whatever gig that song is listed, that way you don't have to repeat yourself too much. Sometimes you get stuck and have no idea how to unlock the next batch of songs.
Guitar Hero?: If lead guitar is your thing, you might be a little disappointed because there are still several songs that are more geared to drums and vocals than fret shredding. On the bright side, there are some bass-friendly songs as well, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Give It Away. But please, wear more than just your underwear when you play it.
Get In Sync: It's a huge relief having wireless instruments. No more cords getting in everybody's way and you don't all have to be clustered right in front of the TV like you were with the first Rock Band. However, you have to make sure you calibrate the instruments perfectly, otherwise you'll miss every third or fourth note and have no idea why.
The new game itself is a must have if you are into the Rock Band or Guitar Hero thing. As far as shelling out the cash for the new equipment, that's not necessary at all unless your game room arrangement would be drastically improved by wireless instruments. The software itself is well worth the investment.
-- Reviewed by Aaron Samus, SI.com