While music games are still around -- Rock Band 4 was released in 2015 -- it's clear that their heyday is over. Guitar Hero brought plastic guitars into living rooms around the world, and the Rock Band series did the same with more instruments (a drum kit, keyboard and microphone). But given that it's been more than a decade since the first Guitar Hero debuted, it was about time we saw a new spin on music games.
The biggest issue with Rock Band VR is getting started. To play it, you'll need an Oculus Rift and Touch Controllers ($600 bundled together), a gaming PC rig and a Rock Band 4 guitar. Harmonix is selling bundles of the game along with an Xbox One or PS4 guitar for $70, which is useful if, like me, you've already dumped all of your plastic gaming instruments. You'll also need to slot an Oculus Touch controller on top of the guitar for motion tracking.
Oculus includes a small dock for Rock Band guitars with every Touch controller, but hopefully it will also be sold separately. Since I wasn't planning to review Rock Band VR when I first set up the Touch Controllers last year, I completely lost track of that dock. You can, however, still play the game by letting the Touch controller sit at the base of the guitar neck. Unfortunately, despite being called Rock Band VR, the game only supports guitar play right now. There's also no multiplayer support yet, though there's room for that to be added down the line.
On top of being a virtual reality experience that lets you see your bandmates and a crowd in front of you, Rock Band VR completely reinvents how you play Rock Band. Instead of trying to hit different notes during a song, it's focused entirely on playing different chords. That involves holding down chord keys and strumming on a guitar rather than trying to hit colored buttons. It's a far less punishing experience than previous games. In fact, it's pretty much impossible to fail a song. Even if you do badly, you just earn fewer points.
But while it might seem like a cakewalk at first, there's a learning curve if you want to play the game properly. It takes time to learn different chord combos, which helps you score higher. And there are higher-difficulty settings that introduce things like chord progression. Ultimately, it's much more fulfilling than just hitting notes in sync with a song. (If you miss the old gameplay format, you can get your fix in "classic mode.")
I found myself jamming out for hours at a time, whereas earlier Rock Band and Guitar Hero games have left me frustrated after failing songs. More than any other title from Harmonix, Rock Band VR lets you live out the fantasy of actually being a rocker -- especially during the crazy guitar-shredding solos. It even gives you extra points for head banging!
The game is an ideal VR experience: The creepy virtual audience actually makes eye contact with you and gets revved up as you play better, and the chord chart appears right above the crowd. There's also something cool about being onstage alongside virtual bandmates. You can also lean into any mic onstage to speak to the audience or follow along with a song.
Still, Rock Band VR shares most of the downsides of virtual reality too. It's a lot harder to enjoy with an audience, since you're experiencing it in a headset with headphones. You can always configure the sound to come out of your speakers and show off the game window on a TV or monitor, but that works best if you somehow have the Oculus Rift set up in your living room.
The game ships with 60 songs from the likes of Aerosmith, David Bowie and DragonForce, and as usual, you'll eventually be able to snag more through DLC. There are plenty of solid bundled tracks for rock fans, though depending on your tastes, there are likely a few you'll never play. And no, you can't bring over your existing Rock Band song library.
For all of its faults, Rock Band VR succeeds by getting the big things right. It completely revitalizes the aging music-game genre, and it's one of the first titles I'd recommend to anyone with an Oculus Rift. It lets you live out all of your teenage musical fantasies -- as long as you don't mind looking like a huge geek.