Latest 'Rock Band VR' Demo Shifts Mechanics, Focuses On The Stage Experience

When I tried Rock Band VR earlier this year at GDC, the experience was somewhat the same as the existing (non-VR) versions of the game. Even though I stood on a virtual stage and played a few songs in front of a virtual crowd, I still had to follow the same pattern of button cues. The team at Harmonix were in the early stages of development at the time, but the studio’s latest version of the game at PAX West was completely different from the GDC demo. In fact, one of the representatives told me that they eliminated most of the existing mechanics. What I played instead was something that felt just right for virtual reality.

Stage Presence

The gameplay in current Rock Band titles is simple: Hit or press the correct buttons at the right time during a song in order to score points. Even though this has the feeling of actually playing the song, you’re really just...making sure that a button is pressed at the right time. It's more of a rhythm or timing game than anything else; it doesn’t feel like you know the song by heart. But Rock Band VR is different because the continuous waterfall of button prompts no longer exists. Instead, a song is split into multiple blocks such as chorus, bridge and verse. At the beginning of each block, I placed my fingers on specific buttons (as dictated by a series of indicators on the virtual guitar head stock) and strummed away at whatever beat I chose.

The result was a more relaxed session, as I didn't have to constantly look down every second to make sure I was hitting each button at the right time. This allowed me to look at the crowd or my fellow band mates. At one point, I even teleported (by pressing the guitar’s whammy bar) to a spot next to my drummer and tapped the cymbal with my guitar. It felt like I was playing the guitar and playing it well (never mind the fact that the only chords I know in real life are the ones to Coldplay’s "Viva La Vida").

In terms of hardware, the demo featured the same setup as GDC: An Oculus Touch controller was placed on the guitar’s head stock so that the camera would track the location and movement of the guitar. In addition, the Touch controller also vibrated to indicate the next finger position.

Authenticity And Familiarity

To make the experience slightly more authentic, each finger combination on the guitar’s five buttons corresponded to a specific sound. Placing my index and middle finger on the first two buttons produced a muted power chord, whereas pressing the second and third buttons on the guitar took to the note up an octave. You can also experiment with different finger positions during the solo parts in some songs.

However, the experience doesn’t completely eliminate the franchise’s competitive roots. By pressing the button prompts at the correct times, you earn bonuses to your score. You also gain points by maintaining a steady beat (quarter, eighth or sixteenth notes) in each block. For an even tougher challenge, there are three optional objectives for each song such as playing a few blocks in a specific rhythm or pressing the prompted buttons at the right time. Chain enough points together, and you can activate the Overdrive ability (which gives you even more points) by tilting the neck of the guitar upwards.

Almost Real

Some of the series’ diehard fans might find the new game's mechanics strange at first due to their lack of intensity. However, nailing each note isn’t the focus of Rock Band VR. It’s all about simulating the feeling of performing in front of an audience.

In order to make that goal a reality, the developers had to sacrifice the old mechanics and make way for new ones that work specifically for VR. In the GDC demo, I had to constantly keep my eyes on the multitude of button commands so much that I barely had time to take in the feeling of performing in front of an audience. With the new approach, Harmonix seems to hit the nail on head. Now the team has to craft the rest of the game in time for Rock Band VR's debut as one of the launch titles for Oculus Touch.

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NameRock Band VR
PlatformsOculus Rift
Where To BuyN/A
Release DateN/A (Oculus Rift Launch Title)