Rock Band 2 isn't a vast overhaul of the Rock Band formula. Instead, it's a set of intelligent updates to the progression and periphery of the game designed to make sure you get to see the cool stuff, regardless of how you're playing. If you spent a serious chunk of time trying to play Rock Band with other players, you probably remember how much of a pain it could be to get the right band members together into the right band, or how much of a hassle it was to play the Band World Tour mode when you were missing a key member. All of that madness is gone, replaced by smart solutions that are almost enough to make the first game obsolete.
The streamlining done to the Band World Tour mode makes it the main way to play, regardless of the number of players available. You can play it alone, or with up to three other players. Also, those additional slots can be filled with any mixture of local and remote players. So if you and two friends want to play and no one wants to sing, you should be able to hit "find players" and get matched up with a willing vocalist online.
Beyond making it easier to get a group together, the World Tour hasn't changed too much. It's still about going from city to city, earning upgrades like a bus or a plane, playing mystery setlists, and building your band up by earning fans, money, and stars for performing. In addition to unlocking new cities to play, you also unlock the ability to hire staff members, which can give you a bonus to the number of fans you get, or give you more special opportunities, like charity shows or music video shoots. If you mainly played this mode in the original Rock Band, you won't see a ton of changes here. You will see more of the little things that make the entire game seem like it was crafted by a passionate group of people that really understand the subject matter. When you see your band's new merchandise girl described as an "unofficial band den mother... a den mother who is always trying to make out with you," it's plainly obvious that these people have been there. That really goes a long way.
You use your created band in more ways this time around, including a set of local challenges that give you a tiered set of things to complete. This concept goes online with the new Battle of the Bands mode, which has the potential to be a very big hook that keeps you coming back. With Battle of the Bands, the designers back at Harmonix are able to configure and launch timed challenges with a variety of criteria. You're able to participate in the challenge again and again, with your best performance going on the leaderboard for that challenge. The challenges seem to be really configurable, ranging from individual songs to sets that include songs from Rock Band 2, the original game, or downloadable content. Some challenges are locked to solo performances on specific instruments, while others let you take any number of players in. Some of them force specific difficulties, or keep score in alternate ways, such as the longest streak on guitar, or the number of stars earned over the course of multiple songs.
Even if you don't really care about the gameplay changes, Rock Band 2 is still a good value if taken merely as a set of new songs. The game comes with over 80 songs on the disc, and they're all from the original artists. There's a lot of variety covering multiple decades and genres, and you can check out our info page on the game for a full song list. Some of my favorites include Round and Round by Ratt, Spoonman by Soundgarden, and Cool for Cats by Squeeze. The key to the material is that most of it's actually fun to play. It's a true testament to how much fun playing the game actually is that it can make you forget that Paramore is, you know, awful. Heck, even the kind-of-bad new Guns N' Roses song that makes its legal debut in the game is OK in the context of the game.
The game also comes with a code that will be used to download an additional 20 songs. The details on what those songs are and when they'll be available haven't been announced yet. The code does seem to be a one-time use sort of deal, though, so consider that if you're thinking about buying a used copy.
Rock Band 2 is probably the smartest music game to date when it comes to handling songs from previous games. The game contains the same music store interface that was patched into the original game, and anything you might have purchased for the first game is automatically made available in Rock Band 2. Additionally, you can take your original Rock Band disc and purchase an export license for five dollars. This lets you copy all but a few of the songs from the first game onto your hard drive, and Rock Band 2 sees those just like it sees downloadable tracks. That means that you could have hundreds of songs available to you all in one game. It's a daunting list when you see it all scrolling in front of you on the song select screen, but the game lets you sort the songs in a number of different ways to make it easier to find what you want. The game mixes the old stuff into the game pretty well, occasionally including it in mystery setlists and letting you choose it at will when creating a set of songs or just playing the quickplay mode.
Outside of the new songs and gameplay changes, the game also has a hidden, sinister motive: it's trying to create a world of drummers. Though just playing the game and working your way through the different difficulties would make you more able to work both arms and one foot with more style and expertise, Rock Band 2 has a drum trainer mode that lets you try your hand at playing different drum parts and fills at different tempos. The fills seem more focused on making you not sound awful whenever a freestyle fill section shows up in the real game by giving you a variety of ideas on fills. The main mode is more focused on a handful of different beats. If you can get 100 percent on a beat, it'll light up and be marked as completed. There are achievements based on completing tracks at either the middle or higher tempos. Getting more practice on the drums will certainly make you a better Rock Band drummer. And it's almost guaranteed that once you learn that level of coordination, you'll be able to approach a real drum kit with a slightly higher rate of success. But there's nothing here to explain to you what you're doing wrong, and nothing there to really teach you how to keep an internal tempo. So the drum trainer may assist in the creation of a nation of drummers... but we'll all be playing to click tracks.
The hardware has also undergone another round of revisions for Rock Band 2. The drums are now wireless, requiring three AA batteries for power. The drums are substantially quieter than the kit that was initially issued alongside the original game, and the pads are velocity sensitive. That means the drums know if you're hitting them softly or wailing away, but this doesn't really have any impact on the gameplay. The kick pedal, prone to breaking on the original kit, appears to be made of much sterner stuff this time around. The guitar, also wireless, is a redesigned version of the original. The strum bar feels a lot better and, overall, the whole thing feels much sturdier and resistant to damage than the previous guitars did.
Also new on the guitars is a sound and light sensor that you can use to calibrate the audio/video lag on your setup. Before, you sort of had to eyeball this stuff, with varying results. Now, you hold the guitar up to a speaker for an audio check, then up to the TV for a series of flashes that check the visual latency. This new method appears to be totally successful--I tried it on a few different HDTVs with perfect results every time. While you could certainly get a nearly identical experience with your old hardware, if you're thinking of switching to the new stuff, it's totally worth it.
Considering how serious Harmonix and MTV have been when it comes to post-release support via weekly song downloads, the initial announcement of Rock Band 2 caught me off guard. Aside from being a method for offline players to acquire music, it didn't seem necessary at all. But with its large library of licensed master recordings and vastly improved approach to multiplayer play, Rock Band 2 is a terrific value at both ends. It's both a must-own for fans of the genre and a great place for new players to get started.
Editorial Disclosure: We are pretty good friends with a guy who has his name in the credits of this game. The editorial staff of Giant Bomb feels that this review is free from bias, but then, you're always the last one to know if you, yourself have a bias.