Review: Battle of the Bands

Infendo

bobwii.jpgRhythm-based video games have garnered themselves an impressive cultural buzz, a fact perhaps most clearly illustrated on Wii.

Activision, for example, has had remarkable success on Nintendo’s system with its popular Guitar Hero series. Since its Oct. 2007 release, Guitar Hero III has sold 2 million copies on Wii in North America. And surprisingly, the Wii version has also become Activision’s top-selling Guitar Hero III SKU; IGN reported last Thursday 152,000 more copies were sold in North America last month.

With EA’s behemoth Rock Band franchise coming to Wii in June, it seems safe to predict millions more will be virtually rocking on Wii, gimped ports and all. Given the success with the genre on Wii, and the inevitability of blockbusters to come, the newly released Battle of the Bands represents a smart business move for publisher THQ.

Unfortunately, despite some unique ideas and genuinely enjoyable moments, Battle of the Bands doesn’t fully deliver on its interesting premise and never quite reaches the outstanding level of its powerhouse rhythmic counterparts on Wii.

Battle of the Bands is an exclusive Wii rhythm game, which obviously sets it apart from the regrettable slew of PS2 ports and licensed shovelware that flood Wal-Mart Wii sections with budget-priced garbage. And to its credit, it is actually much better than those games, too; developer Planet Moon Studios (Smarty Pants on Wii, Infected on PSP) has given a fresh spin to the genre with Battle of the Bands, into which it seems some genuine effort was given.

But from a gameplay perspective, Battle of the Bands couldn’t be much simpler. Tabbed “notes” scroll up the screen, as has become standard in the rhythm genre, and players must hit them to the beat of the music to “play” the song and progress through the game. While players simulate real-life guitar shredding and drum pounding to successfully hit notes with realistic peripherals in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, however, no expensive controllers are necessary to play Battle of the Bands. Only a shake of the Wii remote is needed.

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Notes come in five motion-triggered varieties, asking players to move their Wii remote left, right and down, as well as an occasional forward stab and Wii remote shake, or the oft-maligned “Wii waggle.”

But that’s about it. And although it has some deeper mechanics, Battle of the Bands’ waggly gameplay results in an experience not unlike the rhythmic music portions of the original Rayman Raving Rabbids and EA’s 2007 critical and commercial Wii flop, Boogie. Unfortunately for THQ, that isn’t exactly stellar company.

bobwii3.jpgIts simple gameplay is not the game’s biggest problem, though. A far more serious weakness of Battle of the Bands is its lack of modes. The meat of the game is found in the so-called “adventure” mode, in which players choose a band from a list of 11 fictional music groups, each playing a different style of music: either rock, country, hip hop, latin or marching band. After selecting from three difficulty levels, players set out on a mapped tour of several unique venues to literally destroy the CPU-controlled competition. But players will be disappointed to find this optimization-less, shallow mode lasts little more than two hours, at most, before completion.

Battle of the Bands also offers a fun multiplayer versus mode, the game’s main attraction and, given the frantic nature of its battle-centric gameplay, most redeeming quality. But even the multiplayer is relatively lacking in options and features; even something as simple as Mii support for profile selection or in-game character models would have given Battle of the Bands a huge shot in the arm. We’ve been discussing this at the Infendo offices a lot lately; the Wii has some awesome and truly unique features, and developers should start utilizing some of them in their projects, especially exclusive ones.

Again, in terms of modes, that’s about it.

Perhaps the game’s most glaring weakness, however, is its lack of online multiplayer. Wii owners are far too frequently faced with this problem, and it is time players and critics alike draw the line. This omission is simply too striking and obvious to ignore; countless Wii games have utilized the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection to provide, at the very least, a basic and reliable online experience. The technology, first-party support and infrastructure is there, so aside from budget corner-cutting, there is simply no conceivable reason for its absence.

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Now that the criticisms are out the way, let’s get to the good stuff; there are some fun experiences to be had in Battle of the Bands.

The game was formerly known as Band Mashups before THQ changed the title to Battle of the Bands, a much more suitable name given the game’s premise. Unlike in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the objective of Battle of the Bands is not entirely based on playing the songs accurately. Rather, players must bombard their opponents with over-the-top attack items, creating a high-energy Mario Kart/Guitar Hero hybrid. Wii owners familiar with the battle modes introduced in Guitar Hero III should feel right at home with the game’s concept.

And despite my prior criticisms, it is actually a lot of fun, and the game draws its greatest strengths from the pure battling it fosters.

Prior to each battle, players choose three “weapons” to take into the performance. As players successfully string note combinations together during the battle, they can use their weapons to attack the opposing band with bolts of lightning, fiery balls of flame and even rapid-fire bullets. After successive attacks, players gain control of the assigned song’s performance. For example, if players have chosen a rock band, their tattooed and lip-ringed musicians will spring to life with a guitar-heavy rendition of the selected tune. A latin band will play a flamenco-flavored version, while a cowboy-manned country act performs it with deep-fried southern twang.

bobwii4.jpgNintendo Power quite accurately labeled Battle of the Bands a “musical tug-of-war.” Gaining performance control of the song dramatically increases point totals, but it doesn’t last forever; players must not only continue hitting their notes on time, but they must also fend off enemy attacks (a well-timed press of the B button triggers a shield) to keep the song on their side. Too many successful enemy assaults hand the musical performance back to the opposing act, and the fight to regain control begins.

This is where Battle of the Bands really shines; it is an absolute riot to hear hip hop classics like LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” switch between hard rock and marching band versions mid-chorus, while disco relics like “Jungle Boogie” are downright hilarious when the vocal shifts to one with an accent straight from the cattle ranches of Texas. Surprisingly, it actually often sounds really good, too.

If there is one criticism to levy against the game’s music, it is the relatively lackluster song roster it boasts. It offers some high-profile mainstream tunes; The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Soundgarden’s “Spoonman,” and Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” come to mind, in particular. But the rest of the game’s 30 songs are mostly forgettable. It’s been documented on Infendo before, but my affinity for heavy metal compels me to mention the genre’s lack of representation. Even Guitar Hero offers classic Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Megadeth and Slayer tracks. What gives, THQ?

Despite its genre and obvious influences, Battle of the Bands never feels overly derivative. It clearly owes its existence to Guitar Hero, but never feels like a cheap copy; it has enough quirkiness and originality to develop its own distinct personality and feel, and for that seemingly impossible task given the genre’s saturation, Planet Moon Studios deserves some credit.

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Graphically, Battle of the Bands certainly isn’t pushing the Wii hardware. There isn’t anything going on here that couldn’t have been achieved on GameCube. Visually, its style could be compared to a more colorful, more over-the-top Guitar Hero, another game that was never about graphics. Battle of the Bands shares that “gameplay over presentation” ethos, but perhaps takes it a little too far, in some cases. While the menus are generally quite slick and well-designed, the game often presents static paper-doll cut-scenes with bubble-speech text for pre-battle band interaction and trash talking. They reek of DS-level production values, cringe-worthy for a Wii game.

Interested parties shouldn’t be entirely put off by my negative criticisms; in this case, they are truly meant to be constructive. Battle of the Bands is an interesting concept, and when you get together with friends, it is almost impossible not to have some fun with it. Rhythm game fans and party game enthusiasts, in particular, should definitely consider giving Battle of the Bands a rental, at least.

Just don’t expect Smash Bros.-like features and depth. And when both games have the same premium price tag, it is an issue.

But for its relatively fresh approach to an otherwise predictable genre, fun multiplayer mayhem and endlessly entertaining musical mash-ups, Battle of the Bands gets a constructive two stars out of four.

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