So I picked up my copy of Rock Band 2 around 12 hours ago, and have spent much of the time since playing it. Here’s my initial impressions:

There was some initial disappointment that (despite rumours to the contrary) my Rock Band 1 musicians & bands didn’t transfer over to Rock Band 2. On the bright side, it let me tweak my guitarist’s appearance and lock down the band name I wished I had in Rock Band 1.

So far, difficulty is pretty comparable to previous Rock Band songs – unsurprisingly, since songs are transferrable between the games. One new gameplay aspect they’ve added are hammer-on/pull-off chords. The download and incorporation of my Rock Band 1 disc songs went flawlessly, and you can delete songs you don’t like after the import – buh-bye, Green Grass & High Tides! The changes they’ve made to the way it detects vocals seems to have made it easier to do vocals overall, and much easier to do “no-pitch” songs like Beastie Boys.

The new graphics and look of the game is fantastic. The character intros are awesome, and just overall everything looks better and feels more fun. Backup vocals are much more obviously sung by the rest of the band members, which looks great – a lot more of my guitarist leaning into the vocalist’s mic, always cool looking. I’ve only made one music video – where the entire look of the background and band gets style and editing – but it was extremely cool, hope there’s a fair number sprinkled through the game.

In terms of the online and band modes, this feels like the game Harmonix wanted to make a year ago, but couldn’t quite pull off. World Tour now scales the difficulty of random setlists, so you can comfortably attack a random playlist in your home city without the fear they’ll drop a top-tier song in your lap. The random challenges still has the RB1 ones – charity event for fans but no money, etc. – but has added a bunch of cool new ones, such as the “Make a Setlist” we played that then challenged us to swap a more difficult guitar song in as the last song to get more fans and money. There really isn’t a solo mode anymore – bands can be played with only one member. Bands aren’t tied to leaders anymore, and of course, you can now play online, though I haven’t tried it “live” yet.

What I have tried are the new Battle of the Bands challenges. They are nicely integrated right into the World Tour, but dynamically change. They’re basically score challenges against other bands, based on a variety of criteria. For instance, I played one tonight that had “No fail” – one of the best ideas ever in the game for parties – turned on, and scored it on total stars. Another was based on total streak, yet another on high score. I’m not quite clear yet on whether people can create Battle of the Bands challenges or if Harmonix makes them all, but it adds a lot of depth.

Also adding depth is the new Challenges mode – a series of challenges with escalating difficulties, most of which require a 3-5 song playlist. Some require certain instruments in the band, many can be done solo, some need additional members. It’s a totally different way to play through, and very cool.

Finally, the setlists have been terrific. This is the first music game ever without any covers, all original tracks. The selection is diverse and high-quality, so far, anyway. Quickplay allows custom setlists of any length, as well as the ability to play whole DLC albums through, and it’s much easier to navigate your songs – there’s all the custom options you’d want to deal with a large collection of music, over 200 tracks personally once the RB1 music was downloaded onto the hard drive.

Overall, this is a much improved game over the previous one, much MUCH more than just a bunch of new tracks. Everything is polished and just works better. If you’re on the fence about this game, jump off – this is no Guitar Hero 80s, but a major upgrade to the way the entire franchise works. A game truly deserving of its AAA status.

UPDATE: 1 day later: I played band mode online with a friend (and Lisa locally), and it’s AWESOME. It’s just like you’re all in the room. It even matched my buddy’s band up against me and Lisa’s band when we did Battle of the Bands. One of the smoothest online experiences I’ve had yet; though the host is the only one who can actually begin playing setlists, it looks like the single-player game and you can still click around, browse setlists and battles, etc.

I neglected to mention that the “Challenges” mode in band tour is slightly more suited to single player, though some challenges require 2+ members and specific instruments. I also neglected to mention that some challenges are pre-set, while others are generated randomly from your DLC. Some of the ones it set up for me were playing the Jimmy Buffet pack, all the Clash songs, and the first two tiers of songs from Rock Band 1.

Battle of the Bands are only set up by Harmonix. I had a lot of fun playing one today that was solo players on bass only, longest streak across three songs. They’re also using them as a promotional tool; the latest one to go up is a challenge playing the new DLC Megadeth album through.

One character can now play all instruments, you don’t need separate characters. This addresses one of the most irritating things about RB1, running out of stuff to buy unless you were a guitarist. By the time Lisa and I were done World Tour mode, she’d bought every piece of clothing in the store and still had 150k+ in the bank; my drummer, who was only played solo or with a secondary band, had all the kits and almost all of the clothes; my guitarist had a few pieces of clothing and only half the guitars. Now only one character is earning money and buying all instruments, makes way more sense.

I spent a lot of time today with drum training mode, also excellent, and the only part of the game with trophies/achievements that is single-player only. It’s a selection of dozens of standard rock beats and drum fills that you can practice at anywhere from 40-200bpm to a metronome. It has a dozen different-sounding kits as well, plus a freestyle mode letting you play what you want on whatever kit you want. Even cooler, you can play music off your hard drive over freestyle mode so that you can play along, a feature I hope makes it to PS3.

UPDATE: We’ve now gone well past a million fans in World Tour. I’ve now discovered the best part of the new World Tour; there are no difficulty caps. You can continue to earn fans indefinitely on lower difficulties, though you earn far fewer. So that song that me and Lisa gold-starred on Expert still earns fans and money when I 4-star it on Hard solo drums, or 3-star it on Hard solo vocals, or we can be playing it with a couple friends on Medium. Along with it recording how many people were playing when the high score was set, there’s no real reason to play a different band for solo work or casual playing with friends, a huge and very welcome change.