My wife and I finished the story mode in Lego: Rock Band tonight, and I thought I’d offer up some impressions. While the game has received a bit of a negative backlash from long-time Rock Band fans, I think it’s pretty unwarranted overall, but the game is admittedly not perfect. This is no The Beatles: Rock Band.

I think the idea of making a more kid-friendly version of RB isn’t at all without merit. While some of the decisions made about which DLC songs are appropriate are… opaque, at best, the bright colours and quirky humour of the Lego games is a great idea to get kids more interested in the game. RB itself is a little on the grungy, dingy side in terms of venues and player avatars, and it’s quite a fun change to be playing in environments inspired by Lego sets I remember building as a kid.

The story mode is excellent. The cut-scenes and antics of your road crew and band are funny and cute, and it’s a somewhat different way to experience a story mode in a RB game. You still progress from venue to venue, but it has a bit more plot than the usual rise from obscurity to fame than RB2 or TB:RB. Alien invaders play a big part (and alien spies are fun to try to spot in the venue backgrounds), but the more unique idea is the Rock Power Challenges, when your band uses their musical skills to solve problems for various people, such as helping farmers get rain for their crops or escaping an angry T-Rex. The game play style of these levels – in which the vocalist sings the whole song while the instrumentalists take turns playing – is a little odd at first, but it’s a neat way to let the instrumentalists see more of the background visuals than they have in the past. The song selections are often fun and always relevant, such as playing “Ghostbusters” to rid a haunted house of spooks, or playing “The Final Countdown” to aid a spaceship launch.

Also a lot of fun is the way you can buy various Lego pieces and characters to customize your band space and characters – not just your own avatars, but that of your NPC bandmates, roadies, and entourage. They are always seamlessly integrated into the cinematics, and it provides a level of customization well beyond picking your instrument and your hairstyle. Kids and adults will have a lot of fun with this stuff. Even better is being able to play as Lego versions of various bands when playing their songs, such as Queen, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The idea to just have you automatically play as these bands when playing their songs is fun and neatly sidesteps the Guitar Hero 5 embarrassment of seeing Kurt Cobain sing a rap song.

It’s not without flaws. The 45-song setlist is a bit on the short side, though at least your DLC works immediately (well, that which has the “Family Friendly” stamp of approval – more on that later). While there are some terrific songs, it’s a little heavy on crappy emo bands like Good Charlotte, featuring lyrics that a 5th grader could improve on. And it seems just perverse to give us a girl-pop-punk cover of “Real Wild Child” when Iggy Pop, who recorded the most famous version of the song, is already in the game. While (for an additional $10 fee) you can export these tracks to Rock Band 2, unlike the original RB export, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. So if you want “Song 2” and “Two Princes” in RB2, you’ll have to take the crap you don’t like, too.

The gameplay is classic RB, but with one major problem – the note charts now look like Lego pieces. Fine, but the hammer-ons and pull-offs are a lot harder to discern at Expert speeds than in any rhythm game before them, and it’s deeply frustrating to drop note streaks because a HO/PO looks too similar to a strummed note (or vice-versa). Another major flaw in the game is that it doesn’t support online multiplayer, a considerable step back for the franchise, though one done (I suspect) to prevent kids from encountering the foul-mouthed horror that XBL online can be.

In addition, the gameplay has changed in another fundamental way – you can’t fail a song. If you do “fail”, you get a chance to recover yourself. This is something I actually rather enjoy, as it lets us hit random setlists with no qualms, as even the few songs we can’t usually pass on Expert (“Green Grass and High Tides”, anyone?) will get finished easily. They’ve dropped “No Fail” mode in the extras section, but have added a new “Super Easy” difficulty, in which it’s almost impossible to fail, and instruments are dumbed down to the point of complete ease. Guitar/bass requires only strumming and no fretting, all vocals are easy “talky” vocals, and drums need no kick pedal and you can hit any pad you like at the right time. Just to get an idea how easy this difficulty is, my wife and I got the achievement for 100%’ing a song with all four band members; she played drums (for nearly the first time) and vocals, while I played both bass and guitar. It only took a few runs at a simple song (“Cups & Cakes”, Spinal Tap) to get the achievement.

The biggest source of complaint from many has been the process which Harmonix has used to determine which songs are “family-friendly” enough to be included. I totally get that “Casey Jones” is not going to make it, as most parents don’t want their kids singing “Driving that train, high on cocaine”. But some make no sense at all. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” doesn’t pass the cut for some reason – a song whose lyrics can fit into a tweet, and which simply describe a one-legged sailor losing his wooden leg climbing up the sails and heading out to find it. “Pinball Wizard” also doesn’t make the cut, though as far as I can tell the most offensive lyric in the song is “He’s got crazy flipper fingers.” I really wonder whether licensing issues are the real reason behind some of these decisions. Meanwhile, one or two of the songs on the disc in LRB have edited swears, though of the mildest sort. It doesn’t make much sense, and it’s made a lot of people mad.

The achievements are largely easy, and largely beat automatically in story mode. Several are for spending “studs”, this game’s version of money, but you’ll earn way, way more studs than you need to get them very easily. Only one – 100%’ing the guitar solo in “The Final Countdown” – is truly difficult, and only one other – 100%’ing a guitar solo on Expert – is difficult at all. The rest of the 100% achievements can be done at any difficulty, even the new “Super Easy”. This is a major change from earlier RB games, which require these done on Expert difficulty, sometimes even with a twist, such as up-strumming only on bass, or using the solo buttons on the guitar. If you’re a bit of a gamerscore whore (as I am), this is an easy ~900GS, though a tough 1k because of “The Final Countdown”. You’re looking at around 20 hours of gameplay to get some of them, though, such as acquiring 1000 stars, finishing all 170-odd gigs, and finishing the Endless Setlist.

All in all, it’s an interesting, but not required, entry in the Rock Band franchise. It would be greatly improved by making online multiplayer and the “Family Friendly” tracks available if you have no parental controls on your console. If you’ve got kids, you really want a bunch of the songs included on-disc for RB2, and you don’t get too worked up about the DLC exclusions, it’s a fun game. Otherwise, I can’t heartily endorse it as I have all the previous RB games.

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