When Harmonix added a microphone and drums to its successful Guitar Hero formula and created Rock Band, battle lines were drawn. Guitar Hero III, taken over by Tony Hawk developer Neversoft, attracted technical performers, while Rock Band redefined party games for non-gamers. Even as Neversoft preps Guitar Hero: World Tour, complete with drums and a mic, Rock Band 2 proves that Harmonix is determined to retain the party-friendly crown.
The disc's 84 master recordings, with 20 bonus songs available soon as a free download and compatible downloadable content from Rock Band, are a more significant offering than any other similar game has managed. Though tracks by Megadeth and Dream Theater cater to serious fret-mashers, most songs seem to have been chosen to score in a group setting. (Albeit a group comprised of 25- to 35-year-olds.) Custom playlists are easily assembled, and a "no-fail" mode ensures that drunken gatherings need never suffer a booing digital crowd.
Other aspects of Rock Band 2 feel more "expansion pack" than "standalone sequel." Tour Mode set lists are finally the game's primary structure, whether you're playing online, in a group, or solo. (No more Guitar Hero-like progression for lone wolves.) But the same Tour Mode, which can force replays of any given song several times in a session, is barely changed. Real bands may play the same songs over and over, but they also choose what and when to play. Putting more options into players' hands would sweeten this encore.
Beyond the game: Music games are increasingly eager to debut new songs. While the other guys got Metallica's new disc, Rock Band 2's set list includes "Shackler's Revenge," the first official release from Guns N' Roses' long-awaited (or dreaded) Chinese Democracy. Not included: a can of Dr. Pepper.
Worth playing for: Ranked challenges and Battle Of The Bands events, which fuse the satisfaction of rocking out with the instant competition of live leaderboards.
Frustration sets in when: Microsoft's standards-and-practices department comes calling. Kids can call each other "fag" all day long over an Xbox Live headset, but the band Pornographic Ultrasound, featuring John Paul Balls, can't be seen on the system's scoreboards. That ain't rock 'n' roll.
Final judgment: Rock Band steps up from clubs to arenas and barely misses a beat.