Review: Battle of the Bands

As soon as Guitar Hero was announced, the gaming industry knew that music and rhythm games were a market yet to be milked for all that they were worth here in the United States. The mega-successful Guitar Freaks, Drummania, Beatmania, and more similar games had already received praise for years in Japan, so it was only a matter of time before American developers jumped on the bandwagon, following a trend that Harmonix and Konami popularized stateside. From that movement we’ve received some truly amazing titles, lots of shovelware, and some of those games that don’t really fit on either end of the spectrum. They’re not the best, but they certainly aren’t the worst.

Battle of the Bands for the Nintendo Wii fits somewhere in the middle of astonishingly good and horrifyingly bad. At its core it is a mediocre music/rhythm game that seemed brimming with potential, but falls miserably short. It’s a shame, too. The premise, with more work and polish, could have been a fantastic endeavor. To put it simply though, Battle of the Bands is just okay.

Upon starting up the game and choosing between one of the modes (a versus mode, a story, and a tutorial to learn how things work), you will be able to pick through a few different bands. A total of eleven different bands are available at the onset, requiring no unlocking to choose whoever you want to use. Each outfit specializes in a different genre. Among the musical stylings represented, you have rock, Latin, marching band, hip-hop, and even country. Whoever you choose will perform a song in the genre that they predominantly play. I chose the bands that I noticed performed in the rock genre, because they looked the most ridiculous and I ate up their pseudo-Gothic looks.

As for the graphics, they’re average at best. It’s gotten to the point that you really can’t ask too much from the Wii in the graphics department anymore because Nintendo’s main focus these days is on the casual gamer. Band members are appropriately wacky and cartoony, and arenas are bland but colorful. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and it’s definitely no thing you won’t see again in the near future.

The game can best be described as a sort of “Guitar Hero lite”. You have the identical track that resembles a fretboard and a display where small panels will rise from the bottom to the top in time to the music. Rather than including a peripheral on which to perform the song of your choice, the game is controlled simply by waggling the Wii remote up, down, left, and right. Sometimes it is necessary to shake the remote along to a line on-screen akin to an electrocardiograph. Depending on your place in the song, the lines will be wider or thinner.

It seems quite simple in theory, but in execution it falls quite flat. For up and down movements, gentle flicks back and forth with the Wii remote are acceptable. However, the notes on the left and right sides of the board require large, exaggerated movements. Often, you will swear you hit them at the right moment, but the motion-tracking is not sensitive enough sometimes to register that you did indeed hit that note. Other times, moving the Wii remote too much will create sort of a rubber-band effect where the onscreen indicator of your remote bounches back and forth between left and right. This causes you to of course miss that note and subsequent ones because the cursor is no longer at the middle.

You can imagine how frustrating it is to be moving along smoothly on Easy mode only to be set back due to the game’s poor motion detection. Even though technically you might be able to perform phenomenally on the game’s Hard setting (there is an Easy, Medium, and Hard), because of the high level of difficulty in actually reaching the target, you won’t get very far.

The game isn’t titled Battle of the Bands for no reason. Each member of your band is outfitted with an instrument that looks quite like a weapon. In one of the country groups there is a man who plays a bass that shoots bullets at the other team. There is a battle element involved as well. Some notes will have an icon over the top of them that signifies that you can toss something over to the other band’s board to sabotage their performance. This can vary from grenades and lightning to even skulls. You are not completely powerless, though. That’d just be unfair. Pressing the Wii remote’s B button puts up a sort of overshield to protect your band from losing points and making errors. This has to be timed just right, or else you’ll get hit, and that’s not a pretty sight.

Every so often the focus will switch to your rival band. For instance, you could be playing the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” in a rock style. For a few seconds, the rival band will have the spotlight, performing the very same track in their signature style. This makes for some very interesting observations. Simply sitting back and listening to the differences of a song you know and love in another style of music can be extremely rewarding. There are a total of 30 songs included in the game, but since each band plays each song in their own way, you can consider there to be 150 songs. The differences are quite tremendous, even though the lyrics are the same. Unfortunately, listening to some renditions of the songs included can be quite the painful experience. Also, you may not want to listen to the same 30 songs in five different flavors each.

The covers are very shoddily performed. Half of them sound nothing like their original counterparts, and they don’t even sound like they were recorded by any kind of professional singer that I’ve ever listened to. Honestly, the tracks sound like your little brother’s cover band that practices in the garage. They know the lyrics and the beat of the song, but the timbre just isn’t there, and well, your brother still hasn’t hit puberty so there’s still that hint of squeakiness in his voice. “Feel Good Inc.” originally by the Gorillaz seems almost as if the singer is just making words up as he goes along, or reading from a script. There are no real enthusiastic performances, so most of what is there sounds hollow and generic. Music fans will no doubt wince in pain when hearing some great tunes butchered, while kids will enjoy it but will have to cover their ears at some of the lyrics, particularly “Insane in the Brain”.

That’s one big hang-up about this game–it doesn’t quite know its target audience. The gameplay is relatively casual and simple. Without even reading the instructions or going through the tutorial mode it is possible to grasp the entire concept in a matter of minutes. There is no peripheral to learn to use, and the graphics are cartoony and goofy. You would assume these are characteristics of a game marketed to children. However, you have songs that are chock full of swearing and adult themes, as well as the fact that your band members tote weapons and plan on harming the other band. Both are aspects you would typically see in games marketed toward older gamers, not to mention it’s rated T for Teen. It’s a game that any audience can enjoy, but it’s a very confusing paradox that bugs me. If it’s going to be so simple that I can figure it out within a matter of minutes, then it should be kidded up a bit for the rugrats to enjoy without parents writing letters and complaining about lyrical content and violence (because they couldn’t read the rating on the box). If it wants to be known as a fun little music game, then a major tightening of controls is warranted, as well as a little ramping up of the difficulty.

Because of its difficulty, this is not a game you’ll find yourself spending much time on. I completed each mode of the story in a matter of hours. Once that was over, there wasn’t much else to do but go to the Jukebox area to listen to different songs or take on my father in Versus mode, who’s not very good at rhythm games. There are no new songs to unlock, no new costumes, arenas, or anything else you might find worthwhile to keep playing for. After your first few hours playing through, there’s nothing else to keep you coming back. I suggest keeping friends around if you want to make the most of this game, since it holds little or nothing more for single players that Guitar Hero or Rock Band doesn’t deliver in droves.
Bottom Line:

Battle of the Bands seems more like a WiiWare title than a full-fledged purchase, and for $39.99 I expect more. It can be fully completed in a matter of hours. The covers of some really great songs are chopped to pieces and thrown out the window. What’s more, you can’t even unlock any new aspects that might make this game a good reason to turn on your Wii. Unless you have friends or family members who want to get in on the music and rhythm game action genre without exerting too much effort, this is a pass. I’d recommend it as a good starting point for younger gamers to break into the better titles, but I can’t really do that because of the song content and violence. If you have a younger gamer in mind, skip the middle man and buy Guitar Hero or Rock Band for the Wii. In the end you’ll all have much more fun.

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