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Published October 6, 2009

(originally published at Smile Politely, 10/6)

Music games have come so far since the original Guitar Hero hit the PS2. Four years ago, we tolerated questionable covers of some of our favorite songs, and even as more music labels started lending their talent to the plastic instrument titans, a handful of classic bands remained unattainable. We had the Stones and Dylan, but there was no way we’d ever see Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or the Beatles, right? Well, still no luck on those first two, but after some cajoling and (likely) a proverbial dump truck full of money, Harmonix somehow booked the Fab Four for their first video game tour in The Beatles Rock Band.

Of course, The Beatles Rock Band is not the first band-centric music game in recent years. Metallica, Aerosmith and Van Halen have all received star treatment from competitor Guitar Hero, while Harmonix did release a pricy AC/DC disc last year as a Wal-Mart exclusive. But for The Beatles —arguably the most popular band in modern history – the developer suggested that a major overhaul was in order. And while the results may no necessarily live up to that initial announcement, baby-boomer Beatles devotees and hardcore plastic rockers should both be thrilled with the game.

If you’ve seen screenshots or that surreal Abbey Road commercial, you know by now that the core game doesn’t deviate much from the scrolling tracks layout established previously in the genre. And though The Beatles Rock Band does encourage the (much ballyhooed) harmonies, my family, friends and I were often too tone-deaf to really put this feature to use. But while the controls remain tried-and-true, it’s the presentation that truly makes this collaboration a success.

While the first two Rock Band games were always stylistically more dynamic than Guitar Hero thanks to numerous visual filters, this Beatles edition’s attention to detail and psychedelic backgrounds raise the bar even higher. Shea Stadium and the Ed Sullivan set have been recreated beautifully, while the Abbey Road sojourns offer trippy music videos for the studio songs never performed live. Many of the latter transport the band outside of the studio completely. (You’ll ride aboard the titular vehicle for “Yellow Submarine,” for instance.)

This visual fidelity means that the customization options had to be sacrificed. This is a worthy tradeoff, as it allows Harmonix to show how the band’s costumes and style evolved along with their music. Seeing them get from their early 60s mop-top/suit getup to the bearded rooftop veterans just prior to their split is truly remarkable. And assuming that you’re playing the 45 songs in the order recommended for the story mode, you’ll see plenty of supplementary photos and archival video snippets to back up the artistic direction.

As for the actual track list, many reviewers have already expressed frustration at the small song list. I, too, wish that “Strawberry Fields,” “Norwegian Wood” and several others hadn’t been omitted, but at least 44 of the songs are truly wonderful, with the early cover of “Boys” as the only oddity. Tracks like “Within You Without You” and the downloadable “All You Need is Love” show that sitars and string orchestras can be adapted to the plastic instruments as well, so songs like “Eleanor Rigby” are possible in the future.

For many of you, the opposite may be true – you’re so sick of band games that even The Beatles aren’t enough to lure you back. If you fall into this camp, I’d urge you to still give this Rock Band a shot. The music is so joyous, the presentation so impeccable, that you may find yourself hooked all over again.

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