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Still rockin’ in the free world

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MTV Games

In Las Vegas gaming means gambling, and playing slots or table games in the hopes of hitting it big -- or at least coming out on top. But in most of the world, gaming is what you do in front of a TV, computer or an arcade game with a hand clasped around a controller or a joystick, or maybe a guitar neck and some drum sticks.

The first time I picked up the plastic guitar was about six months ago for a session of Rock Band with some friends. I’ve never played video games consistently, never owned a Nintendo or PlayStation and never missed them much. I spent the first half hour of the game sitting on the couch bored, just watching.

School of Rock Band 2

When I finally stepped up to try my hand at an easy bass track, I found myself engrossed in the game. Eyes locked on the screen and contacts drying out, I strummed the plastic instrument furiously. That first evening’s session ended up lasting close to six hours, but just 15 minutes into it I knew I was hooked.

The music-based gaming craze began in earnest in November 2005 when Guitar Hero was released for PlayStation 2. Other video games had allowed users to create music, but Guitar Hero did something new: it gave the player a realistic instrument. The game, created by Cambridge, Mass.,-based Harmonix Music Systems, didn’t ask players to write their own songs, but rather used a catalogue of popular rock tracks for guitar karaoke. Across the country people turned their living rooms into rock clubs as the played along to Queen, David Bowie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Since then, musical video games have maintained their place in the spotlight, selling millions of copies and winning high marks from game reviewers.

In 2006, Guitar Hero II was ranked the fifth best-selling video game of the year, moving about 1.3 million copies, according to research firm NPD Group, despite the fact that it hadn’t been released until Nov. 7 of that year. Twelve months later, a new Harmonix game was making headlines and being added to holiday shopping lists -- the multiplayer tour de force Rock Band. On Sunday, Harmonix upped the ante once again as the sequel, Rock Band 2, hit stores across the country.

Rock Band 2

The evolution from Guitar Hero to Rock Band was an obvious one. Instead of one or two players pushing color-coded “fret keys” on a guitar to match the notes on screen, Rock Band allows a team of up to four players to create an entire virtual band, complete with drummer, bassist, guitarist and vocalist.

New instruments were added to the package, including a four-pad drum electronic drum kit with a kick pedal and a microphone, and users can customize each character within the game. Think your drummer needs a Mohawk and some combat boots? No problem. Want to bulk up your singer and give her a few tattoos? Here’s the needle. The first night I played the game my friends and I formed a band named Biscuits of Doom. We’re big in Australia, I swear.

With Rock Band 2 Harmonix has taken the game a step further. A drum kit expansion pack will be released later this fall that will add cymbals to the already tricky instrument, and a stage kit that includes a fog machine, strobe light and color LEDs will be hitting shelves as well. For players connected to the Internet through their gaming system, Rock Band 2 also is enabled for head-to-head band battles against players from all over the world. The game, without additional instruments and accessories, sells for $59.99.

While sales figures aren’t available for Rock Band 2 yet, since its release in November 2007, the original Rock Band has sold more than 3.5 million copies, and there have been more than 21 million paid downloads of supplementary songs available online, which boost the game’s musical content. There are more than 300 songs available for download, and more carefully selected tracks will be added throughout the year. The real draw behind Rock Band is playing great music.

“One of the main things that’s been Harmonix’s mission from the beginning is to bring that joy you get from playing an instrument to non-musicians,” said Harmonix audio director Eric Brosius. “In our game you’re not really playing the instrument, but people get that same exhilaration, and some people want to take it further and get more excited about taking guitar lessons or taking drum lessons. We think that’s absolutely fantastic, too.”

The first edition’s track list boasted songs in a variety of skill levels and from artists as diverse as Metallica, The Rolling Stones and Las Vegas’ own The Killers. Crafting a list that appeals to fans across genres is no easy feat, according to the game's developers.

“It’s a fairly long process,” Brosius explained. “Typically we troll all the newsgroups we can find and forums for people making suggestions, because everyone out there has an opinion. We have so many musicians at Harmonix that we ask everyone. So, I basically gather all of that up and combine it with my own two cents and start listening, and listening and listening to music. We try to narrow it down to a more reasonable amount that we can actually go after, and then we send the licensing people after it.”

For Rock Band 2, Brosius and his team went after another Las Vegas band, indie rock darlings Panic at the Disco. Joining a lineup that includes tracks from Allman Brothers, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan is Panic’s “Nine in the Afternoon,” a song off their sophomore album, Pretty. Odd., which was recorded in Vegas at The Studio at The Palms.

The Killers, too, have spent time in the casino’s studio.

“I was really excited with The Killers because they were the first band to record,” Palms owner George Maloof said. “I thought it was really cool that two huge local bands could record at the Palms.”

Maloof hasn’t actually played Rock Band, but after having both Vegas bands in the game record under his roof, he might deserve a spot in the game’s credits.

“We’ve had a lot -- I mean a lot -- of artists who’ve done No. 1 songs and No. 1 albums here,” Palms recording studio coordinator Josh Redman said. “It instills a sense of pride when you can look on the chart and say that song or that album was recorded here.”

That’s just what happened with Panic at the Disco. Pretty. Odd. debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling about 145,000 copies in its first week. While it would seem the band doesn’t need any help promoting its music, being featured in Rock Band can give a song an added boost.

“I think [Rock Band’s] also helpful for the artists, too,” Redman mused. “They’re doing tie-ins to sales now where you can actually buy the song on the game. It’s beneficial exposure-wise as well as sales-wise. It’s really good for the band’s exposure to be able to do that.”

Harmonix used the success of its previous titles to help generate a set list for Rock Band 2, and the game disc includes a few big scores.

“Of course there’s a couple of big ones that we’ve had trouble getting in the past,” Brosius said, “like AC-DC is on. That’s been sort of a holy grail for music games for a while.”

And Dylan.

“I’m so happy that we got Bob Dylan. We actually hadn’t even approached Bob Dylan before, but when we talked to him he was so enthusiastic that he looked through his catalogue. He actually took the time to listen with our game in mind and wrote a bunch of suggestions. That was awesome.”

Each time I pick up the guitar or microphone for another session with the band, I can’t help but think of more songs I’d like to play with Biscuits of Doom. In my head a Rock Band wishlist is growing. On it, there’s Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me,” “Get Over it” by OK Go, as well as a slew of other bathroom mirror guilty pleasures. And anything by 2Pac. Come to think of it, when are they coming out with Rap Entourage?

Harmonix has its own wish list, of course -- an Excel document with some 4,000 songs and growing. But, only a small portion of those actually made it to the disc for Rock Band 2. The list emerges like a well-tuned machine that runs the musical gamut with barely a grunt.

Still, not all fans of the game are scrambling to pick up the new edition.

“[Rock Band 1] was really popular, because it was a new thing,” said Lucas Montano, a supervisor at the Best Buy on Maryland Parkway in Las Vegas. “For $60 some people don’t see the value [in buying the new edition], but for other people the can go online and compete against other bands.”

In the first few days after Rock Band 2’s release, Montano said the new edition was mostly selling to people who already own the original version.

“I have [Rock Band 1]. I love mine,” Montano laughed. “As for purchasing 2 – it won’t be happening soon. I don’t go online, and my girlfriend would kill me if I bought it.”

As a borderline Rock Band addict, I understand his objection. But whenever Montano or any other Vegas virtual band member is ready to go online and battle it out, Biscuits of Doom will be waiting.

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