E3 07: Rock Band - hands-on

The drum controller has four pads in a semi-circle and a pedal for the kick drum; the use of the pads will change throughout the song. The on-screen display, which looks just like the guitar's, has four buttons (the bass drum is depicted as an orange line across all four rows.) Finally, the microphone at the demo was the same cheap plasticky thing that comes with Karaoke Revolution - nowhere near the quality of Sony's SingStar mics. But in a fun change, you're tasked with banging it against your palm during parts with no lyrics - to simulate a tambourine.

When you're playing as a band, you can't see the background graphics - they're completely obscured by the displays for the four instruments. In other modes, though, you can see the art. More serious-looking and adult than the Guitar Hero II stuff, the use of grittier visual filters and varied camera angles give more of a rock video feel.

Playing the game as a foursome works great. While we weren't able to try it online, we did bang out a passable rendition of Weezer's "Say it Aint So" together. In a nice touch, each player selects his or her own difficulty level - identical to Guitar Hero's - individually.

In terms of other features we heard about but didn't get a chance to check out, there are plenty. You'll be able to create your own character instead of using a pre-packaged model; the career mode will plunk you down in a small town and set you on the road to fame (which honestly sounds like Guitar Hero, but the way it's said basically implies there's more to it than that - there will be narrative elements that we don't yet know about.) The game features "mostly" songs by the original artists (instead of covers) according to Harmonix's Alex Rigopulos. More interestingly, the Star Power from Guitar Hero is apparently being replaced with powerups that are shared between all members of the band - you can even bring back someone who's failed the song. And in great news, "hundreds" of songs will be available for purchase online. Whether they're individual or sold in packs, as with Guitar Hero II, remains to be seen, however.

By sticking to what we already know - that being Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution - Rock Band is incredibly simple to play and more or less impossible for the developers to screw up. And since you can play on your own, it's simply more Guitar Hero if you want it to be (and don't want to invest in drums.) But what we find exciting is how the whole package can come together. Playing together as a four-piece was exhilarating; this game should be fantastic for parties in a way that Guitar Hero can't match. True, it's a bigger commitment and a hell of a lot nerdier. But still, it's an obvious hit in the making.