'Rock Band 2' updated with minimal changes

'Rock Band 2' is a no-brainer for hardcore fans, but others might view the changes as too subtle.

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If you always saw "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" as casual, pick-up-and-play party games, you've only seen half of their appeal. Much like real musicians who practice for years on end to become a master of their craft, these kinds of games are a way of life for some. For those of you craving new challenges (or just new songs) on your plastic instruments, Harmonix is more than happy to oblige with "Rock Band 2."

A lack of content is always an issue in these types of games. Once you've played "Say It Ain't So" or "Wanted Dead or Alive" for the umpteenth time, the music loses all of its appeal. Not only does "Rock Band 2" up the on-disc song count from 58 to 84, but all of the songs from the first game are fully transferable and playable in the new one. The wealth of downloaded songs from the first game is also fully compatible. Music library shortage problem solved, assuming you have deep pockets.

Some of the new songs are duds, but for every slow and boring tune, there's "Alive" by Pearl Jam, "Everlong" by Foo Fighters, "Give It Away" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Let There Be Rock" by AC/DC and the hilariously awesome "Master Exploder" by Tenacious D.

Too bad you can't play most of those songs right out of the box, even in quickplay. "Rock Band 2" continues the series' absurd tradition of forcing players to progress through a career mode and endure the boring songs in order to earn the right to play the ones they actually want to play.

The structure of Band World Tour remains mostly unchanged, but solo players never had the opportunity to experience it. Now the mode is playable with just one band member, as well as with others online, throwing out any excuses for avoiding the addiction of earning more fans and money.

Freestyle drum mode might be the most underrated new feature. Not only can you wail on the drums to your heart's content, but also playing an MP3 from your collection in the background creates a surprisingly enjoyable faux-drumming experience. Even the simple "I'm playing drums without colored notes to help me!" feeling is awesome.

Battle of the Bands, while not necessarily a high-score battle with another band directly, presents opportunities for worldwide bragging rights. Online competition or not, this mode puts fun and interesting twists on the gameplay, like disabling pausing or the use of score-multiplying overdrive.

Harmonix has devised Tour Challenges that automatically generate setlists of songs (usually grouped by artist or genre), giving players more opportunities to earn money. Beyond the technical impressiveness of this feature, though, Tour Challenges are just a new coat of paint on songs you've already played.

And that's the biggest problem with "Rock Band 2": a new coat of paint on the same old game. Many of the graphics assets have been recycled, the rhythm of gameplay remains almost untouched and the most notable tweaks and improvements are simple enough to merit a patch, not a full-blown sequel.

Yes, it's more of the same, and yes, playing the bass still sucks 80 percent of the time, but that magic of feeling like real-life rock stars with your friends remains intact. For hardcore fans of the first "Rock Band," this upgrade is a no-brainer.

And seriously: "Master Exploder." You know you love it. 

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