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Hands on with The Beatles: Rock Band

Classic rock fans will have a chance to strap on a plastic guitar and jam along with the biggest act in popular music history with the September 9 release of The Beatles: Rock Band.

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On September 9, classic rock fans will have a chance to strap on a plastic guitar and jam along with the biggest act in popular music history.

Artfully orchestrated buzz has been building for The Beatles: Rock Band since the start of 2009, and the team of developer Harmonix and publisher MTV Games (and distribution partner EA) hope to provide a bright spot in an otherwise drab video game market with one of the few video game products for the 2009 holiday season that has a real chance of appealing beyond core gamers.

We've gotten our hands on a final retail version of the game (minus the new Beatles-inspired instruments, but our old Rock Band gear worked fine), and gave it a test drive in CNET's AV Lab. Check out this video to see our extremely shaky music skills, and read our hands-on impressions below.

Music aside, this is essentially the same Rock Band game you've been playing for two years, but with nicely done overhauls of the menus, graphics, and interface, including some very cool animated Beatles segments. The biggest change to the actual gameplay is the inclusion of three-part vocal harmonies (you'll need three USB mics). We found out the hard way that these songs are actually pretty tough to sing, and nailing the harmonies is even tougher.

While there's a welcome free-play mode where all 45 included songs are immediately available to play, that's fewer songs than some previous Rock Band or Guitar Hero games include, and the track selection is sure to be missing at least a few of your favorites. There's clearly a big push to sell individual songs and whole albums as downloads (at $1.99 per track), starting with "Abbey Road" in October. That said, the included tracks lean heavily on the early hits, but also include a few nice semi-obscure gems, like "Hey Bulldog."

They've sold millions plastic instruments and downloadable tracks, but annual entries in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises may leave buyers suffering from music game fatigue (note the piles of unsold music games and accessories spotted at the Circuit City and the Virgin Megastore closeout sales). Still, if anyone can cross over into the non-gaming mainstream (or get us to pony up for yet another set of faux music gear), it has got to be the Fab Four.

While Rock Band and Guitar Hero remain popular, it takes extra effort to snag existing users with content worth caring about, hence band-themed editions starring Metallica, Aerosmith, and AC/DC. The Beatles' library is one of the most popular and elusive in the music industry, so MTV and Harmonix have obviously scored a pop-culture coup here. On the other hand, don't expect more than a Beatles reskinning of the Rock Band experience--albeit an impressively detailed and historically deep reskinning, with a few key new tweaks.

Putting The Beatles before Rock Band in the game's title was no accident--in fact, this is a Beatles game first and foremost. However, with only 45 of the Fab Four's songs included, you'll be expected to shell out significant extra cash to put your library up near the size of Guitar Hero 5's 85 tracks.

Three-part harmony allows up to three Beatles karaoke-ers to jump in and sing along, and the effect is simple and fun, focusing more on hopping in on a comfortable note than nailing parts perfectly. Another observation: Beatles songs are perfectly suited for Harmonix's rhythm-game format, thanks to a diversity of styles, strange lyrics, and fun hooks (and some bizarre experimental segments) that make the game more family-friendly than the thrash-and-rock styles of Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes past.

In the end, it's one heck of a bar for future licensed music games.

Don't get me wrong, I love The Beatles. Without them, half the bands I listen to would be directionless. Maybe I've just had it with plastic musical instruments in video games, but for me Beatles Rock Band is nothing more than a $60 expansion pack.

Sure, the game's cut scenes are the best they've ever been in the franchise, and you do get a feeling that you're reliving bits and pieces of Beatlemania. There are also plenty of impressive animations and full-motion video scattered behind the scrolling notes and lyrics. Seeing Shea Stadium and the Ed Sullivan Show as backdrops all add to the beautifully conceived atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that's where the Rock Band progression ends. There aren't any really new features here and there are tons of classic Beatles songs not on the disc that you're going to have to eventually pay for in order to play.

I can understand the absence of "Eleanor Rigby"--it doesn't lend itself well to be Rock Band-ized--but there's no reason $60 can't at least get you rocking out to "Hey Jude."