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Rock Band VR sticks to the virtual reality of being a guitar hero

Harmonix is playing a stripped-down set on Oculus Rift

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

I'm not sure what to make of Rock Band's tour of virtual reality. Harmonix's Oculus Rift title, which won't hit the VR platform until the Oculus Touch controllers are available later this year, does away with the multiplayer "band" portion of the game, focusing primarily on being a virtual guitar player.

Rock Band VR is a solitary experience, putting the player on a virtual stage and letting them strum along to familiar note highways overlaid on stage monitors placed in front of the player and their bandmates. In Harmonix's GDC demo for Rock Band VR, the song I rocked out to was Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" and the setting was a dingy, basement rock club, packed with a few dozen adoring fans.

Harmonix does a good job of settling you into the experience; the player is asked to move their head to look around the virtual stage, then to lean forward toward a mic stand, then to look back at the band's drummer, who will count off his other bandmates. The Rock Band VR demo had a few objects players could interact with and activate, simply by staring at them for a moment. Look at a flash pot on the side of the stage, and it'll pop off some pyrotechnics. Stare at the guitar pedals near your feet, and you'll cycle through guitar effects.

These are fun diversions, but one interaction helps sell the feeling of rocking out on stage: Give your bass player an extended glance, and she'll walk over and passionately jam out with you as play.

Another interaction I didn't personally experience, but was told about by Harmonix, was knocking over the mic stand with the guitar, which is recreated in the virtual setting. Seeing the guitar controller in that 3D virtual space is a neat trick, and as you press the fret buttons on the controller's neck, colored light beams burst forth from each button. It's helpful in placing your fingers, and frankly, is just a cool effect.

Harmonix is tracking the position and movement of the guitar controller —€” controllers from PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are supported in the Rift version —€” by attaching an Oculus Touch controller to the head of the guitar. They've even manufactured a small attachment device that holds the Touch firmly in place.

Some of the virtual tricks Harmonix pulls off are, admittedly, pretty neat. Seeing your virtual guitar strapped to your body and having your bandmates react to your motions helps reinforce the player's place in that digital world. Less appealing though, is having to keep your eyes locked on Rock Band's note highway, which sits at foot level, making every performance feel like you're in a shoegaze band.

Rock Band VR plays like a dramatically scaled back experience —€” even more so than the reduced scope of Rock Band 4€” but Harmonix says it has much more to reveal about its virtual reality game at this year's E3. We'll see what new material they have for virtual rock enthusiasts in June.

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