A normal game demo features a kiosk, maybe a couch, and it's all a pretty ho hum experience save for the fact that you're usually playing a game that won't be released for anywhere from a several months to a few years. But when testing out Rock Band 2, it's set up on a stage with professional lights, mixing boards and speakers. And, of course, their add-on fog machine. It all reminded me how freaking expensive this whole music game madness has become, but also just how far it had come.
Seeing the full-sized Fender/Squire branded Rock Band guitar/bass is kind of a trip, too. At first I thought the display case was just showing off their touted new guitar alongside a full sized guitar. Nope. Those full-sized, true wood instruments had subtly incorporated buttons. And Harmonix's new guitar looked like the same thing made for a kid (even if a closer inspection reveals the wood is, of course, veneer).
Playing on the new guitar wasn't quite as different as I'd expected it. The fret buttons feel identical to the current Rock Band guitar. But a difference can be felt in the strum bar, a magnet-based system redesigned to be tougher and more accurate. It just felt right, with double strum timing that was right on.
The biggest improvement, however, was one I could have never seen with my own eyes. An integrated light sensor and mic allow automatic timing calibration with any television. So you always know that it's you, not the game, that is screwing up. (I'm a bit obsessive about my calibration, manually tweaking it to death).
As for the drums...
The new $299 Ion drum kit looks fantastic, but I didn't get a chance to play it or the new stock drum kit. What I like about the Ion is that it's not another fake instrument. It's a midi drum kit that has been retrofitted with an adapter to work on the 360. (Which is, if you think about it, similar to what Rock Band did with their original drum kit but in a more discreet manner.)
But even with all the promised improvements to all the instruments, I'm not sure that even I can justify the repurchase. Those starting anew, however, will be scoring some nice gear.