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Game Review

First things first: The latest entry in the enormously popular Rock Band franchise isn't what you might think it is. That is to say, it's not an acoustic version of the rhythm game, as fans of MTV's Unplugged series might have expected. Instead, the Unplugged portion of the game's moniker refers to the fact that it's been designed for Sony's handheld PSP game system. Hence, you're not plugged into a console. (Never mind that most console controllers these days have gone wireless.) So if you were hoping for a chance to perform an artsy, atmospheric version of, say, Pearl Jam's "Alive," well, you're out of luck.

Anyone who's ever picked up this franchise's plastic instruments before will find a lot that's familiar—onscreen at least. But translating the game to a portable device also required some significant gameplay changes.

Let's look at what's changed ... and some important stuff that hasn't.

Becoming a Track Master
Shoehorning Rock Band into Sony's handheld system necessitated three major concessions. First, this game is single-player only. No raucous party fun found here. Sony actually recommends playing the game with headphones on to get the most out of Unplugged's sonic experience, which further reinforces this individualistic experience.

Second, there are no faux instrument replicas to plug in and play. Instead, you use the buttons on the controller to manipulate virtual instruments—an activity that should have carpal tunnel surgeons everywhere gleefully sharpening their scalpels, as my hands pretty much morphed into claw-like appendages after about two hours of button-mashing.

Finally, instead of different people playing the game's four different instruments—bass, drums, vocals and guitar—Unplugged cleverly enables a single participant to play all four. Here's how it works: Colored jewels scroll toward you on each instrument's fretboard-like track—just as in the other games—and your job is to hit the button that corresponds with each of the four colors. But here's where things change up a bit. After successfully nailing several notes in a row (a combination called a phrase), you're prompted to toggle over to a different instrument.

The overall goal of the game is to keep each instrument playing all the time. Successfully completing a phrase enables that instrument to play on its own for a while as you turn your attention to the other three. Spend too much time in one place, however, and the other instruments fade out of the mix. To get the highest score, and to keep audiences happy, you've got to deftly manage every track. So in a sense, compared to the game's console counterparts, Unplugged actually adds an interesting level of complexity and strategy to the mix.

The More Things Change ...
If some of the fundamental game mechanics have changed, though, the overall experience is pretty much status quo. Players can jump right into the action via Quickplay Mode or take time to fashion the band of their dreams in Tour Mode. Customizable looks (clothes, hair and "attitude") as well as instruments are unlocked as you earn points, money and fans on tour. A total of 21 cities offer bigger, more elaborate stages that invite you to embrace your inner rock star—which, in case you're wondering, isn't always a good thing.

As I looked at my notes and compared them to our previous Rock Band reviews, it all looked pretty familiar.

Digital female avatars showing lots of leg and midriff? Check. Beer bottles onstage? Check. Mild occult imagery? You know, skulls with horns breathing fire, that kind of stuff? Check. Some problematic bands and songs? Check.

With regard to that last item, the track list once again sports a mix of innocuous and occasionally inspiring songs along with quite a few that raised my eyebrows.

As an unrepentant '80s refugee, for example, I was pleased to jam my soon-to-be-cramping fingers and thumbs into Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer." ("Ooh ah ooh ah ooh ooh ooh ooh," anyone?) And there's no shortage of feel-good anthems to go along with it, including Boston's "More Than a Feeling" and Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle."

What I wasn't crazy about were tunes that spew seriously self-destructive messages. Lamb of God's "Laid to Rest" advises, "Destroy yourself, see who gives a f---." Harsh profanity (f- and s-words) gets censored, but it's not hard to figure out what got bleeped out—especially while wearing those recommended headphones. In addition to the game's 41 songs, a growing library of downloadable content also includes some questionable selections (such as Stone Temple Pilots' "Sex Type Thing" and Disturbed's "Inside the Fire").

Like I said, familiar. Maybe I should have just cribbed our review of Rock Band 2, added a line about cramped fingers and called it a day.

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