There may be no such thing as a “can’t miss” in the world of video games or anywhere else, for that matter, but “The Beatles: Rock Band” is about as close as they come. Attaching the catalog, likenesses, aesthetic and aura of the greatest artists in the history of popular music to one of the most accessible and engaging formats in the gaming world was an utter no-brainer.

The logic is condescendingly obvious: If The Beatles’ music is the most compelling rock ever created, just imagine performing it yourself (without even having to be competent on a real instrument). Better yet, imagine being a Beatle without having to leave the living room or put on a black suit (although dressing in-character seems like the logical next step by the time you’ve reached the Shea Stadium chapter). The pairing of The Beatles with “Rock Band” is, of course, stellar. It’s almost as perfect a match as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were.

Time might as well cease for the opening sequence, in which an animated montage depicting The Beatles up to their old antics explodes forward to the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The attention-commanding lead-in epitomizes the attitude of inevitable excellence that pervades the entire game.

It’s an all-around confident affair, reeking of a creative team that knew it had an obvious smash on its hands. Yet there are no signs of complacency or lack of ambition: Every aspect of both the gameplay and the menu screens is meticulously ornamented, from the “Getting Better” guitar strum that plays every time a button is pressed in the menu to the vintage out-of-breath Paul McCartney introductions that precede many songs. And the cut scenes that run between chapters do a perfect job of turning The Beatles’ artistic and career growth into the fantasy it always seemed to be in real life.

Though the significant depth of the game’s artistic dimension goes furthest in setting the atmosphere of total Beatleness, harmony vocals — the game’s only major gameplay addition — are most responsible for giving players a lifelike Beatles musical experience. With a capacity for three microphones, there are no vocal phrases in “The Beatles: Rock Band” that can’t be replicated with near-complete authenticity.

Of course, the harmonies can be quite difficult to hit, even after using the too-brief harmony trainer tutorial (The Beatles’ songwriting and recording legacy often makes people forget they were exceptional vocalists). Those extremely familiar with The Beatles output should eventually be able to find the harmony in most places, but in some cases (like the close harmonies on “I Saw Her Standing There” or the three-part group wall of “If I Needed Someone”) only talented singers have a good chance of nailing harmony parts. A solo mode allows one to three singers to attempt only a song’s main melody, but it makes songs seem frustratingly abridged.

In theory, “The Beatles: Rock Band” can support six players (three singers, guitar, bass, drums), but any serious outfit will want to invest in a few mic stands (or fashion their own) in order to become a fab fourpiece. Simultaneously singing and playing an instrument is a tricky skill to master, but anyone well-versed in Beatles lyrics should have no trouble serving double duty after a few evenings in the Cavern Club.

Unfortunately, the concentration required to play the songs makes noticing the gorgeous background animations nearly impossible. The scenes from the Cavern Club, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Shea Stadium and Budokan that accompany the first four chapters do a marvelous job of reviving the history they represent, and their portrayals of The Beatles’ mannerisms are hilariously accurate. The Abbey Road “Dreamscapes” that cover The Beatles’ post-touring era songs are splendid psychedelic mosaics — occasionally tacky but mostly breathtaking (the passage accompanying the choruses to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a stunning example.)

Whittling The Beatles’ 200-something songs down to a modest 45 for inclusion in the game is an unenviable task, but the producers did a commendable job of balancing timeless classics (too many to name) and deeper cuts (“And Your Bird Can Sing,” “Hey Bulldog”) while also giving George and Ringo their dues.

Much has been made of the fact that “The Beatles: Rock Band” will bring the music of The Beatles to a new generation, but to labor over the social implications of the game would be to ignore its most important attribute: It’s unfathomably fun to play. It may make new Beatles fans out of the uninitiated, but lifelong Beatles fanatics are the ones who will truly appreciate the game’s magic. Sure, it includes unreleased Beatles photos and sound clips, but nobody will care to pour over them — once people have begun playing “The Beatles: Rock Band,” they won’t want to stop.

Though internal strife in The Beatles’ camp over the years has lead to a lot of feet-dragging on new releases, the exceptional greatness of the band’s music has supported every project The Beatles have ever been attached to. And “The Beatles: Rock Band” is no exception. Like “The Beatles Anthology” series, “The Beatles: Rock Band” will go down next to all the original Beatles LPs as indispensable. It should never — and will never — go out of print, because it’s an essential part of the experience. And here’s a tip: If you’re playing the bass, play left-handed.

“The Beatles: Rock Band”
PS3/Xbox 360/Wii
MTV Games
4.5 out of 5 stars

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