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Rock for the Ages

Game On: "Rock Band", $169.99 Xbox 360 and PS3 bundle, including one guitar, microphone and drums; additional guitars $79.99, $149.99 PS2 bundle?, T for Teen?

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Listen to this.

Like the warm hum of an old Fender amp, "Rock Band" has generated its own buzz.

With its pitch-perfect combi-nation of karaoke, air guitar and real drumming, "Rock Band" headlines the music-gaming hysteria opened by "Guitar Hero."

For those not following the rocking ins and outs of music and rhythm video games, the song goes like this: "Parappa the Rapper" hit the PlayStation 2 in 1996 with an innovative game format in which players matched button presses to the beats of a song. Various iterations followed, but none hit a nerve like "Dance Dance Revolution," a high-stepping game that requires players to press buttons on a mat with their feet and, in the process, execute stylish dance moves. Then music-game developer Harmonix teamed with a small publisher of dance games and released "Guitar Hero." By letting players jam along to hits with a plastic controller shaped like a small electronic guitar by pressing buttons in time, "GH" turned living rooms and local bars into sanctuaries of headbanging and furious fretwork.

After a buy-out of the "Guitar Hero" franchise and its publisher, Harmonix found itself picked up by MTV. Freed from the constraints of last-generation hardware, the music-heads at this Boston-based outfit set out to turn rhythmic button-pressing up to 11 with "Rock Band."

Now, in addition to guitar and bass, the basement band can have a drummer and singer. Packed with a diminutive drum kit that looks borrowed from an '80s New Wave band and a sturdy microphone, the four-player "Rock Band" works like two "Guitar Hero" games put together, with "Karaoke Revolution" and "Taiko Drummer" added for good measure.

Even though a complete band rig will set you back more than $200, "Rock Band" still offers one of the best values of the shopping season. In addition to more than 50 classic and contemporary rock songs, the full "Rock Band" experience includes solo, duo and full-band modes. By the time you've mastered all three levels on guitar, bass, drums and vocal for all of the songs, you'll feel like you're ready for a summer amphitheater tour. Whether you're blistering through the Ramones, pouring out Bowie or thundering through the Deep Purple anthem "Highway Star," the game always urges you to keep rocking.

Why would a big company want to give up so much game play for so little money? When you consider that MTV's videos helped kill the radio star, it's not hard to imagine that these days they're set on making video games that will kill the video star. With downloadable song packs and entire albums coming, the minds behind "Rock Band" are betting that a new generation of music fans wants more than a few songs on its iPod. Rather, it wants to experience its music with instruments in hand, the way the rock gods always intended.

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