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A Fab reunion

Harmonix game brings Liverpool Lads together right now (digitally)

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By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - It took a video game birthed in Cambridge to reunite the surviving Beatles.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the widows of Beatles members John Lennon and George Harrison, appeared Monday at the annual gaming industry conference Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. They were there to promote the forthcoming The Beatles: Rock Band, the latest version of the hit series from Cambridge game maker Harmonix Music Systems. Ono and Harrison didn't speak, but as the animated game versions of band members appeared on the screen, McCartney joked, "Whoever thought we'd end up as androids?"

It was a quick appearance during a star-packed presentation from Microsoft Corp., which introduced Project Natal, a radical new control system for its Xbox 360 game system that recognizes the voice and movements of players without the use of a handheld device.

The newest version of the Rock Band music game was developed by Harmonix and published by its parent company, Viacom Inc.'s MTV Games unit. Using controllers shaped like drums and guitars, players will "perform" with various incarnations of the band, from its modest early 1960s beginnings in the clammy Liverpool nightclub The Cavern to its final, live concert on a London rooftop.

"We make music games, but we consider it to be music first and games second," said Harmonix chief executive Alex Rigopulos. "We really consider what we do in this category to be making new kinds of music experiences and to let people experience music in a new way."

Forty-five Beatles songs will be available on the game's disc when it's released on Sept. 9, including "I Am The Walrus," "Back In The U.S.S.R.," "Here Comes The Sun," and "Get Back." Priced at $59.99, the game will be sold in a deluxe edition for $249.99, including microphone and guitar and drum controllers.

"The Beatles really had a two-part career," said Harmonix spokesman John Drake. "In the first half, they were the biggest live band in the world, and then from there they sort of went back in the studio . . . and were making records that changed the face of music."

The game represents that twofold nature of Beatles performances by offering some songs in re-created historic venues, such as the Abbey Road studios, and some within fantasy dreamscapes. "Here Comes the Sun," for example, is played on a sunny, psychedelic hilltop. Where only one player at a time could sing in previous versions of Rock Band, the Beatles edition allows for three singers at once, re-creating those famous Fab Four harmonies and allowing for up to seven players.

McCartney, Starr, Ono, and Harrison all had a say in development. "These are titanic figures, right? And they also made some of the greatest art that I've experienced in my life, so to actually be in a creative collaboration with them, it's just stunning," said Rigopulos. "It's intoxicating. But what was most surprising to me was how engaged they actually were."

"Everything was run by the shareholders, in terms of the concepts and getting feedback on how everything turned out," said Chris Foster, Harmonix's director of design. "It was a real honor and kind of terrifying. It was pretty amazing."

The Beatles game is widely seen as a major coup in the competition between the Rock Band label from Harmonix and MTV Games, and the megahit Guitar Hero franchise, originally developed by Harmonix, but now produced by Activision Inc. "Activision has the Guitar Hero brand, which among gamers is a huge brand, and it's going to take a lot for MTV Games to leap ahead of that name," said Ryan Geddes, the features editor for IGN.com, a leading news and analysis source in the gaming industry. "I think if anything can do it, it's the Beatles game."

Geddes had high marks for the game after playing a song on a makeshift stage at the trade show. "I really think it's an amazing game. They've sort of done everything right to appeal to both the hardcore gamers and the mass market," he said. "What we've seen so far looks very promising."

Material from Globe wire services is included in this report.

Beatles are back

Beatles are back

See scenes from the game and the E3 event.