'Rock Band 2' plays a great encore

— -- So much for a sophomore slump. After an explosive debut, the main rival to Guitar Hero returns with an incredible encore in Rock Band 2.

For those new to the series, here's a synopsis: You play songs by timing button presses or drum beats to hit the notes traveling along the screen. The better you perform, the better your score.

The sequel is a fine-tuning of the original, starting with the instruments. The most notable, welcome difference is all peripherals are now wireless. You'll simply sync up your gear as you would with any wireless console controller.

Guitars now sport a wood-grain finish, making them look less like a toy and more authentic. Everything else is almost identical to the original. The drums include larger, quieter pads, a wider layout, and a sturdier kick pedal made of metal instead of plastic.

Fortunately, you don't need the new peripherals to enjoy Rock Band 2. If you own instruments from the original, you can use them again for the sequel.

Song selection is powerful and diverse, offering a good balance in difficulty and musical genres. Artists include Bob Dylan, Blondie, Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, The Grateful Dead, Linkin Park, and The Who. The game includes over 100 songs, and there's an option to carry over tracks from the first game and download new content. The library currently boasts an astonishing 300 songs — with more likely coming.

On the disc, developer Harmonix has made key changes to their Tour Mode and online components. World Tour is more accessible, allowing you to either play locally or online and change instruments whenever you wish. For example, you could start out on bass but then pick up later on drums.

World Tour also introduces two new options: Tour Challenges and Battle of the Bands. Tour Challenges are usually broken down by instrument, and require you to prove your skills by performing a mini-playlist.

More intriguing, however, is Battle of the Bands, a feature that will be regularly updated by Harmonix. You pick from a set of playlists and attempt to climb past your rivals on the leaderboards by score and star rating. Some lists may include songs with tricky bass grooves or follow a particular theme. One list requires you to play the game's three most challenging songs on expert difficulty. The lists were all clever and fun, and give the title a much longer shelf life.

Rock Band 2 is also more welcoming to gaming novices with its new No Fail mode. Normally, if you struggle on songs, you get booted off stage. With No Fail, you can mess up as often as you'd like but suffer no penalty.

That kind of forgiveness is an excellent way to bring aboard new players. Case in point: Two of my friends who never play video games gave Rock Band 2 a shot on No Fail. At first, they were horrible. But given the time to play through and work out the timing without disruption, they eventually ended up performing much better on future tracks.

The game does feel very similar to the original, but that's a good thing. The crowds still sing along and cheer loudly. The bands play along as always. And Rock Band is still an electrifying crowd-pleaser.