The difference between playing Rock Band 2 on the ION Drum Rocker and on the set that comes with the game is like the difference between driving a new M-Class Mercedes and a 1982 Honda Accord—both will get you from Point A to Point B, but the ride is truly magnificent in one, and lackluster in the other. Like any substantial upgrade, though luxury and performance don't come cheap.
While the guitar peripheral in music games is only slightly analogous in feel to playing an actual guitar, the drums are a different animal. When toy-drumming, you use many of the same motions you use when you actually drum, so the temptation is to ask how the ION stacks up to real drum kits. Perhaps not a fair question—while you can use the ION as a midi drum controller if you buy it a new "brain," its real purpose is videogames. While a videogame drum set will never take the pace of the wooden kit you keep in the garage, if you’re interested in a game peripheral as opposed to a musical instrument, the ION Drum Rocker is exceptional.
When it came out last year, Rock Band's drumming game provided the only truly new experience with the title. We’d all played Guitar Hero and various Karaoke games before, but the drums were something else. But, after our initial fascination with playing drums in Rock Band died down, we found that the drum peripheral that shipped with the game was disappointing—it’s very loud, it’s flimsy, and, worst of all, it tends to randomly not register drum hits—bad for scoring 100% or gold star status. (In fairness: We haven't played around enough with Rock Band 2's set to really compare it.) The ION solves all of these problems.
After an initial set-up that was surprisingly intuitive—if you’ve ever put together an IKEA bookcase, you’ll find the ION assembly a snap—we sat down to give the kit a test drive. The modular nature of the drumset allows you to customize your drums in any way you like, including stacking the ride cymbal to the left of the snare, like a real kit, and unlike Rock Band’s drums. It’s also sturdy; in fact, it’s all but unshakable and feels unbreakable if you set the thing up correctly.
Once it’s assembled, the first thing you’ll notice upon sitting down behind your ION is the three cymbals facing you. It’s a little daunting at first, but each cymbal corresponds to a pad, so if you want to ignore them and play with the standard four round pad set up of the original Drum peripheral, you won’t have a problem.
Firing up Rock Band 2 for the first time and playing some songs is a revelation. You get the impression that you’re playing a real instrument as opposed to a plastic toy. It’s truly a different experience to play on the ION set than a Rock Band set. With the Rock Band traps, you either have to deal with the loud “click” of the stick hitting the drum or cover the head with felt, which gives your drumming a “dead” feeling. The ION heads take care of this problem with a spongy, sproingy head that mimics the feel of real drums. Your sticks rebound, but don't feel “bouncy.” Also, it registers every single time you hit your drum, including fast rolls, so you can’t blame your crappy score on the peripheral any more.
Banging a trap is quiet, so you’ll hear a lot less clicking and a lot more of what you’re “playing” coming through your speakers. This is a definite improvement—it forces you to listen to the game’s drums as opposed to your own clicks, and it especially great for other members of your band, who will be a lot less likely to be thrown off by a bad drummer’s rudimentary rhythm.
The steel reinforced pedal feels much more sturdy and responsive than the chintzy pedal from the original kit, although it’s still not counterweighted like a real kick pedal, so you won’t mistake it for the real thing. Sadly, the ION lacks a port for a second pedal, so no Van Halen style bass rolls for you.
As far as the cymbals go, we found that anyone who had played Rock Band before pretty much immediately abandoned the cymbals in favor of the tried-and-true set up from the first game. New players might be more inclined to use the ride cymbal for its intended purpose, of course. While the cymbals don’t “feel” much like the real deal, slamming the crash cymbal after a drum fill is an entirely satisfying and mandatory experience with the ION. We likey.
The constant Rock Band problem of the pedal sliding all over the floor is taken care of too. The ION’s pedal is heavy, and there are a couple screws sticking out of the bottom: Put it down on a carpet or a mat and the thing will stay put. Just watch the hardwood floors. The screws leave marks; trust us.
So if you’re serious about fake drum playing, and have $300 bucks sitting around, we highly recommend an ION kit to you. Whether it’s “worth it” or not depends on your financial situation of course, but the ION is, without a doubt, the best music game peripheral we have ever used, and perhaps the best video game peripheral we have ever tried. It’s that good.