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The rock wars are starting to roll.

Harmonix, MTV Games and Electronic Arts have released "Rock Band 2" for the Xbox 360 — a full month before Activision’s "Guitar Hero: World Tour" goes on sale.

It’s a move that might help the "Rock Band" franchise gain some ground on the immensely popular "Guitar Hero." However, this is a battle that will be decided by the quality of the instrument-shaped controllers and the depth of the song lists. In both areas, the T-rated "Rock Band" looks very good.

Harmonix has improved its controllers quite a bit. The new guitar’s fret buttons and strum bar are a lot less stiff, which makes them feel more responsive. The biggest improvement to the drums is that they’re now wireless, which means you’ll have less to trip over when you’re rocking out. The drum kit also is sturdier and more sensitive. In fact, the pads can sense the intensity of the impact, which makes the experience feel more realistic.

"Rock Band" veterans will immediately notice that these changes make the guitar and drums much more forgiving. Each of us was easily able to play at higher difficulty levels than we had with the original version of the game. This should answer complaints that the game was more difficult than "Guitar Hero."

At this point, you can’t buy the game and controllers in a package together. You’ll have to buy them separately — for a total of $230 — or rely on controllers from the original "Rock Band."

If none of that sounds appealing, you’ll have to wait about a month. The Special Edition version of the game — including a guitar, drums and mic — is due Oct. 19 for Xbox 360 and most other platforms. It will cost $190. And if you really want that rock star vibe — and have a few extra bucks — you can spend $300 for an ION Drum Set and $70 for a Fender Precision Bass Guitar Controller.

My band — including my sons and some "Rock Band" veterans from the church youth group — played with a new drum set, a new guitar for lead, a "Guitar Hero" guitar for bass and a mic from an old GameCube game. Our mishmash of controllers worked pretty well together. The only hang-up was a bit of difficulty in activating overdrive with the "Guitar Hero" controller.

Harmonix says the game "is compatible with most music game controllers." However, the opposite isn’t necessarily true. The "RB2" guitar didn’t work on "Guitar Hero III."

The 84-track song list is quite diverse. Titles range from oldies, such as The Who’s "Pinball Wizard," to Panic at the Disco’s "Nine in the Afternoon" from earlier this year. It also includes the first tracks provided by ACDC and Bob Dylan for use in a video game.

Harmonix officials have boasted that they’ll have more than 500 songs available for "Rock Band 2" by the end of the year. In addition to the game’s standard tracks, you can import songs from the original "Rock Band" or download material from the constantly growing library on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

Everyone should be able to find plenty of songs they like — although they might have to pay a few extra bucks.

The bottom line is that "Rock Band 2" will make it much more fun to rock ‘n’ roll all night — unless you’re a die-hard "Guitar Hero" fan. Then, you’ll have to wait until Oct. 26 for "World Tour" to hit the stores.

Platforms: Xbox 360 now and PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and Wii in October

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