Getting the band back together
Rock Band 4 doesn’t feel like a sequel; it feels like a favor.
If you’re currently thinking that $250 for a set of plastic instruments and a game disc doesn’t exactly sound like charity, hear me out. Yes, Harmonix is a business, and the primary reason it decided to revive its dormant rhythm game franchise on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is, most likely, to fill the company swimming pool with money. But neither of those facts presupposes the studio had to make this version of Rock Band 4, one that ensures the fans who’ve invested the most in the series need to pay the least to make the jump across hardware generations.
The accommodations Rock Band 4 offers existing players are many and surprising. A wide selection of first- and third-party instruments are compatible with the new release (though Xbox One owners should note they need to purchase a dongle to use their Xbox 360 equipment properly). At launch, roughly 1700 songs released as downloadable content for the last generation of Rock Band games will import free of charge, many featuring upgrades to take advantage of new gameplay features. A future update will even allow players to add the on-disc music from the first and second games in the series to their Rock Band 4 library, and Harmonix is looking into a similar option for the Rock Band 3 soundtrack.
I cannot stress enough just how unnecessary all of this is. Harmonix could just as easily have devised a sequel that actively required players start over with new instruments and DLC. Why not?and I’m just spitballing here?throw a sixth fret button on the guitar and introduce some kind of free-to-play-inspired, microtransaction-driven system for future tracks?
Would the fanbase have complained? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine too much earnest outrage. The world intuitively understands that licensing music from the recording industry is about as fun, easy, and sane as giving Gary Busey elocution lessons, and gamers accept that a console-generation gap increasingly means a hard reset that leaves past purchases stranded on dated hardware. Those who would lose the most, the diehards who spent like crazy on DLC and high-end instruments, would almost certainly be the first in line to pick up an all-new, all-incompatible Rock Band 4 and start opening their wallets all over again. To not take advantage of them is almost noble.
If it seems like I’m harping on the goodwill Harmonix deserves for the emphasis on its fans, there’s a reason: Past that player-first mentality, Rock Band 4 mostly disappoints.
Actually, in the case of the soundtrack, dedication to established fans is the entire reason the game comes up short. Harmonix decided not to include any songs that were available in past games or DLC releases?and when that selection is approaching 2,000, that means it’s tough to cobble together 65 exciting options. First-time appearances from Van Halen, Elvis, and U2 are great, and highlights from more recent artists like Bruno Mars and Grouplove are instantly recognizable if not yet iconic, but beyond that there’s a fair bit of barrel-scraping, even from the big-name artists. I mean, it’s tough to avoid when we’re on the 18th song from The Who, the 21st from Rush, and the 31st (!) from The Foo Fighters. The choicest songs are long since accounted for. We’re in the deep, deep, deep cuts.
While having access to a huge volume of DLC is nice and future plans to allow imports from previous game discs is (to belabor the point further) fantastic, it doesn’t do much for Rock Band 4 as a standalone game. If you’re a newcomer to the series or you ditched Microsoft for Sony this generation (or vice versa), you’re not gaining anything but the opportunity to spend more money. That’s a dubious privilege no matter how great the selection may be.
The disc imports are particularly thorny, since the first three games have some of the best songs in the entire library: “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Free Bird,” “The Power of Love,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Good Vibrations,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Radar Love,” “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Insofar as Harmonix has publicly announced, you’ll only be able to access those songs in Rock Band 4 if you own the old discs, and that’s just the start of the confusing requirements. To export the first Rock Band, you just need the disc and a $5 export fee. To export Rock Band 2, you need a code that only shipped with new copies of the game, and you also need a copy of Rock Band 3. Furthermore, Rock Band 2 exports are no longer officially supported by Harmonix on PS3, so you’ll need to talk directly to EA support and hope they can provide you with a code. Rock Band 3 may eventually export, but the official line right now is that Harmonix is “looking into the possibility.”
Imagine a scenario where Harmonix didn’t worry about duplicates, and Rock Band 4 could have easily assembled a phenomenal, jaw-dropping soundtrack that puts everything else in the genre, past, present, or future, to shame. That lineup is still available?or will be in the near future?but you’ll have to jump through hoops and drop a fair amount of cash across multiple consoles to make it happen.
And Rock Band 4, undeniably, does far less with those songs it does offer. Despite a five year hiatus, the game offers less of almost everything when compared to its predecessors. Some of these cutbacks are smart, lending credence to Harmonix’s stated goal of honing the series down to a more focused point. Few are seriously mourning the loss of the keyboard or the Pro Guitar controller, the latter of which seemed to sheepishly cave to the frequent accusations that playing at rock stardom wasn’t enough if you weren’t actually learning real-world music skills.
More often, though, the omissions feel like the outcome of development triage designed to get a core gameplay experience in the hands of players on time and on budget. When modes and options that appeared in the very first Rock Band are missing, it’s hard to argue that Harmonix is just reducing bloat.
Take a look at this laundry list of what’s been left out: No practice mode for slowing down songs or isolating tricky riffs to improve your play. No way to plan out a custom setlist in advance, then play through the entire show without interruptions. No online play of any sort at launch. (Harmonix says 90 percent of all multiplayer in previous Rock Band titles was local, per their internal data. That statistic will no doubt comfort all the players who contributed to the other 10 percent.) No Endless Setlist, the marathon challenge that tasks a band with beating every song back to back.
Really, you get two modes in addition to the standard quickplay: shows and tours. Shows are a neat attempt to streamline the party game experience, allowing you to keep playing a steady stream of tracks for as long as you want without having the return to the menu or labor over selecting the next song. Setlists are instead built on the fly by allowing band members to vote on a handful of randomly selected options based on descriptions of songs that range from specific to vague. Sometimes you’ll get a title. Others, you may just get a year, an artist, or a genre, throwing in a tiny element of surprise. Shows are a perfectly fine addition, but they’re not strong or robust enough to carry an entire facet of the game.
On the other hand, the tours, which serve as the game’s career mode, are probably the best iteration of the concept to date. In between playing gigs?a mix of the voting-driven shows, pre-defined setlists, and events where you can freely choose what you play?there’s a light Choose Your Own Adventure element, where you pick between career trajectories. Though you’re functionally just deciding if you want more fans, more cash, or free wardrobe options, the way it branches off of itself and offers amusing textual recaps of the band’s exploits is entertaining in a simple, fun way. Apart from a dramatically reduced number of character customization options, there’s not much to complain about. Touring in Rock Band 4 strikes an excellent balance, making play more structured and engaging without ever overcomplicating matters or shifting the focus away from the core gameplay of individual songs.
That core, it must be said, is as strong as ever. Individual instruments work great, the note charts are still the best around, and the feeling of playing with a full complement of four is more enjoyable than whacking away on hunks of plastic has any rational right to be.
There are even a few minor improvements to that gameplay experience. Most notable is the addition of freestyle guitar solos, which do away with defined notes during solo sections and instead provide vague guidelines for improvisation. One section will tell you to hold the note of your choosing, another will give you a speed to play any sequences of notes, another will tell you to slide smoothly up and down the fretboard to stay within a guideline, and so on. No matter how you riff within these broad limitations, you’ll play something that sounds right at home in the song.
The major downside is that’s it’s considerably more jarring to transition back to the charted notes when the solo is finished, and it’s easy enough to get carried away with your simulated virtuosity that you’ll frequently blow a combo during or coming out of a freestyle solo. Serious score chasers will almost certainly want to turn the feature off right away, and even casual players may feel slighted by the rough transitions.
While the freestyle solos are the most involved change to gameplay, other band members get neat tweaks as well. Vocalists on hard and expert difficulties can improvise around the official melody and still earn points if they stay in the proper key, and the previously empty drum fills used to activate Overdrive now draw from a pool of random patterns so less experienced percussionists can better keep the beat. Bassists get nothing, which is exactly what they deserve.
All are reasonable improvements, but they do little to justify the reduced scope of the game as a whole. Now, it’s worth noting that Harmonix has announced their intentions to expand upon Rock Band 4 with new features in free post-launch updates, but there’s not really a firm road map of what’s coming when. So far, the studio has announced just one specific feature?Variable Breakneck Speed, which allows each player to manually change the rate at which notes scroll?to arrive in December, along with much vaguer enhancements to the game’s social and competitive potential.
But even if Harmonix delivers in a major way, those upcoming features can’t fairly factor into what we’re talking about today. Good intentions and exciting promises for the future don’t magically make the Rock Band 4 currently available for purchase into a great investment for first-time players or returning fans. In pragmatic terms, both groups would be better served sticking with Rock Band 3 for the time being, where they have access to more features, the same massive DLC library, and imported tracks from the first two games without any wait. The convenience of moving onto a more recent system is outweighed, in the short term, but what you’re giving up on the way there.
None of this is to say that I personally doubt Harmonix will come through and turn Rock Band 4 into the definitive music game of this generation, if not all time. I trust everything they say?or at least the sentiment behind it?and I’ve already spent an inadvisable amount of money on DLC. I even picked up copies of the first three games on PlayStation 3, just so I can get those songs the minute they’re available to bring over. But while I’m invested in Rock Band 4, that doesn’t easily translate to an unqualified recommendation.
If I’m trying to maintain any shred of impartiality, I have to admit that the solid Harmonix did its fans with legacy hardware and DLC support doesn’t inherently make their concept of Rock Band 4 as a long-term platform any more of a sure thing at launch?even if that admission feels a little cold. Saying not to look a gift horse in the mouth doesn?t hold up to critical scrutiny. Actual proof will only come when the game is the fully featured, complete experience it deserves to be. Until that day arrives, series neophytes and plastic-guitar experts alike can probably still find a few compelling reasons to pick up Rock Band 4. But the truth is, they’ll be paying Harmonix back for the goodwill it’s earned, repaying an admirable gesture with a favor of their own.
|Developer: Harmonix ? Publisher: Harmonix ? ESRB: T – Teen ? Release Date: 10.6.2015|
Harmonix bills Rock Band 4 as a platform that will grow and improve with the future, but for now, the new game offers little reason to upgrade from Rock Band 3, with a weaker soundtrack, fewer modes, and more promises of exciting features than actual, demonstrable ones.
|The Good||Gameplay as strong as ever, backwards compatibility makes for a phenomenal day-one DLC library.|
|The Bad||Severely lacking in game modes and must-play song on the included soundtrack.|
|The Ugly||How much money you’re liable to spend on DLC if you’re a Rock Band newcomer.|
|Rock Band 4 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. A Band-in-a-Box bundle and additional guitar were provided by Harmonix for the benefit of this review.|