Way back in the early 1980s, Huey Lewis insisted, with the backing of The News, that the heart of rock and roll was still beating. Now, 31 years later, we’re trying to find out just what condition the heart of Rock Band is in.
The music game genre hit the video gaming like a tornado back in 2005. By the time we figured out Guitar Hero and its sequel, Harmonix had spun off into their own company and was adding drums and vocals to the mix with Rock Band. Then there was DJ Hero. We started making jokes about Orchestra Hero, Sousaphone Hero. Rock Band: Green Day, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Beatles all followed, though that last one was especially good. There were Rock Band and Guitar Hero nights at bars and other events, and parties all over featured the game as a primary set piece.
Then the market, totally saturated, crashed. People felt silly keeping the plastic instruments around, others were just done with them. Harmonix squeezed out one last game, Rock Band 3, but unlike the first two games, this one didn’t include a code to download the songs for use in the sequel – they knew the lights were dimming.
Never one to stick to straight-up controller games for long, the company experimented with Kinect-fueled titles, releasing games like Dance Central that gave Microsoft’s under-supported peripheral a reason to exist. They even released a couple on the Xbox One and put out the Kinect’s swan song, Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved.
But now they, along with Activision’s Guitar Hero Live, want to take a defibrillator to the heart of rock and roll video games.
Whether you’re on Xbox One or PlayStation 4, Rock Band is back.
The History of Rock
Perhaps the single most important aspect of Rock Band 4 is its focus on legacy. Harmonix knows its biggest fans bought hundreds of songs, and losing access to those in the generational jump would be a non-starter for a huge section of the fanbase.
A complication to all this is that Harmonix is no longer backed by MTV, a partnership that gave them massive access to both funding and music licenses. Harmonix is an independent studio hoping to respect the legacy of a game created under very different circumstances.
For the most part, Rock Band 4 actually does a pretty good job of this out of the box, but there are complications.
While they’re working as fast as possible to move over songs, it isn’t simply a matter of cut and paste. At release, 1700 of the tracks are available. The more tracks you own, the more likely it is you’ll find a favorite or two (or fifty) missing. 900 is admirable, but there’s room for disappointment for those with particular favorite tracks.
It’s possible, too, that Harmonix doesn’t have the licenses for some songs – the three Metallica tracks they put out stick out as a potential example – and won’t be able to release them. Right now it’s hard to tell which tracks those might be.
There’s also no way right now to import Rock Band 3 tracks into the game, and it’s unlikely there will ever be a free option as, again, the license for that just doesn’t exist and Harmonix is an independent studio. As someone who still regularly plays the game at parties, I’d be willing to pony up some cash to transfer the tracks, but it’s a tough proposition for the developer.
There’s also the matter of recovering your music. There’s no simple way to redownload all your songs at once. Harmonix states that Microsoft – I played the game on Xbox One – doesn’t allow batch downloading, so there’s no way to just hit “download all.” There’s no menu item to view your purchased tracks, either, so you’ll have to go into the store menu and browse through the hundreds of tracks and select and confirm each download independently. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but with the focus on legacy, a quick way for the fans with the most music to recover their tracks would’ve been appreciated.
Finally, there’s no recourse whatsoever for those who saw the tides shifting between console generations and decided to jump ship from Xbox to PlayStation. Tracks will transfer within one platform, but not across others.
The Reunion Tour
It’s not all old stuff, though, and it’s not simply a new track list, either – though there is that, too.
There are tons of small touches to make the familiar feel fresh, and the new solo system is easily the best.
Taking a page from their work on Disney Fantasia, the solo system in Rock Band 4 is much more complex and interactive. Instead of putting you under additional pressure to hit the same pre-programmed notes, you actually get to play something that resembles an artistic creation.
When the solo starts, different blue and orange fields will roll down the runway, asking you to strum the instrument at different rates. While you’re doing this, though, you can hit any combination of keys and put out different sounds. The upper and lower keys on the guitar are both put to use here as lower and higher notes, and that lever you never used in the previous games can create a pretty substantial change to the sound you put out during these sequences, adding effects like echo and wah-wah to your aural creation.
In the background, Harmonix has designed a system that will let you do pretty much whatever you want and still make it sound reasonably good. I revolted against the game’s country song by going full hair metal on the solo, tapping the high note keys and strumming the bar as fast as I could. It actually sounded… pretty good. A bit like if you tried to get the characters from Adult Swim’s Metalocalpyse to play country.
These changes have already started to bleed over into the downloadable tracks as well. The new solos don’t appear in every track, but they’re frequent enough that it can add a new dimension to some old favorites.
There’s even an endless solo mode you can check out if you just want to go nuts on Van Halen’s “Panama” or something like that and not worry about silly stuff like scores and accuracy. It’s just a solo for the whole length of the song.
The tracklist itself is pretty solid. There are a lot of tracks that, whether on guitar or drums, are a lot of fun to play. I didn’t find as many tracks I wanted to sing, but getting a group of friends together to play the game showed me quickly that it was more about my tastes than Harmonix’s, as they found tons of tracks within the initial tracklist to enjoy.
The game’s story mode is incidental and unnecessary as ever, especially with all songs unlocked from the start, but it’s still there. It does add a new way to play the game to the fold, though. If you select “Play a Show” from the menu, rather than picking a song from the list, you’ll be given choices. These can show up in a couple different ways. It might just be a matter of picking one track or another, or you might be asked to choose between “A 90s track,” “A long song,” or “A punk rock song.” This adds a nice element of surprise into the game for experienced or indecisive players intimidated by longer track lists.
One complication I encountered as a result of this is that I’d let my friend login and download his tracks and, without him signed in, those tracks do not work. That means that if one of those elements chooses a track I don’t have access to, I simply end up booted out to the main menu. The Play a Show option should’ve come with the ability to exclude tracks by user – it feels inelegant and unpolished to get booted out to a menu, and I shouldn’t have to delete all the tracks my friend spent so much time downloading.
Finally, there’s the matter of the instruments. Harmonix sent me two guitars, a drum set, and a microphone. The short version is that all of these are better than ever. They’re lighter, they feel more solid, they require fewer batteries, and they feel more responsive. They don’t really change the game, but they’re a clear improvement and worth checking out if you threw out your old instruments and want to get back into the game.
If you still have your old – wireless only – instruments, though, they’re still compatible. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see how my old stuff worked as I didn’t get access to the Xbox version’s wireless dongle, which enables compatibility with Xbox 360 instruments, before release.
Rock Band 4 is as fun as the series has ever been. Having spent time with it both alone and with a room full of friends, I found myself enjoying it as much as I had any previous version. The solos and new tracks add a fresh feeling to the game, and the familiar instruments and old songs keep things grounded. Much of the game is the same, but that’s not a bad thing.
As a new game, Rock Band 4 is a bit rocky, and it’s tough to recommend picking it up right away. Harmonix has always been good about supporting fans, though, and by the time Christmas rolls around, many of the kinks that currently exist – missing tracks, fan-requested features, and more – will almost certainly be solved. Further, Harmonix wants Rock Band 4 to be a platform – there will be no Rock Band 5 as a follow-up to this one, nor will we see Rock Band: Mumford & Sons or anything like that. This means we can likely look forward to new features and improvements to the game for a long time to come.
Hardcore Rock Band fans will want to pick this up, but if you’re at all concerned, you’ll want to…
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Rock Band 4 (with two guitars, a microphone and a drum set) for the Xbox One from the publisher. We played about 20 hours of the game before writing this review.