It’s been 4 years since we have had a new iteration of Rock Band, and you know what… that’s a good thing. I was so apathetic towards beat/music games after the onslaught of Rock Band, Guitar Hero and other games of that genre in the PS3/Xbox 360 generation that even DJ Hero, probably the game with the most unique soundtrack of the whole genre, didn’t grab me for long. Giving a brand a break (not just to reset mindshare, but the time to reflect on the gameplay, input devices, and post-launch life cycle) is probably the best thing Harmonix could have done for Rock Band 4.
Being the resident video game expert at work, I am often asked by colleagues what games they should get for party and couch co-op situations. It’s been a hard one to answer lately, as most games have turned to online play for multiplayer action. Even games that were originally split screen co-op for story mode (I’m looking at you Halo 5 though I understand and respect why) don’t offer that two controller/same tv experience anymore. Along comes Rock Band 4, a game that is easy to name-drop due its history, and a repertoire of songs that will intrigue any music fan.
Gotta start with the gear in your hands. Gone are the days where the Rock Band instruments feel like fisher price toys. Third-party peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz was brought on board to create the controllers and they did an excellent job on these “next-gen” versions. The guitars are branded with Fender, a name axe gods know and love, and look pretty darn similar to the Stratocaster they are mimicking. The input buttons are no longer raised, but have become part of the fret board, with the only indication as to which color represent by a strip of colour on the side. There are a secondary set of buttons on the top of the neck for solos. The drums feel like an electric drum kit with a sturdier construction and tougher plastic. The sticks that come in box are a lightweight wood which feel good to hold on to and hit the kit with a satisfying clack. The last item in the band in a box is the mic. It’s a little light compared to the SM58s I am used to dealing with at work, but has the right size and shape to mimic a stage mic, and fits in most mic stands.
The gameplay was great in previous versions of Rock Band… so if it’s not broken, don’t fix it right? Except for the addition of solos, Rock Band will feel like jumping on that old bicycle again. Of all the party games that are out there (though that list seems to be short this generation) Rock Band is one of the easiest to explain and teach to non-gamers. It doesn’t matter if you have never used an analog stick before, you probably know Van Halen’s Panama well enough to sing or at the least follow along with the beat and the graphics on screen to have a good time. Harmonix has also made it easier to change difficulties mid song, very few if any glitches or lag, and the load time is pretty darn quick. The one major upgrade to gameplay is the addition of solos, which only really show up once you start playing at a higher level of difficulty in the songs. They are indicated through large color areas on the gameplay track, blue indicating solos to be played near the headstock and orange to be played near the body of the guitar. A solid line of blue going up the track means hit one note (you can still use the whammy bar) and smaller lines across indicate to strum when they hit the play area. You will get a mashup of just blue, just orange and blue and orange together where you can just wail anywhere you want on the guitar. The gameplay feels natural and probably the most realistic interpretation of an organic solo in a digital game.
The tour, Rock Band’s version of career mode, is pretty straight forward, full of wit as you encounter the trials and tribulations of being a band on the road. But honestly, I don’t really care for career mode. To me, Rock Band is a party game. There is no real incentive to play career mode (beyond getting trophies and achievements) because all the songs are unlocked for you from the start. I just hop right into quick play and jam out.
At first glance, the song list for Rock Band 4 is pretty solid. But once I get into the game, trying to figure out which songs I know enough to sing along too, my list is limited, and I do pride myself in being pretty knowledgeable about rock music :P. Those that have owned Rock Band in the past have access to their old catalog of songs, but for those that didn’t own the game before, you gotta spend some cold hard cash. The first time I went to purchase songs, the store inside the game did not work (yes this was post game launch). So I jump into the PlayStation store to see what is available for me to download. And the experience SUCKED. There seemed to be no way to filter to only have Rock Band songs (I was presented by Rocksmith and Sony Music downloads too) and there was no categorization. When we were streaming Rock Band 4 on our twitch channel, we had a big hole in our stream just where we were looking through music to buy. Before posting this review, I wanted to try the in game store again. Last night, I went looking through and the store did work to preview what was available for purchase, and I noticed that there was categorization… but I kept getting prompted over and over that the store was not available and it would boot me out to the main game screen. Is this an issue with the in game store or was the PSN being dumb? I am not sure. But after 4 experiences trying to buy tracks for the game I have to say that I am not impressed.
What they could do to improve:
More than any other game, I think a subscription service for music would be beneficial to Rock Band 4. We are all accustomed to being signed up for iTunes Music, Spotify, Netflix and other streaming services that I wouldn’t bat an eye at paying a flat rate to have unlimited access to all the tracks available in Rock Band 4 for a month. Just Dance 2016 did it with Just Dance Unlimited, a subscription-based service with a streaming library of songs from previous games and new songs that are exclusive to Unlimited. I know the Rock Band team has a plan to have this game extend beyond its traditional life cycle, and this would really up the ante.
The thing about Rock Band that topples all gripes with the game is that it is timeless. You will never get old of jamming out with your friends, bringing people back into the living room again for some fun and good times. Rock Band 4 is that multiplayer experience that includes everyone, young or old, noob or hard core gamer. It breaks down barriers for the love of game and good ol rock n roll.