One of the most interesting case studies in all of gaming is that of the modern rhythm game. It’s a story full of innovation and creativity, which was almost brought to a screeching halt by over-saturation. A phenomenon that fizzled out after suits got greedy, to put it bluntly.
What began with the release of a couple of masterful, track and button-based PS2 games called Frequency and Amplitude quickly evolved into a major hit once a plastic guitar was introduced. It was then that the iconic and somewhat infamous Guitar Hero brand was born, giving Harmonix a bonafide moneymaker that it stuck with through a couple of iterations. After that, it was on to greener pastures, as the developer used its past experience to create the game it always wanted to make.
They called it Rock Band.
The high was surely euphoric, and I fondly remember the days when both Guitar Hero — which Activision took over and milked mercilessly — and Rock Band ruled parties and sleepovers. Hell, my friend and I even took an unsuccessful road trip to Buffalo, in order to try to get an early copy of the first game after it was delayed in Canada. But, as often happens, the craze petered out; not because of a lack of quality, but because the market became oversaturated. It wasn’t necessarily Harmonix’s fault, either, given that it was the Guitar Hero brand that really spammed store shelves. Both suffered, though, and thus began a lengthy hiatus for the two giants, who were joined in the marketplace by Ubisoft’s guitar-teaching Rocksmith, which attempted to carve a separate niche out for itself.
Now, five years after it released its last numbered iteration, Harmonix is back with Rock Band 4, in an attempt to create a music platform that will remain for calendars to come.
Gone are Rock Band 3‘s keyboards, allowing for the classic four man band to reappear, with guitars, drums and microphones made available for melodic entertainment. On the other hand, freestyle guitar solos are introduced into the fold, allowing guitar players to express themselves by virtually shredding their daydreams into reality. It’s a neat feature, which truly adds to the experience, although it is overused.
Freestyle guitar solos take over for the frantic solos of yesteryear, and act as a much better replacement. Although they allow for creativity and let you do as you please, subtle hints are given as to what timing and buttons you should aim for. If you’re like me, though, you’ll just have fun shredding to your heart’s content, and will still come away with competent scores.
What’s especially nice about this new mechanic is how well the notes blend into one another. Even if you’re just hammering on a bunch of random notes or chords, you’ll still produce a solid sound at almost all times. Add in the guitar’s sound altering toggle switch and you have something that you can truly make your own.
In addition to freestyle guitar solos, Rock Band 4 has also been gifted with charted drum fills and vocal harmonies for every song; two additions that fans of the franchise are sure to appreciate. The fills, themselves, are authored, and the game chooses one to deploy whenever it senses that you have enough overdrive saved up. This prevents you from throwing your band members off by randomly wailing on the drums like in past titles.
On the other hand, pro guitars and practice mode are both a no-show, although specialized tutorials are made available. The player creation suite also feels lacking, and doesn’t offer the incredible amount of creativity that it should at this stage. Sure, you can create a decent-looking rocker without much of an issue, but the customization options are surprisingly lacking and feel as if they’ve been toned down.
What may really bother people, though, is the fact that online play is not available at launch. However, that’s not to say that it will never be a part of Rock Band 4, given that Harmonix has already confirmed its plan to treat its latest as a rhythm platform instead of just another game. Surely, if enough people utter disappointment about its M.I.A. status, the developers will have no choice but to add it back in. They may even be working on it as you read this.
If you’re like me, and happen to have trouble getting friends together for gaming nights due to the joys of adulthood, then you’ll want to customize the band that joins your created superstar on stage. This is both a pro and a con of the Rock Band 4 experience, because while you can select from some rather unique creatures, you’re seemingly limited to choosing pre-set musicians instead of being able to create your own from scratch. It’s a disappointment for sure, but it doesn’t drag down what is otherwise a very robust career mode.
Rock Band 4‘s choose-your-own-adventure inspired tour mode is an interesting campaign, and one that tries to take a lighthearted approach to life on the road. You still create your band, name it and select where it’s from, but choices you make determine where you’ll play, how much money you’ll earn and how many fans you’ll amass. This is accomplished through a path system, which lets you choose from two different tour scenarios, with some having detrimental affects like baldness-inducing head lice. While one may allow you to earn more money by touring on a larger stage, crowdfunded campaigns and sleeping on fans’ couches are how you become most popular. That’s the route I went, because fans are more important than money, especially when there isn’t a lot to spend it on.
In order to make each tour possible, you’ll need to nail gigs and earn the required amount of stars. This isn’t hard to do early on, where you’ll likely earn enough just by playing the tours’ three or four shows, but as you progress you’ll have to revisit previous haunts and put on additional performances to add to your totals.
Having to do a small amount of grinding doesn’t hurt the experience, and it will be welcomed by those who still adore this genre. Truly, the only real downside to this mode is how repetitive its environments can get. I’ve been playing for hours, but feel as if I’ve hardly ventured outside the same few clubs and basements. Then again, I’ve chosen the cheap and fan-friendly tours, which may be the cause.
It goes without saying, but the game also looks better than ever before, thanks to next-gen polish and improved animations. The musical avatars look and act like the real deal, and there are some interesting camera angles to enjoy. The sound is also very solid, although one of my favourite parts of the tracklist (Disturbed’s “Prayer”) feels a bit subdued in comparison to its peers. As a whole, though, Rock Band 4 is a well-made and polished game, which runs like a dream and has a decent tracklist that contains the likes of U2, Elvis, Van Halen, Paramore and The Foo Fighters, to name a few. Those are, of course, in addition to songs that will be made available as DLC and those that can be imported from previous games.
Mad Catz’ instruments also continue to be solid, and happen to be wireless outside of the microphone, which plugs into your console of choice via USB. There were a couple of unseemly globs of glue on my drum kit, but that was the only issue I really had. That is, outside of one occasion where my guitar momentarily lost connection, although that’s likely not a problem with the game or its instruments since I’ve dealt with random controller disconnects on Xbox One.
All in all, Rock Band 4 is an impressive music game, albeit one that could’ve been better. It’s fun, challenging and infinitely replayable, and will likely serve you well for years to come if Harmonix makes good on its platform vision.
This review is based on the Xbox One “Band in a Box” version of the game, which we were provided with.
Despite the omission of pro guitars, keyboards and online play, Rock Band 4 remains a very good, impressively well-made and infinitely replayable rhythm game that fans are sure to enjoy. Harmonix also sees it as a platform instead of just a game, meaning that this is just the beginning of what's to come.