While titles like Rock Band and Guitar Hero were at their peak a few years ago, the public’s interest in music games that make use of plastic instrument peripherals has died down. In fact, the last Guitar Hero title sold so poorly that Activision put the series on an indefinite hiatus, and Rock Band developer Harmonix has no apparent plans to make another full-fledged retail game in the series.
What they have done, however, is create what is essentially a companion title to the main games in the form of the download-only game, Rock Band Blitz. It offers some interesting new mechanics, and while some of its more social-oriented features stumble a bit, the core gameplay is very solid.
While previous Rock Band games featured a 3D path – commonly known as a note highway – that appeared in front of footage of characters performing each song, Rock Band Blitz abandons this for a more simple graphical approach. Here, the phrase note highway is very literal, as you are travelling down a street in a colorful city. The buildings, bridges, and occasional passers-by all look fine, but they aren’t as eye-catching or impressive as bands could be in prior titles.
Harmonix has stated that it took advantage of the programming for each song in order to determine such factors as lighting and camera angles, then applied them for various effects in this game, but it never really stands out. Players will likely not find this to be a major problem, though, as they will be focusing on the highway – and there’s a lot more to look at this time around.
Unlike all other games in the franchise, Rock Band Blitz does not make use of any instrument peripherals. What it does use is your traditional Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller. Instead of choosing one instrument and sticking to it on one lane for the entirety of each song, you are given several lanes for whichever of the five instruments – guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and keyboard – appear in a song. Each lane has two different spots notes appear on, again differing from the series’ normal 5-lane approach. With the default controls, the left and right trigger buttons switch between each lane, while the D-pad must be combined with a face button in order to hit notes on the left or right, respectively.
This system may seem strange at first, but it’s actually quite easy to get used to. After an initial calibration test, the controls seemed very responsive. What will really take practice is learning to expertly switch between each lane without missing too many notes, if any at all. Score multipliers work very differently in Rock Band Blitz. In traditional Rock Band titles, hitting a certain amount of notes in a row would eventually bump the points you earned to double, triple and quadruple amounts, with one missed note putting you back at square one, meaning that the streak would have to be started all over again. Rock Band Blitz is a bit more lenient in this regard, as not only does missing notes not break each instrument’s individual multiplier, but there’s not even an equivalent of a health bar that will drop if you continue to miss notes. You can’t actually lose in any song in this game; the worst that can happen is that you end up getting a low score and are only given 1 star out of 5 via the game’s ranking system.
Rock Band Blitz‘s other big hook, and the feature that is key to getting a truly high score, comes in the form of numerous power-ups. There are three types that can be utilized in each song. The first is overdrive, which is represented by a meter beneath your current lane that you fill up by successfully hitting glowing white notes that sometimes appear. Once you have a certain amount of Overdrive, you can use some up and activate your chosen power-up by hitting a specific face button at any time. Another type will randomly appear as glowing purple notes on certain tracks. Hitting one of these notes will automatically update another powerup. Finally, a third power-up type lasts throughout the entire song. This type includes, among other abilities, the opportunity to get more points from a specified instrument track of your choosing for the entire song.
These power-ups add a surprising amount of strategy and customization to the game, as you’ll likely end up picking personal favorite combinations and finding that some work better on certain songs than others. The game doesn’t hand you everything right away, though. Finishing each song awards you points in two different categories: Cred, an equivalent of experience points that unlocks a new power-up for use each time it levels up, and coins, which are spent on each individual power-up’s use. What this means is that power-up use is not unlimited, even after you’ve unlocked all of them. You have to spend coins every time you want to use a power-up for each song you play. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to earn coins, but leveling up your Cred takes a lot longer. After several hours of play, I only had about half of them unlocked.
The big question here is if all of those factors come together to create as enjoyable of an experience as the other Rock Band games provided. The answer to that is yes, but it delivers this experience differently. Instead of keeping a steady streak and temporarily activating the Overdrive you earn to double your score, the focus is on steadily switching between instrument lanes and getting each one to its max multiplier. One of the more interesting mechanics comes in how you level up these multipliers. You start each song with the ability to level each instrument up to a max of 4 times the normal amount by hitting notes, as with the old games, but once you hit a certain area of the song represented by glowing blue checkpoints on the lanes, you may be able to turn the maximum possible multiplier up if the current ones are high enough. For example, having all instruments at 4X at the first checkpoint will enable you to raise them to 7X. Having at least one lane at a slightly lower multiplier will only raise the max to 5X or 6X. Having a lane that doesn’t have any multiplier at all will keep the max at 4X, with another chance to bump things up at the following checkpoint.
This is a very clever spin on the traditional Rock Band formula, and it adds a whole new level to the way you play this game. You’ll find yourself noting when certain instruments have a big cluster of notes that will boost its multiplier faster, as well as when certain sections are sparse and it’s better to switch to another one. It’s easy to learn, but difficult to master, and this applies to the ranking system as well. The traditional method of gradually earning up to 5 stars based on your score, with extra-special gold stars being given for extremely high scores, returns here, but it’s much harder to get these gold stars on even some of the easier songs. In fact, it may not even be possible to get five stars if you don’t play with any of the score-enhancing power-ups. This, combined with the fact that the game will show you at the end of each song if any of your online friends have placed higher than you, encourages you to return to each one with better power-ups, in order to truly master its layout.
One of the best features of Rock Band Blitz comes in its compatibility. The game is compatible with every previous downloadable song in the series, along with exports from previous disc-based games such as Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band. Unfortunately, there is no method to play the songs from Rock Band 3 here regardless of whether or not you own that game, but considering that there are literally thousands of songs out there for you to play, that’s not a huge complaint.
The game also comes with 25 songs built in, with a varied list that includes artists like Elton John, Maroon 5 and the Foo Fighters, among many others. As an added bonus, these songs can be downloaded and played in Rock Band 3 for no additional charge. It’s a nice deal, especially since the cost of the overall package is a lot less than it would be to buy each song individually. Even though the variety of genres the songs span probably means that not every last one will appeal to you, players will likely be able to find some favorites – and as mentioned, there’s a vast library of downloadable songs Harmonix has been building for years which helps to enhance the situation.
In a series first, Rock Band Blitz offers social network integration in the form of a connection to a new Facebook app called Rock Band World. From this app, players can partake in Goals, which are similar to Xbox achivements or PS3 trophies in that they are awarded when certain conditions are fulfilled, such as playing a certain amount of songs or getting a certain amount of stars within a specific genre. The encouragement to complete each goal comes in the form of coins that are awarded to the player upon each goal’s completion. Additionally, competitions called Score Wars can be set up from the app, where players choose a song and a friend to compete against for the highest score within a certain timeframe.
These are fun features, but the Facebook component of the system feels a little pointless. Both Goals and Score Wars could easily have been included in the game itself without the need to link your accounts, and even if you do, there are still issues – your Facebook goal list doesn’t instantly update based on your in-game progress, and at the time this review was written, the system for setting up Score Wars wasn’t fully functional. Harmonix says that this feature was included to help drive competition, but console friend lists should have been more than serviceable on their own and potentially less of a hassle.
Rock Band Blitz does a very good job of establishing its own identity, while avoiding feeling like a halfhearted spinoff. While the graphical presentation could have been more creative, and the social features could have been better implemented, the core gameplay is quite fun, and can be extremely addicting. There’s a good chance that players will find themselves saying, “Just one more song,” several times during each play session, and the ability to extend the game’s life via DLC is another plus. If you’ve never been into music games, this one isn’t going to change your mind. However, if you’re done with plastic guitars, yet still find yourself interested in finding a way to rock out, this will serve you nicely.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us.