Rock Band Rivals Hands-On Preview


Harmonix dropped an interesting tidbit of news for Rock Band 4 at E3 last month with the announcement of Rock Band Rivals, the first full-fledged expansion pack for the latest in their iconic rhythm game series. Unfortunately, they didn’t provide details beyond pricing and a revamped guitar controller, with employees later saying they’d ultimately chosen to pull back the curtain after a little more development time.

This is exactly what happened last week, when Harmonix provided me and several others with a presentation in New York City, giving us some hands-on time with Rock Band Rivals. Based on what I saw and played, Rivals looks to give the presentation of the series a real shot in the arm with one of its two new primary modes, and should also increase the game’s longevity with the other one.

The presentation was headed by Harmonix’s Daniel Sussman, who served as the director of hardware development for many early Rock Band games before becoming a product manager for Rock Band 4, Rivals, and more. Sussman started the presentation by announcing and detailing the two new modes, Rivals and Rockudrama. Rivals mode will bring a more competitive and social edge to the game, allowing players to form crews of up to 10 bandmates and interact via asynchronous multiplayer against other bands. New leaderboards and unique weekly challenges will also be incorporated.

Unfortunately, we weren’t provided with a demo or video for Rivals mode, but that wasn’t the case with the other big addition, Rockudrama. This mode will serve as a new campaign of sorts, with the biggest twist being how it’s presented. Previous campaigns in the series have relied primarily on static images and occasional text boxes for any sort of plot, with Lego Rock Band and Rock Band 3 also offering a handful of pantomimed cutscenes.

That all changes here, with presentation outside of gameplay taking on the form of a Behind the Music-style documentary series focusing on your band’s “rise and fall and rise,” complete with a narrator and live-action FMV interviews with fictional rockers giving their recollections of your group. The dialog had a successfully tongue in cheek feel to it, down to the band practicing for a whole 33 minutes before performing their first concert for only one off-kilter attendant.

I was able to demo a three-song setlist in Rockudrama, with me on guitar, Sussman on bass, and another Harmonix employee on drums. The actual gameplay remains identical to vanilla Rock Band 4, only with documentary clips sandwiched before and after each song. One of the most enticing features is that these cutscenes and even some plot elements will be influenced by how individual players perform, meaning you’ll get unique narration and FMVs noting how good or bad your bassist or drummer is. Even flat-out failing a song will have an impact.

A nice addition to Rock Band 4 in general will be the incorporation of an experience point and leveling system, as I noticed a rank number next to my player name in the menus. A new currency called Fame will also be earned playing Rockudrama that is key to progression. When asked, Harmonix stated that they were not going to elaborate on what these features will be used for, but they did say to expect more details on them and Rivals mode in the months leading up to the expansion’s release. Finally, Rockudrama will incorporate all-new venues to play in, including a run-down Chuck E. Cheese type place at the start.


Harmonix also provided distribution and pre-order details, of which there were plenty. Newcomers will be able to buy a $90 bundle including Rock Band 4, Rivals and 1 guitar, a $200 bundle with 1 of every instrument, a digital bundle including RB4 & Rivals for $60, and a $30 digital version for existing RB4 players. The expansion will not include any new songs when purchased, as Harmonix did not want to divide its player base by forcing anyone uninterested in the expansion to miss out on songs they want.

Pre-order bonuses will vary depending on where the purchase is made. Digital purchases will include a cheeseburger tee and a gold sword-shaped guitar for in-game character customization, while Gamestop will offer an alternately colored guitar controller. All pre-orders will also receive the following 10 DLC songs:

  • Bring Me The Horizon – Happy Song
  • Capital Cities – Safe And Sound
  • Eagle-Eye Cherry – Save Tonight
  • The Neighbourhood – Sweater Weather
  • Of Monsters And Men – Little Talks
  • Pharrell Williams – Happy
  • Semisonic – Closing Time
  • Sia – Chandelier
  • Skillet – Feel Invincible
  • Weezer – King of the World

Harmonix concluded the presentation by confirming that pre-orders for Rivals would open on July 19, the game would launch some time in October, and that more details will be revealed in the weeks leading up to its release. I also asked them if they could provide any more details on the previously-confirmed online multiplayer being added to the game in December and how it will be integrated into Rivals or existing modes, but they were not ready to divulge details on that just yet, either.

While Rock Band Rivals doesn’t seem like it will do anything to innovate the series’ actual gameplay, I was certainly intrigued by the details on its competitive aspect, and charmed by the admirable attempt at a full-fledged narrative. The combination of this expansion, online play, and Harmonix continuing to release weekly DLC paints a promising picture of longevity for fans of the game.