The plastic instrument game market is back in full force this year, with new iterations of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero. First to launch is Harmonix’s multi-instrumental title, with the promise of your DLC library coming across to this console generation. With it positioning itself as more of a platform than its rival, how does it shake out?
Seen by many as the ultimate party game for a few years, the rhythm action series went from boom to bust quicker than your average northern indie group around the same time period. Too many sequels being pumped out in a very short space of time saw the market completely flooded, with many looking back on the genre as a fad, never to return. Well, we’re here almost 5 years after the launch of Rock Band 3, with Harmonix bringing their gig simulator to the PS4 and Xbox One, complete with a new set of plastic instruments to complete the experience.
The first thing I had to do when I got my review copy through was to head up to the loft and dust off the old instruments. It’s been a while, but I must admit I was quite excited to get back into my fake-but-still-fun drumming. I imagine most people who want to pick up Rock Band 4 will be doing the same thing, particularly as the full band kit is almost prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, any old instruments you have kicking around will be compatible if you pick the disc up. The PlayStation family ones will be OK out of the box, whereas the Xbox ones will require a dongle that’s provided with the purchase. It’ll run you an extra few quid if you’re in the Microsoft family, but it’s a small price to pay in comparison to re-purchasing all of the instruments again.
Once you’re all set up, things will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in the Rock Band series before, with a couple of new additions. You’ve got your typical “Quick Play” and “Go on Tour” (career) modes, the store (more on that in a bit) and “Play a Show”. This new mode starts you off with one track of your choosing, then at the end you’re given the chance to vote on the next action taken by your band. It could be “A song from the 2000’s”, “A song by U2” or a straight up song choice. It’s a really nice new element to the gameplay that allows you to extend your set with some possibilities that wouldn’t normally cross your mind. Throwing the classic “What’s Up?” by the Four Non Blondes into the mix after giving your all through Avenged Sevenfold’s “Hail to the King” is a glorious way of mixing up the music in the game and giving you a chance to get through as many of the tracks as possible. If you’ve never played a Rock Band title before, it’s a fairly straightforward premise. You hold the coloured buttons down on your guitar and strum when they hit the line at the bottom. If you’re on the drums, you hit the relevant pad when they cross the line at the bottom, and if you’re on vocals, then you just sing. There really isn’t a whole lot more to it than that!
New this time round are the Freestyle guitar solos. When you get to a solo, instead of having to hit every note in there you’re given a series of generic templates, allowing you to play whatever you want to on the fret buttons, and the game will make it fit with the song. It’s a cool mechanic that will make even the least confident player feel like Slash. There are nuances in the templates that allow you to build up a more “musical” solo, such as quarter notes, eighth notes and held notes, which definitely adds a sense of progression into this as well. It’s a cool mechanic, which is countered by an equally nice new drum fill mechanic. Essentially reversing the changes made in the guitar solos, the drum fills now appear in such a way that you’re guided toward a specific rhythm and flow. It aims to cut out the typical “whaling on the pads until the end” method from the previous games, and for the most part it succeeds, essentially teaching you how to fill out sections in a way that’s both appealing and fun to play. Finally, the vocals will allow you, at higher difficulties, to sing whatever you want, as long as you’re in the right key. Gone are the days of sticking rigidly to the notes, regardless of whatever happens, this allows you to experiment a bit with the songs and add an element of performance into them that didn’t feel present before.
The track list for Rock Band 4 is a pretty heft 65 songs, ranging from the 60s through to the present day, covering a wide range of genres. Everything from Pop to Metal is covered, via a detour through Punk and Ska, naturally. What makes Rock Band 4 an enticing proposition is the promise of having your DLC library carry across to the new system (provided you’ve upgraded to the same manufacturer’s console). I had a pretty hefty set of DLC from the PS3 days, but there are some disappointing issues with the store on the PS4. Firstly, at the time of writing, purchased track packs won’t allow you to download their contents for whatever reason. If you go to the store and select a track pack to buy, you’ll be able to pay for it, but it will pass you through to a page with a message stating that there’s no content available. It’s incredibly frustrating, and it also happens with individual songs as well. I spent around £5 on fresh DLC that I simply couldn’t download yet. I’m sure these kinks will be worked out in due course, but I currently have songs in the region of £25 that I simply can’t use right now, and I’m a bit worried to go into the store and spend any more money in case it doesn’t download.
We didn’t get any of the new hardware to play with for the review, but having gotten hands on at a number of events, my feeling is that they’re very well built and feel a lot nicer than the existing instruments from the old generation. The drums feel a lot more padded, but they’ll still be on the noisy side (After all, you’re hitting them with a wodden stick!) and the guitars feel weighty enough for you to feel like a rock star in your living room.
Overall, there really isn’t much more I can say about Rock Band 4. If you enjoyed the series before, you’ll enjoy this one. There are some nice neat touches that will appeal and keep things fresh for absolute veterans of the series, but it’s still accessible enough for you to throw onto your system when your friends have had a few beers at a party. The best party game of the last generation finally makes its way to the new consoles, although there is a question of its relevance hanging over it, particularly with the price tag of the full band kit. Issues around the DLC should really have been sorted before launch, as the confidence I have in the store has waned a little, but assurances have been made that they’re working on this asap. It’s these issues that leave a sour taste in what can otherwise mainly be described as “the most Rock Band that Rock Band has ever Rock Band-ed”.