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Review: Rock Band Rivals

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For Those About to Rock

Ever since the announcement of Rock Band 4, Harmonix has held steady in its assertion that we shouldn't expect Rock Band 5 in a few years' time. Rock Band 4 is a platform now, not a sequel that's meant to lead to yet another sequel.

The Rock Band 4 that people own in October 2016 isn't the same game that shipped in September 2015. Sure, the songs are the same and it's still four fake instruments trying to mimic real-life musical talent. But, Harmonix put that platform mantra to good use and has significantly evolved Rock Band 4 over the past year. This is undoubtedly a better product than when it originally released.

Rock Band Rivals (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Harmonix (with distribution by PDP)
Released: October 18, 2016
MSRP: $29.99 ($59.99 (Rock Band 4 and Rivals), $89.99 (guitar bundle), $199.99 (band kit)

Because continual free quality of life improvements don't pay the bills, we have Rock Band Rivals -- the first paid expansion to Rock Band 4 in what will probably be an annual cadence of major add-ons. This is different than how Harmonix usually entices customers, though. Rather than bolstering Rock Band's song library, Rivals bolsters its features. (Although, it is worth noting that there are between 10 and 12 songs offered to those who pre-order.)

Since the competitive players are the ones who are most likely to keep investing in Rock Band, Harmonix smartly tailored the majority of Rivals to them. The undertone of the entire add-on is a relatively aggressive one, the kind that appeals to gold star and full combo chasers. Anyone can appreciate Rivals because Rock Band 4 is at the core of it, but the majority of the benefits go to those who care about jockeying for position on leaderboards.

Rivals is broken into two distinct halves. The eponymous side is Rivals mode which has players forming crews of up to 10 members in pursuit of besting other crews. From now on, everything that happens in Rock Band contributes to this mode. There's a cumulative score, a score on themed "spotlight songs" that rotate weekly, an experience-based level system, and player scores for individual instruments. Rivals mode, all of it, offers the validation that the hardcore Rock Band community wants. It's a brilliant addition for them, and a harmless one for everyone else.

The other half of this expansion is a "Rockudrama" -- a VH1 Behind the Music-style mockumentary called Beneath the Tunage that details the rise and fall of your band. It's an alternate take on Rock Band 4's career narrative. Three-song gigs are interspersed with narration and video clips from people who were close to the band. It ranges from chuckle-worthy to eyeroll-inducing to genuinely funny. But, its charm is fleeting as it's just another method of playing 30 songs from your Rock Band 4 and DLC library.

Traces of Rivals mode even show up in Rockudrama. Before most sets, the game constantly asks the player to wager on their performance. Usually it's total number of stars, but sometimes it's more interesting. Modifiers like enabling Brutal Mode or only increasing fan satisfaction while in Overdrive make for more stressful gigs. They also grant far more fame, the resource that makes it possible to advance the story.

It's no mistake that Rivals is bursting at the seams with competitive underpinnings. That's Harmonix's strategy for keeping the best and most passionate in its community interested in the future of Rock Band. As long as they feel challenged, they'll keep coming back to surmount those challenges. Rivals allows them to do that with varying degrees of scale, from besting others' scores on individual songs to having one of the best crews in the world.

And, it works. Those ardent players I described? Yeah, I'm one of them. I'm one of those people who chases gold stars and full combos. I'll restart songs when I overstrum. I've spent a decade meticulously playing these games.

Rivals brought that fire in me back out. It's not quite like my ScoreHero days, but it's potent nonetheless. I replayed songs over and over to get a better score. I played on instruments that I otherwise wouldn't (like bass) because that's a score that could be contributed. Rivals is making me play more often and play more seriously than I otherwise would, and that seems like it was exactly Harmonix's intent. (Also, join my crew "Destructoid" if you're good.)

There's a bit more happening tangential to Rivals than just the release of the add-on. It also marks the launch of the revamped instruments, the ones manufactured by PDP instead of Mad Catz. So far, they're serviceable and rather comparable to the old ones.

After spending some time with these new peripherals, they aren't amazing additions to my arsenal of plastic instruments. The drums are extremely similar to the original Rock Band 4 drums. It took some calibration to get them feeling good, but they play fine on expert now. It still seems like they drop notes on the fast sections, something that Harmonix hasn't completely figured out.

The guitar is probably the instrument that was altered the most. This blue Jaguar folds at the neck with a hinge that feels sturdy. I played a few songs on it, but quickly reverted to my tried-and-true Guitar Hero 5 model. I need that loud mechanical feedback of the strum bar to play accurately. Lastly, the microphone is heavier and slightly shorter, with a silver grill instead of a black one.

Rivals is something that will mostly appeal to a specific subset of Rock Band players. People who buy Rock Band for the occasional friend gathering won't care much about what it has to offer. They aren't squeezing the most points out of every single track. Far from it. They'd surely rather just play some party songs before stashing the gear back in the closet. 

But, even if the most essential features in Rivals won't be meaningful to a lot of people, this expansion represents Rock Band 4 at its best to this point. A year's worth of incremental updates have molded this into a game that has more to offer and is easier to navigate. Anyone who has waited this long to follow Rock Band to new consoles should know that this is the optimal time to get in now that the growing pains seem to be behind Harmonix. However, those people should also know that Rivals probably isn't going to be the part of Rock Band that they care about.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Rock Band Rivals reviewed by Brett Makedonski

8

GREAT

Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.
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Brett Makedonski
Brett MakedonskiManaging Editor   gamer profile

While you laughing, we're passing, passing away. So y'all go rest y'all souls, 'Cause I know I'ma meet you up at the crossroads. Y'all know y'all forever got love from them Bone Thugs baby... ... more + disclosures


 


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  • Rock Band Rivals' best feature is a VH1 Behind the Music-style mockumentary - Brett Makedonski
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    Filed under... #DLC #Harmonix #Music games #PS4 #reviews #rhythm games #Rock Band #Xbox One

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