Back in plastic
[Disclosure: Nick Chester, who is currently employed at Harmonix, previously worked at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the preview. I personally didn’t work with Chester at any point in my Destructoid career.]
I’ve always been a Guitar Hero man. I picked up the very first game in 2005 and never really looked back. It’s ironic, as Harmonix ended up leaving the franchise to create Rock Band, but it wasn’t until the third iteration (and subsequently, the keyboard) that I really switched over. But by then, the plastic rhythm game bubble had burst, so my motley crew of band mates slowly whittled down over time.
Now, here we are five years later with Rock Band 4. Will it win over audiences once again? Well that depends on how much DLC you own, or are willing to buy.
Rock Band 4 (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Publisher: Harmonix (with distribution by Mad Catz)
Released: October 6, 2015
MSRP: $59.99 (game), $129.99 (guitar bundle), $249.99 (Band-in-a-Box)
So let’s get right into it. The setlist (seen here) is going to be a point of contention for many. Point blank, I’m not really a fan of most of it, for multiple reasons. Firstly, U2 (the Guy Fieri of music) was added last-minute, and features not one but two songs featured in career mode. This completely obliterated the “random” feature for one of the groups I played with, as they hilariously refused to play U2 on the principle that they “might” come up. Then you have the issue of era disparity due to a disjointed design.
Often times you’ll find similar types of music grouped together, but generally speaking, Rock Band 4 is all over the place. For instance, there’s one Elvis song (“Suspicious Minds,” which I really dig), but then, there’s nothing else even close to that age or style of music. You also have the issue of showcasing a heavy helping of B-hits from major artists, like “Kick it Out” from Heart or “Prayer” from Disturbed. Of course, music is subjective, but my major issue is the lack of any real epic rock tracks (and I don’t mean “epic” in the bad meme sense) on offer here, which every rhythm game tends to provide. I mean, “That Smell” from Lynyrd Skynyrd? You can’t help but feel like the rights to a lot of big-ticket songs weren’t on the table, some of which instead went to Activision’s Guitar Hero Live.
But I think this weaker setlist is kind of what Harmonix is going for. They’re banking on the fact that you already own a ton of DLC, or are willing to shell out for it. That’s going to be a point of contention for many people, who may have started out in the Rock Band ecosystem on Xbox, but like most of this generation, have since switched to PS4 exclusively. I’m kind of torn on where I stand personally, because while I do see Rock Band as a “platform,” I wish the included setlist were as strong as it has been in the past.
Just to clarify with Harmonix as of this week, I double-checked on the DLC roadmap beyond the singles in the store now (of which there are hundreds of piecemeal tracks). Track packs (read: those discs of songs you bought) are being worked on currently, and aren’t up for launch. Additionally, title exports (Rock Band 1 and 2 songs mostly) are not available yet, and have no time frame at the moment. Finally, Harmonix is “looking into” exporting Rock Band 3 but nothing is finalized. None of this affects this review as it’s all theoretical, but it’s good to know.
As disappointed as I am with the base setlist, the game, as always, is sound. The common theme here with Rock Band 4 is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which is great for those of you who just want a current-gen Rock Band, and bad if you wanted something revolutionary. While the voting system (which allows players to select tracks, or vague categories such as eras and genres in a democratic fashion) is very cool, the career mode, despite promises of a major shakeup with the choice system, is largely the same.
While there are choices such as picking between selling out and making more money in the short term or going on the road and garnering more long-term fans, they all feel very gamey in the end (“do you want fans or money?”). I really like the little story blurbs that pop up along the way that provide updates for the narrative such as “your van that you bought for next to nothing lost a door,” but they really are more fluff than substance. Plus, the concept of playing tons of gigs with set songs (and some open-ended lists) for cash to buy new accessories never appealed to me — when combined with the so-so story and the fact that every song is unlocked from the get-go, it doesn’t feel like a gametype worth the effort.
As a result, most of my time was spent with the quick tour and freeplay modes, which are still a lot of fun with a group. It’s as simple as syncing the instruments (which is incredibly easy to do now) and pressing start, then you’re ready to rock. The aforementioned voting system is a ton of fun, as it accepts every band member’s choices, then triggers a slot machine-like animation that randomly picks one. It’s fair, and it’s a nice break from manually choosing songs. In terms of the adjustments to the instruments themselves, I also have mixed feelings. Everything has been marginally upgraded (both physically and in-game), but I’m still reeling from the complete lack of keyboard and Pro Guitar support. Harmonix certainly has a strong argument in that most players simply did not use these features last time around, but I can’t help but feel like Rock Band 4 has been downgraded as a result.
While I never really preferred the Rock Band style guitars (X-plorer for life), the build is noticeably more sturdy, which also applies for the new drum kit and microphone. The new gameplay feature with the guitar is the addition of freestyle sections, which no longer bound players to the rigors of tough solo portions. For casual players, this change is pretty great, and allows anyone to rock out in a fashion that more accurately portrays the spirit of the franchise.
In essence, during your solo spots, you’ll see new markers for blue and orange freestyle notations in the track. You’ll simply strum to the beat, with the blue portion notating the top frets and the orange noting the bottom, and that’s basically it. Sometimes you’ll have to strum once and hold, for others, you’ll have to shift rapidly to different frets. You won’t lose any momentum here if you screw up, and every fret will cue a different sound, so you can come up with your own concoctions. The best part is this is wholly optional, so if you want to shred “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert, you can. Also, every song supports a full-time freestyle solo through a separate menu option.
The drums have remained mostly the same, outside of Dynamic Drum Fills, and, as an exception to the lack of Pro instruments, Pro Drums (if you buy the Mad Catz Rock Band 4 Cymbal Expansion Kit of course). The former feature allows you to deploy Overdrive (Star Power) during pre-determined sections — it’s a minor change, and fortunately, like most of the new stuff, you can also turn this off.
If you rock the mic, you’ll have a few other marginal improvements as well. Now there’s Freestyle Vocals, which allows people to improvise a bit. As long as you still sing on key, you’ll be able to score points. It makes things a little more fun for singers as they don’t have to follow as rigid of a pattern. Again, every instrument has been improved on paper, but not in a way that completely eclipses a lot of the advancements made with the last iteration.
The physical element of bringing over instruments is also a bit strained, partially outside of Harmonix’s purview. Firstly, you’ll have to follow their compatibility chart here to see if your device will even work with the new game. Additionally, due to the shift in technology from the 360 to the Xbox One, you’ll need a $20 adapter to even use your old instruments that do work. When you add in that nothing works cross-console family, things get even more tricky, as it’ll cost you $250 to grab a new guitar, drum kit, and a mic — and if you want to get a second guitar, it gets even pricier.
Rock Band 4 is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, it’s not only a hassle to switch generations due to the fact that so many elements don’t work with the new one, but additionally — Rock Band 3 is still a thing, supports all of your DLC, and has more features. On the other, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this iteration, and for those of you who missed out in the past or have broken 360s or PS3s, you’ll still be able to rock out into the night with friends and have a whole lot of fun.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Band-in-a-Box bundle with a guitar, drum kit, and mic was assessed for this review. DLC or pre-order content of any kind was not provided, and was purchased by the reviewer.]