Rock Band 4 is here. Like many other members of the press that were lucky enough to have the game in their hot little hands, I have been playing Rock Band 4 for about two weeks as of this writing. Those that were part of Rock Band Road Crew were also fortunate to receive their band-in-a-box bundles early to talk about the game some. And, if you’re reading this, you’ll be playing Rock Band 4 in a matter of hours, depending on how ravenously you’re chomping at the proverbial bit. Unless you’re already playing!
These words are not meant to be a review of Rock Band 4, but there will be qualities that qualify it as such to many. There is fair reason behind it, which will be explored as we continue on. With that, we present to you some preliminary impressions of Harmonix‘s Rock Band 4!
Building A Platform
To begin, I would like to say that Rock Band 4 is incomplete. This is not a condemnation, but a literal fact about the nature of what Rock Band 4 is. Back in March, when the upcoming title was announced, Engadget provided us with a quick list of factoids about the long-awaited sequel. The final bullet on the list states that “the game is a platform, not something that’s going to receive annual (or semi-annual) sequels.”
Rock Band 4, in its current state, is more than serviceable—a fully-featured rhythm game that is enjoyable by yourself or with friends. It encompasses the heart and soul of what started the rhythm craze back in 2005 with Guitar Hero by taking your tiny plastic instrument and rocking out to tracks you know and love (or ones you will eventually fall in love with).
The beauty of Rock Band 4 in its current state is that it can develop in many directions at this point. Undoubtedly, Harmonix will be paying special attention to what their community desires all while implementing their own vision of what Rock Band 4 is meant to become. It’s frightening territory, as Rock Band 4 is not unlike many games these days where feedback outside of the developers has become increasingly important. Rock Band, Rock Band 2, and Rock Band 3 were more or less self-contained endeavors, simply being expanded upon with downloadable content. Offshoots existed in Green Day: Rock Band, AC/DC Live: Rock Band, LEGO Rock Band and the expandalone The Beatles: Rock Band, but they didn’t really do anything to evolve the brand, per se. Looking back, Rock Band 3 was perhaps the greatest evolution in rhythm games since the introduction of Rock Band‘s full band motif—keyboards being added to complete the standard progressive rock ensemble, harmonies to create the huge sound touted by the very same (Queen, Styx, and more in that vein), the ability to actually learn instruments with a bit of time and patience.
These were the elements that made Rock Band 3 such a powerful entry in rhythm games. Rock Band 4, however, has potential to do the very same on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. With it in its current state, we have a fundamentally strong framework from which to build upon in order to craft a musical powerhouse that eclipses pretenders and copycats.
Rock Band 4 essentially is potential for the genre. Patience will go a long way in reaping the eventual and inevitable rewards.
What Makes Rock Band 4 Different?
Rock Band 4 is and isn’t very different than its predecessors, and has no real competitors. Guitar Hero has changed so much with Guitar Hero Live that putting it in the same league as Rock Band is a misapplication. Guitar Hero Live makes use of two rows of three frets (six buttons total) to give you the feeling of playing chords, but does away with the rainbow gems to a minimalist black and white scheme. The strange mobile-esque monetization structure and play style also separates it greatly from Harmonix’s current series.
The same goes for Ubisoft‘s Rocksmith series. It was long said that people who played Guitar Hero and its ilk should “pick up a real guitar,” and Rocksmith set out to do pretty much that. The only real guitar game in the world is miles away from Rock Band as well, as its real world function differentiates it from simply triggering samples.
So, what’s exactly new with Rock Band 4? The answer is “not much.” Which is by no means a bad thing. The Rock Band formula is back and just as strong. And, as mentioned before, is full of potential. A brand new coat of paint and seriously subtle mechanics make for a very strong skeletal structure to this new entry in the beloved series. It’s basically like adding a shiny coat of paint to the trustiest vehicle you’ve ever had and there is no sign of it stopping.
Enough About That, What’s New In Gameplay?
Ah, yes, of course! The gameplay, the heart and soul of the Rock Band series, is what truly matters here. Don’t worry—you’re still hitting buttons in time with the song to varying degrees of difficulty. Nothing has changed in that aspect, and you shouldn’t expect it to—if it works, it works! The biggest changes here come in some of the instruments’ implementation, with vocals, guitar, and drums getting the grandest overhauls.
Rocking the Mic
Easy and Medium players are not going to find many differences in singing. Even singing together in harmony hasn’t changed. However, lead vocalists who play on Hard or Expert are treated to making songs their own. Proficient singers will appreciate that straining their voice to be right on pitch is no longer a concern. Singing within the original melody’s key is a brand new way to express yourself through the music and allow individuals with golden pipes to really make songs their own. You are now, thankfully, not tied to an octave above or below the original note, instead being able to really cut loose as a singer.
I actually really appreciate this application. As a vocalist and someone who enjoys covering songs, making them your own is undeniably important. Being able to explore these spaces within the context of Rock Band 4 is genuinely interesting as a singer and certainly a welcome addition to the game. It works well for budding singers and pros alike!
And My Axe!
Guitar has received a long-anticipated overhaul as well. Aside from smashing the little gems on your note highway, guitar solos have grown into their own section of improvisational fun. Toggling on the freestyle solos will do away with some furious plastic fretwork and instead allow players to “do what they want” with some minor stipulations. Keeping time is essential for freestyle solos, but if your rhythm is rock solid (and, if you’ve been a longtime player, it should be!) you can explore the fretboard a little more. You’ll be strumming in eighth and sixteenth notes, but your fretting hand will be able to basically go ham on the fretboard. A blue note highway will mean that you can play whatever you’d like on the lower end of the fretboard, while orange notes mean that higher notes will come into play.
On paper, freestyle solos don’t really sound like much, but in execution they are incredibly exciting and inviting. They give that rockstar feeling as you’re no longer concentrating on hitting the exact notes scrolling on screen and instead your focus has shifted to becoming a performer. Sure, you can pay attention to the freestyle prompts, but when it comes right down to it, you don’t enable freestyle mode for score—you do it to rock. When I first got my hands on the freestyle mode back at E3, it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Come PAX Prime, and with a few minutes playing the on-disc tutorial, everything coalesced.
Here’s a short video that Harmonix Junior Publicist and friend Nick Mudry took of me at PAX Prime 2015 as I almost smashed the plastic Fender into the screen behind me.
— Nick Mudry (@Nick_Mudry) September 2, 2015
I went a little hard on Living Color‘s “Cult of Personality” there, but the freestyle solos don’t mess around. Getting into it is half the fun!
Behind the Kit
At their core, drums have not changed a great deal. However, now outside of the flail-inducing freestyle drum fills that past Rock Band games have come equipped with, Rock Band 4 now has dynamic drum fills. That isn’t to say that you can play whatever you wish, however! Instead, there’s a big pool of drum fills per song that, when the time comes (provided you have the Overdrive), the game will choose one fill from this pool and insert it into the song. You’ll very rarely play the same fill twice in the same spot, which is great as they’re meant to keep the time of the song instead of the reckless freestyle fills that were in previous games.
Looking back, Rock Band 3 attempted to teach you how to play really interesting fills in a very specific tutorial mode, but it surely went overlooked for the sake of actually playing the game. Casually inserting a similar mechanic directly into the gameplay allows for a tighter experience, which is truly welcome.
All About that Bass—No Treble
There isn’t much to say in regards to Rock Band 4‘s bass. If you ever mained the instrument in the series’ previous iterations, you know exactly what to expect. I haven’t seen anything that would elevate or deteriorate the bass experience. Steady as she goes—just like any rock solid bass groove should be.
Rock Band 4 is extremely “core.” That is to say that while there are a great deal of advancements for the series, there are a lot of proverbial bells and whistles missing that made Rock Band 2 and Rock Band 3 really appealing. The production values that really elevated past titles seem to have been omitted with the intention of creating the strongest playable title in the series. Perhaps it was a result of Harmonix essentially becoming an indie developer and no longer having the backing of EA (aka Daddy Deep Pockets).
First and foremost, the monumental and powerful feeling of ruling the world is sort of…gone from the introduction. You won’t find anything resembling the Mad Max-esque intro to Rock Band 2 or even the intimate performance montage of Rock Band 3. Instead, you’re delivered rapidly to the title screen and a short sequence of your band tuning up. “Underwhelming” would be the proper term after three games with epic introduction sequences, including the first game’s hell-on-wheels trek to Deep Purple‘s “Highway Star.”
The user interface also leaves something to be desired. Rock Band 3 offered a great insight into how bands spend their time together—a lot of it being shots of them traveling or just being pals on the move. All this happened during your menu selections and it made your band feel quite alive. With Rock Band 4, these intimate moments are curiously absent. The game feels less vivid outside of gameplay than its predecessors—markedly disappointing.
Character creation and customization is also strangely lacking. While the two preceding titles had massive customization options with hair, clothing, instruments, tattoos, and beyond, Rock Band 4‘s offerings are fairly meager by comparison. All character creation items have been pared down greatly, with maybe 30-40% of previous offerings being included and not enough new customization options to really overshadow what was cut. Furthermore, Rock Band staple stand-in characters like the beloved Moosejaw and out-of-this-world The Duke of Gravity are no longer in the game, likely due to the absence of the aforementioned customization items.
The whole experience feels very plain, especially looking back to the very robust and flashy Rock Band 3. Furthermore, there is such a stark contrast from the supremely tight gameplay that the game lacking features its predecessors had is just plain confusing.
I suppose this is what happens when you basically rebuild a game from the ground up. Tales of Rock Band 4‘s development have stated time and time again that the game was essentially built from scratch. I don’t know much of anything about game development, so I can’t imagine if bringing in old assets to a new game would be feasible. Ideally, future updates will include a greater variety of customization options.
Wait, What About Online Play?
That unfortunately doesn’t exist at the moment! The dedicated team at Harmonix have given us a date for online community-centric functionality, but synchronous online play is both expensive and difficult to implement. The online features will be arriving on December 8th, 2015, but actual online play is not currently in the cards for Rock Band 4.
I still have many more musings on Rock Band 4, some of which I haven’t even touched upon in the above words. These are just preliminary thoughts and more will come as the turmoil upstairs settles. You may have noticed that I harped a great deal on some minutia, but in reality, I have really enjoyed my time with Rock Band 4 and hope to see it grow in ways that even we could not really imagine. It has near-unlimited potential in its current state, which is exceptionally appealing.
Should you buy Rock Band 4? That entirely depends on what is important to you as far as the series goes. If you like getting together with your friends and having a good time playing music games together, or even doing that by yourself, Rock Band 4 absolutely deserves your attention. It’s only going to get better and more hardy as time goes on. It all depends on your feelings on whether being an early adopter is appealing or not. Should you decide to come in later, you’re likely going to miss out on a lot, considering that so many others will already be playing.
If you find superfluous things like character customization and robust user interfaces integral to your experience, you may want to wait and see if things of this nature are added at a later time. But if these things are important to you, then perhaps Rock Band wasn’t really meant for you in the first place.