Format: PS4, Xbox One (Reviewed).
Released: October 06, 2015
“Band in a Box Kit” purchased at retail outlet.
I’ve been playing Rock Band since 2007 and I’ve been waiting five years for a new installment of the best party game ever conceived. Ever since Activision inflated the music game industry by releasing 10 different Guitar Hero games, the music game genre has shifted towards dance games involving gimmicky motion controls. With Rock Band 4, Harmonix is seeking to revitalize the plastic peripherals style of rocking out in your living room by giving the series a “back to basics” treatment. With some new free style features, some small refinements, and a new focus on creating a music game hub for this generation of consoles, does Rock Band 4 have enough to reinvigorate the music game genre or is this just the same old song and dance?
1. Sound Check
Rock Band 4 is the most affordable and yet the most expensive music instrument game on the market depending on your point of view. You can purchase the $60 digital or physical editions and use your previously acquired instrument controllers instead of spending money on new ones. PlayStation 4 owners will need to have the USB dongles that came with their PlayStation 3 instruments while Xbox One owners will need to purchase a separate $25 adapter in order to make their old wireless Xbox 360 instruments compatible with the new hardware. There’s a list of compatible instruments here and getting that many controllers to work on next-gen consoles is quite the preservation effort on Harmonix’s part.
There are several Rock Band 4 Instrument Bundles available for purchase at launch including the very expensive $250 “Band in a Box” kit (which I’m using for this review). There’s no option to individually purchase the new instruments or the pro drum cymbals until 2016 but you might want to hold off on purchasing them. The build quality of the new instruments is decent but overall, it’s wildly inconsistent across the board. The wireless guitar feels cheaply made but it has quieter, more accurate fret buttons. The strum bar isn’t a “clicky” micro-switch model like the Guitar Hero guitars but it’s far more responsive than previous Rock Band guitars. As with previous iterations, there’s a built in camera and microphone inside the guitar for easy auto-calibration. The new drum kit is much sturdier than its predecessors and much quieter thanks to thicker drum pads . The new USB microphone features a lighter, sleeker design and is much better at recognizing vocal key shifts. The Xbox One instruments feature a Micro-USB port in the battery slot to download any firmware updates from Manufacturer MadCatz while the PlayStation 4 instruments must rely on Bluetooth enabled connection. Getting the instruments hooked up to a Windows PC to download firmware updates is a pain and while all of the instruments are covered under a manufacturers warranty, I have to question MadCatz quality control as their older instruments didn’t feature any of these problems.
2. Jam Session
If you’ve never played a Rock Band game, here’s a brief overview of the core gameplay: You and your bandmates hit notes/sing lyrics that scroll down the screen as you play a song. Flawlessly chaining together notes will multiply your score while activating the “Overdrive” power up will multiply it further. At the end of the song, your performance ranked by Stars based on your score but the synergy between four people working together to play a song is a unique experience that makes the journey more important than the destination. The core gameplay first introduced in 2007 hasn’t changed at all but Rock Band 4 runs well in 1080p and at 60 Frames per Second at all times. I didn’t notice any drops during gameplay and the input latency has improved from previous games.
The cartoonish art style is back and it looks great under the new “Forge” game engine. Characters are well animated and expressive when performing but there are a few random bugs that can break the rock concert immersion such as lip syncing or seeing the same character performing different instruments. While you can’t customize your characters body shape, there’s still plenty of options ensures you’ll be able to create a rocker as close to your liking as possible. The venues look dynamic with cheering crowds and dynamic lighting but the venues themselves don’t do a good job representing their respective cities. A club in Los Angeles might as well be a club in Moscow. The game menus are minimal and are easy to navigate. The mini menu that pops up from the menu button (I miss having a dedicated Start Button on my Xbox One) allows for easy access to characters, options, and switching between player profiles. Sound design is fantastic as usual with each individual section you play on coming off clear and distinct. Load times are shorter than previous games but instead of charming cinematic of your bandmates to mask the load times, there’s only a static image of your bandmates and some pro tips on the bottom of the screen.
While Rock Band 3 was all about learning how to play real guitars and keys, Rock Band 4 is all about self expression through your plastic controller. The new Freestyle Solos replace the usual predetermined track with colorful guidelines telling the guitarist to strum fret buttons mimicking licks, sustains, and other moves in order to create a unique solo. The audio feedback system ensures that your solos sound good when played alongside your bandmates respective instruments but if you’re just spamming buttons, it will sound wonky. This feature is amazingly fun as it feels like you’re actually making music and putting your own stamp on existing songs although some songs don’t accommodate freestyle solos well. Also, transitioning from doing crazy solos back into the main song often lead to me being thrown off and losing my combo streak. If you want to be a plastic guitar virtuoso without score consequences, there’s a dedicated practice mode for Freestyle Solos and an Endless Mode if you just want to jam out to any song.
Vocalists now have a Freestyle Feature that allows for improvisation within songs so long as they’re singing in the same key. Harmonies from The Beatles Rock Band and Rock Band 3 are back and thanks to the efforts of the The Rock Band: Harmonies Project, every legacy song now has harmonies at no additional charge. Harmonies are still fun to perform and with up to three singers rocking out on separate microphones, Rock Band 4 can become a six person party game. Drummers can now activate Overdrive with dynamic drum fills instead of the free formed drum fills from previous games. Free formed fills never really worked right with the previous game due to the lag between your drums and your TV so being able to properly activate Overdrive without messing up the flow of a song from spamming the green panel is a huge improvement. All of these features including the returning No Fail Mode, Neck Break Speed and even Left Handed modifications can be turned on/off from the options menu allowing Rock Band 4 to be as challenging or as freeing as your party wants it to be.
3. Shuffle Beat
Rock Band 4 is relatively no frills in comparison the previous entries in the series. There’s no online play, no Pro Guitar and no Keys (but you can still play Pro Drums if you have the Pro Cymbal attachments), no score attack mode, and there’s not even a practice mode where you can practice individual sections of the track. But a the top of the main menu is “Start a Show” and it is the central party mode for Rock Band 4. Playing a Show starts with a song of your choice and at the end, all players get to vote on the next song from a selection of choices. These choices can be obvious or range from a wide selection based on genre, year, artist, etc. but the party doesn’t stop until a majority decides to end the Show. The sheer randomness of it all and the ability to interact with the crowd feels refreshing and alleviates the frustration of scrolling through every song to decide on what to play next. If you just want to play a single song, you can use the Quickplay mode but the ability to create playlists is gone.
The Career mode is the return of the Tour mode from Rock Band 2 but with the added wrinkles of the Show Mode functionality. Your band starts out by playing shows in small venues but you can earn more money/fans by playing encores and unlocking more tours by earning Stars. As you progress, the mode will offer you exclusive gigs that determines where your band is heading. Does your band want to sell out for more money by playing specific setlists or do they want to “keep it real” by making your own setlist to earn the respect of more fans? It’s up to your band to prioritize where their interests lie as making certain decisions impact what sets you’ll be playing, what gear you’ll unlock, and what tour locations you’ll end up next. It’s not an engrossing RPG but it’s a solid campaign mode for parties.
Rock Band 4 continues Harmonix’s tradition of having the main setlist span multiple genres and decades of music however, the sixty five songs included with the game don’t feature enough variety for the career/shows modes which thrive off of having a massive setlist. It’s a broad range of songs split between long requested acts (Van Halen, Elvis Presley, Imagine Dragons), deep dives from returning favorites (Foo Fighters, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush), MEMES, (That Stu Pickles Chocolate pudding meme, That He-Man “HEYYEYAAEYAAAEYAEYAA” meme, the theme song of NBC’s Chuck), and obscure indie artists (Eddie Japan? Lucius? U2?…never heard of them). Still, these songs are fun to play and there’s a fair amount of tracks for both male and female singers but you’re going to need more songs.
Fortunately, Rock Band 4 has access to a back catalog of over 1700 downloadable songs that you can purchase in the games store to build up your library. Folks who’ve already downloaded tracks from their last generation console can pick them up for free on their new console but there’s some caveats. Songs can only be redownloaded if you’ve previously purchased them within the same console family so there’s no crossover between Xbox and PlayStation purchases. Songs that have expired licenses such as anything from Metallica cannot be downloaded until they’re put up on the marketplace. Due to first party issues, previously acquired songs cannot be purchased in bundles but must be individually downloaded from the in game Music Store or your consoles digital storefront. There’s no option to download songs from the Rock Band Network catalogue, songs exported from track packs, or even songs exported from previous Rock Band games at launch but Harmonix is working on making them available later.
Nagging issues aside, it’s good that Rock Band 4 has backwards compatibility with previously owned songs who’ve invested money and time on the series. The new search bar function makes it easy to find songs and with more songs coming down the pipeline, there’s no shortage of replay value across all of the game modes. Harmonix has gone on record stating that Rock Band 4 will be the only Rock Band game for this generation of consoles with promises to expanded the game with free and paid updates. The idea of owning a single Rock Band game and never having to buy another game or a different set of instruments for my console is an intriguing proposition considering Harmonix’s proven track record of supporting their games years after they’ve launched. But right now, Harmonix needs to fix the many problems at launch before they release the first Rock Band 4 content patch this December.
4. Don’t call it a comeback!
Instead of wasting millions of dollars making a new six button instrument incompatible with previously purchased instruments/DLC tracks, filming hundreds of people simulating a rock concert in a vain attempt to add realism, or adding an always online freemium streaming service to lease (not own, lease) new songs, Harmonix has stripped Rock Band 4 to its bare essientials. The deceptively simple gameplay is still as fun as it’s ever been and the new features empower the player to play like a rock star. While the new instruments and on disc setlist are disappointing, the ability to play with your old instruments and previously acquired songs is a technological achievement that rewards players who’ve invested their money from the previous generation of consoles. New players won’t get much value since they’ll need to spend a lot of money to get the complete band package and buy enough songs to keep a party going strong. But whether you’ve thrown parties with your friends or if you’ve somehow missed the guitar game craze of the mid 2000’s, Rock Band 4 is a solid foundation for this generation of music games with plenty of room for improvement and additional content. So call up your buddies, grab some instruments, and wake the neighborhood. It’s time to get the old band back together.