REVIEW: Rock Band 4- The Reunion Tour


Developer: Harmonix 

Publisher: Harmonix/MadCatz 

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.

REVIEW: Destiny: The Taken King – Questiny

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Activision
Format: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

Released: September 15, 2015.
Copy purchased on the PlayStation Network

Bungie’s ambitious online first person shooter Destiny has been the most polarizing game of this current console generation. It’s solid game design showed promise of a great experience that was sadly, buried underneath behind the scenes development struggles. The fun abilities and stellar gunplay couldn’t cover up the lack of context for what you’re doing. The beautiful graphics and lush sound design didn’t alleviate the boredom of replaying the same story missions in bereft hub worlds. The “Light Leveling” system left many causal players out in the cold while the hardcore crowd (which yes, I’m a part of) had to tediously grind their way to Destiny’s incredible end game content. The two $20 expansion passes (The Dark Below & House of Wolves) truly expanded the core game with new spaces and events but they didn’t truly shake up the foundation set a year ago. Coming in at $40, The Taken King expansion is poised to fundamentally shake up everything that made Destiny so frustrating. But is it enough for veterans and newbies to warrant reentry into this console MMO?

NPC’s are given a new lease on life with well written dialogue and fitting quest rewards.

1: Yes, there is a story…
The Taken King’s story focuses on the titular Oryx who many Year One Destiny players will recall as the father of Crota. Oryx isn’t happy that you killed his son with his own sword in the Crota’s End Raid and he’s come to out solar system with his mighty starship known as the“The Dreadnaught”. After a brutal assault by the Reef Queen’s forces and the emergence of Oryx’s dark army of “Taken” soldiers, it’s up to the Vanguard (i.e. YOU) to mount a counter offensive against Oryx. It’s a simple revenge story and it’s well told through breathtaking cutscenes and sharp in-game dialogue to keep the player’s interest.  Story Missions have more variety than the “shoot first, ask later” ones that made up the bulk of the base game. One mission has involves fleeing from Oryx’s wrath while the next has a stealth section. The level design continues to be well thought out as each mission accommodates one to three players as well as a brisk pace to keep things from being tiresome.

Several non playable characters (NPC’s) who’ve spent all of Year One standing around the Tower, are now active participants in the Taken War which gives each mission proper context. Nathan Fillion’s wisecracking antics as Vanguard Hunter Cayde-6 and Moria Gorrondona’s creepy performance of Hive Expert Eris Morn are both standouts as their characters clashing banter brings levity to the main story missions. Nolan North replaces Peter Dinklage as Ghost in The Taken King and he does a better job of explaining things (and opening doors) for the player.  Ghost has a renewed sense of charm and intrigue in everything you do making him the ideal companion in your alien killing sprees. While the Taken King himself doesn’t have a lot to say, Oryx’s intimidating presence throughout the main campaign via shadowy apparitions help to emphasize a sense of impending dread in your trek across the stars which makes him the most interesting villain in Destiny by default

2: Yes, people still play this game…

Several changes have already taken place from the massive 18 GB 2.0 update prior to the launch of the new expansion. The most notable change returning players will pick up on is that Light is no longer tied to your character’s experience level. In the previous year of Destiny, causal players hit a wall when they reached Level 20 as getting stronger raid armor in order to rank up took weeks and even months to acquire due to the frustrating random number generators that governed loot drops. Players can now reach the new level cap of 40 through experience point while Light Levels now represent the average value of your gear’s attack and defense stats. Legendary Marks, a new currency replacing Vanguard and Crucible Marks, can be used to purchase Legendary Gear, buy upgraded versions of previous Year One Exotics from the new Tower Kiosks, or to infuse stronger loot into your equipped gear. This Infusion mechanic is a much welcome improvement to the previous methods of upgrading your loot as it puts greater emphasis on constantly searching for the best gear. With LOADS of new armor, guns, class specific marks, and artifacts all randomized with unique perks, the never ending grind to get score stuff is more accessible for all. Further adding to this is that any new piece of Exotic gear you collect will already have their signature perk unlocked.

They named an Exotic gun after an Episode of 30 Rock.
They named an Exotic gun after an Episode of 30 Rock.

New to Year Two are Quests which operate similar to Exotic Bounties from Year One. The “quest-ification” overhaul of all of Destiny’s existing content are welcome as they make Destiny feel more like a traditional MMO as each challenging task paves the way for some of the best rewards (EXOTIC SWORDS!) in the game. There’s a seemingly endless amount of quests to do, Vendors to please, and things to do so the added ability to track up to four bounties/quest via your Ghost eases the frustration of where to go and what to do next.

So many quests!
Eris Morn is still creepy but her quests led to one of the most unique weapons in the game.

The Taken hordes you’ll encounter in the game are not just mere redesigns of existing enemies. Each of the Taken has a unique function which throws a wrench into familiar strategies and need to be killed quickly or else they’ll multiply, teleport, and overwhelm the player. Fortunately, the three new subclasses that are unlocked after completing class specific quests are very useful against the Taken and are a blast to play with. The Hunter’s “Nightstalker” subclass is all about disappearing and using a void bow to shoot arrows to pin down enemies. The Warlock’s “Stormcaller” can summon storm clouds from grenades and shoot lightning from their hands. The Titan’s “Sunbreaker” subclass is all about range from tossing thermite grenades, to using the Hammer of Sol Super to fling flaming hammers across the screen.

All of the existing cooperative Strike Missions and competitive Crucible modes have been tweaked for the better. The new Vangaurd Heroic Playlist features 4 new Strike Missions (one of which is a PlayStation exclusive) and several remixed Strikes. These are all designed with veteran players in mind as they require coordination to take down bosses instead of just shooting at giant blowing bullet sponges. The Nightfall Strike no longer kicks player out for failure and instead uses the revive mechanics used in the Raids which makes playing them less frustrating but still challenging to undertake.

Eight new Crucible maps (one of which is a PlayStation exclusive) have been added to the games versus multiplayer suite with one new mode and several variants of existing modes. “Rift” is akin to Halo’s One Bomb Assault as two teams vie to take a Spark from the center of the map and score in into the other teams goal area. It’s very fun being the runner as the mode encourages movement and scores causes a huge explosion. But since the Spark can’t be picked up like the Bomb in Halo’s Assault mode, there’s very little incentive for teammates to defend the Spark Runner. “Mayhem” is a new Team Deathmatch variant that increases the recharge rate of Supers, abilities and Heavy Ammo spawns leading to utter chaos. “Zone Control” is a variant of Control that’s prioritizes capturing zones as opposing to killing opponents for points.

You may have won this round, former IGN Editor and current Communications Manager for Activision Scott Lowe but I had the higher score. Good game though.
You may have won this round, former IGN Editor and current Communications Manager for Activision Scott Lowe but I had the higher score. Good game though.

The Dreadnaught is the new playable patrol location in The Taken King and it’s home to some of Destiny’s hardest challenges. The “Court of Oryx” is a public event area in the center of the Dreadnaught where players use runes to summon powerful foes for more rewards. While the level one bosses are easier to kill and farm rare loot, the higher levels are much more difficult and require up to eight strangers to coordinate in order to get Legendary rewards. The “King’s Fall” Raid requires six friends with the recommended Light level of 290. Without spoiling any of it, I can say it’s the most diabolical Raid Bungie has ever crafted. It’s impossible to run this Raid solo as Bungie has designed every mechanic of this Raid with six players in mind. It’s a well crafted piece of game and level design but it may deter casual players due to time commitment, the difficulty and the lack of matchmaking for Raids.

This guy means business.
This guy means business.

3: Yes, there’s still problems…

Despite all the new additions to Destiny, the core gameplay is unchanged. With the exception of a couple of missions, the structure still relies on entering rooms, killing wave after wave of enemies, and killing the big boss at the end of the level. Unless you have friends and a headset to chat with them in parties, it can be a lonely experience as the game is still centered around playing with other people online. The Grimoire which features cards detailing the intricate backstory of the world of Destiny is still segregated to and the companion app with no option to view them in game.

Still beautiful as it is barren
Still beautiful as it is barren

While the launch of The Taken King was smooth for me, several of my friends kept experiencing network issues and were frequently ejected out of the game. In particular, Xbox 360 owners are still having issues with downloading and accessing The Taken King weeks past the games launch. Raids like the Vault of Glass still suffer from bugs and connection issues that haven’t been addressed in the new update. While Bungie has implemented a Mercy Rule for one sided Crucible matches, there’s still no dedicated matchmaking for the Crucible to match players with those of equal skill and to prevent game crippling lag in matches. Arguably the biggest problem is that players who don’t have all of the expansions passes and an Xbox Live/PlayStation Plus Online Subscription service are locked out of nearly half of the endgame content. This is a standard for massively multiplayer games and while the $60 Legendary Edition features all of the content at a reasonable price for newcomers, the $140 total for folks playing since Year One makes Destiny a rapidly expensive experience.

That's not how you use a shotgun.
That’s not how you use a shotgun.

4: But yes, this expansion is worth it.
Destiny 2.0 still suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued 1.0 but now it’s potential is finally being realized. The Taken King’s succinct six hour campaign and grand sweeping changes to the every single system help make Destiny feel more like a role playing game than victory through attrition. The vast amounts of maps, modes, missions, and events won’t shake off the feeling of deja-vu but they’re fun to play with friends and the quests are very addictive to sink time into. A lot of effort has been put into place by Bungie to make the player care about what goes on in the world of Destiny. Current players who’ve blazed through all of the Year One content will really appreciate the callbacks to previous missions and events. New players won’t be able to experience the events in Year One but Year Two is far more accessible thanks to the $60 Legendary Edition and simplified mechanics. If you’ve dropped Destiny or didn’t buy it, nothing here is likely to change your mind. Destiny will never be finished as new content keeps getting added in and new secrets are being discovered by players. But The Taken King is how DLC can truly expand on a game and at $40, its value is completely justified by all of the new additions. If you’ve ever wanted to check out why millions of people still play Destiny, now’s the time to jump in.

UPDATE: Yes, there’s more.

With Year Three of Destiny coming to a head with the Rise of Iron expansion pack, I thought it would be best to talk about the following activities in Year Two after Bungie released The Taken King.

A month after The Taken King launched, Bungie introduced the Eververse Trading Company, a mircotransaction service, into the world of Destiny (I’ve updated this review to reflect this change). Players can use real world money to purchase in-game silver coins in exchange for emotes and other cosmetic items. While I have no qualms with players purchasing items that have no impact on gameplay, the addition of Microtransactions highlights a fundamental problem with Destiny. Destiny NEEDS as casual and hardcore Destiny players alike can easily burn through all of the content within a couple of weeks. Having “optional” microtranstions tied to limited events means that Destiny players can spend more money outside of the paid expansion, but they don’t need to in order to experience everything Year Two has to offer. The Festival of the Lost, Sparrow Racing League (SRL), and Crimson Days seasonal events are fun, yet they felt more like distractions from the base game. It’s cool that those events are free and are coming back in Rise of Iron but they need to be more impactful in the world of Destiny.

Aside from various balance changes, user interface upgrades, and Challenge Mode for the King’s Fall raid, the most substantial amount of content in Year Two came in the April Update (Patch version 2.2.0). The April Update brought back the Prison of Elders and with it, a new score attack mode called the Challenge of the Elders. A new mission, a new Strike, a revamped Strike, and a new quest line were also added that dealt with the aftermath of Oryx’s death. Bungie raised the light level from 310 to 335 but also implemented a better random loot generator to all Engram drops. Instead of getting a weapon with a random light level, you’re guaranteed a loot drop closer to or higher than your Guardians current light level. This change meant that you didn’t need to do the weekly grind in the raid to get the best gear as all activities led to the higher light level. Last but not least is the addition of Chroma, consumable items that changed the color of “SPEKTAR” gear and weapons. They’re found in Sterling Chests that can be bought for money are earned three times a week by logging in and playing weekly activities. Like all the other microtransactions added to Destiny, Chroma doesn’t impact the gameplay and can be simply ignored.

Overall, the shift from multiple paid expansions in Year One of Destiny into “free” event based activities in Year Two has been a mixed bag. While it’s more reasonable to have microtransactions pave the way for new content drops than expensive expansion packs, there’s just no excuse to integrate them together. Especially since seasonal events lack the impact and longevity previous Destiny expansions offered in Year One. I stand by everything I said in my original review (typos and all), but I do feel weary about the future of what is by default, my favorite game of this console generation. Still, with Rise of Iron coming out next month (as of this writing) and Destiny 2 on the horizon, I have hope for the future of this massive FPS/RPG hybrid.