Full disclosure: I’m a 33 year old white guy. I have all the rhythm of an inebriated sloth, but none of the naturally adorable expressions. When I decided to take on Rock Band 4‘s review, it wasn’t as a music game pro.
I’ve played and enjoyed the rest of the franchise and a few of its competitors. Nevertheless, “Heart-Shaped Box” on hard difficulty might as well be “Fire and Flames” on expert for me. I simply lack the required carpal infrastructure, and my fingers leave these plastic instruments in positions reminiscent of a Kama Sutra diagram. As it turns out, Rock Band 4 is my game.
It’s been five years since the last Rock Band title unleashed itself on a wearying public. Rock Band 3 was easily the most ambitious of rock star simulations, offering an ensemble that included pro guitar support and even keyboards. The fourth iteration eschews some of the more advanced features in favor of focusing the experience on its inclusivity. Even so, getting the band back together shouldn’t feel like a downgrade. In many ways, Rock Band 4 is a natural evolution of an experience that still can’t be found anywhere else.
At its core, the game retains the music game DNA so feverishly popular in the first decade of the 21st century. You’ll press, strum, tap, or bellow to a continuous stream of multicolored cues. Your accuracy will allow you to build combos, which will increase your score multiplier, thereby growing a bonus meter that can be used to edge the multiplier even further. There are few experiences in gaming that are as satisfying as the unified efforts of a living room in sync with a great song, and Rock Band 4 thrives in the center of that electric group dynamic.
This time, you’ll also get the chance to shred like a virtual Van Halen, regardless of difficulty. ‘Freestyle’ guitar solos allow you to grab the spotlight, with little to no restriction on finger placement or strumming enthusiasm. You can pretty much go crazy and still sound kind of awesome. By no means are drummers or vocalists left out of the fun, however; Dynamic Drum Fills allow for some pad-pummeling chaos, and Freestyle Vocals allow you to add a bridge composed entirely of the word ‘bacon’, provided you stay in the same key as the song requires. That was my approach.
If you want more than just one-off performances, you can create your own band and Go On Tour. The band name generator must not be underestimated — I derived at least ten minutes of enjoyment doing nothing but randomizing and laughing. It’s just one of the typical Harmonix touches, but it never fails to make an already good experience great. If you don’t have enough humans to fill out your band, the game has provided a wild list of digital extras that you can sub in for whoever’s missing.
If my experience is any indication, you’ll probably be missing a drummer. Just like the previous iterations, the drums can be a bit… lacking. On our tester equipment the pads seemed to vary wildly in sensitivity, and the signal between them and the system frequently lagged enough to throw off large chunks of the song. This may not be a universal problem, but it’s one that they’ve been having since the very beginning of the series. It’s a shame, because they’re the closest Rock Band 4 comes to actually playing an instrument.
Once you’re on tour, the story of your career is told in witty vignettes, with branching choices that allow you to choose the way you become rock gods. Early on, you can pick between a domineering but wealthy talent agent, or a busted-up van and your artistic independence. The narrative created by both these choices and your resultant performances creates a truly engaging sense of purpose. Unfortunately, even when you can vote on your songs, the selection will be chosen at random from votes cast, not by majority. It’s best to work out and agree on what to play amongst yourselves, if you’ve got differing opinions in the group.
You’ll have plenty of music to perfect, with a reasonably good selection of 65 tracks. If you stick with the same console manufacturer, it gets even better; almost every single one of the 1,700 DLC tracks for Rock Band 3 is playable on the new iteration, with nearly a THOUSAND of them having been converted with the new solos and fills. Even your old instruments aren’t being left behind — if you’ve got a PS3 receiver or a legacy adapter for the respective current-gen system, any of the previous wireless instruments are fully usable. That’s an almost obscene level of value for returning players.
Despite the backwards compatibility, you’ll almost certainly want to get your hands on the new instruments. The guitar has an excellent solidity, besting even the previously dominant Guitar Hero peripheral. The drums, while still a bit sketchy on the pick-up at times, seem far more durable than before. The microphone has received a significant upgrade to the sample rate, now approaching studio-quality accuracy.
There’s very little to complain about, and it’s more about what’s missing than what’s offered. ‘Practice’ mode has been eliminated, but you can still easily activate a ‘no-fail’ mode that offers essentially the same functionality. The hardcore may lament the lack of ability to choose the section of a song giving them particular trouble, but it’s a feature that has gone largely unused. More disappointing is the lack of ability to record video of your sessions. People who are significantly more dexterous might want to share the highlights of their performance. On the upside, the rest of us can keep telling stories about how great we actually aren’t, and no one can call us on it.
The entire package seems like a bold statement by Harmonix and Mad Catz. From the superior quality of the equipment to the shocking level of support for their past offerings, Rock Band 4 makes it very clear that the music genre can still shine as much as it did in its inception.