Plastic instruments are dead. Long live plastic instruments.
In 2010, both Guitar Hero and Rock Band faded into rock obscurity, mainly due to oversaturation of both series. While The Beatles Rock Band was a brilliantly executed idea, most of the public couldn’t get into the jams they provided. And, well, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock came out at a time that Activision faced a mountain of lawsuits from artists and their respective estates. So, yeah, rock died. But, as you might guess, it never stays dead.
This year will bring back both series, each with something new to offer to the table. While we’ll see what Guitar Hero Live can do in a couple of weeks, we have Rock Band 4, a game that sticks with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic of play, while adding its own innovations here and there. While some stuff may stay a little firmly in the past, there’s no question that this series still knows how to put on a show.
The main game features 65 selections to choose from (which you can eventually unlock in its career mode), and while some may question why more obscure choices were made for bands like Rush and Foo Fighters (probably because most of their catalog is already available for purchase), there’s more than enough great tunes to play along with here, like Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Miracle Man,” a couple of slick U2 selections and plenty of indie faves. Tell me you aren’t smiling ear to ear when you play “I Am Electric.” Liar.
What’s more, you can expand on this list in many ways. Rock Band 4 is backwards compatible with many previously released songs, and you don’t have to ante up an additional fee to get them. This is a marvel in its own right, and allows you to take previously invested songs and re-add them to this current party. They fit right in as well, complete with the new freestyle solos and excited crowds to sing along with them. Oh, there will be new DLC as well – we’re already planning on adding classics from Duran Duran and Babymetal just as soon as they’re ready. (What? “The Reflex” is a good tune. Quiet.)
The songs are represented quite well, and there’s more than enough to jam to here, whether you prefer blazing through the game’s humorous career mode, or playing along with your friends in local multiplayer. Online isn’t ready yet, but it’s coming in due time – so you’ve got plenty of opportunities to practice up.
Harmonix has really come a long way in the past few years with instrument design (with help from Mad Catz, of course), and Rock Band 4 harbors its best materials to date. The instruments in the band-in-a-box set automatically calibrate, so you can get right into playing the music. And they perform just as admirably as older toys, although you can use those if you prefer to use a customized guitar for your strumming pleasure. You just need the separately sold adapter to get that party going.
Their performance continues to be strong as well. Drums react accordingly with each hit, and you can also perform a few dynamic solos in case you feel like showing off your inner Bonham. And the vocal stuff is great too, as you can freestyle some of your lyrics (without going overboard there, Axl) and be a singing sensation.
But, really, it’s all about the guitar. The addition of freestyle guitar solos in older and newer songs alike is a work of art, as you’ll need to strategically follow on-screen patterns to get the most out of them. It can take a little bit of practice, especially with the strumming, but it’s a dynamic new feature that helps you get the most out of the game, instead of following just a few buttons on-screen. It’s a wonderful new component that will make you the next Pete Townsend in no time. (Well, maybe – you probably still can’t do that windmill strum.)
There are some parts of Rock Band 4 that remain firmly planted in the past. The graphics, for instance, aren’t 60 frames per second as initially promised, instead following a design similar to previous games, with on-screen musicians and repeated movements.
This may seem like a slight letdown considering the horsepower of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but hang on a second. The front playfields have always been what mattered in a game like this anyway, and they run beautifully on the screen. That’s what counts, right? Besides, the characters themselves provide an interesting touch with their on-screen performances (despite repeat movements and the lack of being able to choose bandmates), and some of the venues are quite good, especially the big concert halls. So it’s still a win, even if it seems like a decision firmly out of the past.
And the lack of online play is notable, but Harmonix has said it’ll be patched in later, so don’t sweat that. In the meantime, local multiplayer is still where it’s at, as you can jam along with friends and keep the party going. What’s more, the intuitive menu system lets you continue choosing songs and rocking on with a simple voting process, so you don’t have to worry about rooting through hundreds of songs to see what you want to play next. And it’s fully compatible with backwards compatible (and upcoming) DLC, so don’t worry about it being mixed in – it is. This is awesome.
While the graphics may not have provided the evolution that fans were hoping for, the rest of Rock Band 4 delivers so abundantly that you simply won’t give a damn. Between a great playlist that can easily be built upon, solid gameplay support for old and new peripherals alike, and the kind of multiplayer that’s exceptionally jam-worthy, it’s a party that you’ll easily welcome back with open arms. Indeed, it’s time to unleash your inner Slash and get back to jamming.