For the past half decade, the rhythm music game has been as dead as the proverbial dodo. At some point in the late noughties, people decided that strumming a plastic instrument to the sound of Bon Jovi was no longer ‘cool’. God knows why.
After a five year absence from communal living rooms and your dad’s loft conversion, Rock Band is back. But is its revival more Limp Bizkit than Led Zeppelin? We unleashed our inner rock ‘n’ roll superstar to find out.
Hit me with your rhythm click
Compared to the singular Guitar Hero, Rock Band has always been a more cooperative affair. It allows you to get together with your mates and form a bona fide supergroup featuring drums, guitars and vocals. This likely the closest you’ll ever get to headlining Wembley or succumbing to a heroin addiction.
Mind you, at US$250 for its ‘band-in-a-box’ bundle, Rock Band 4 is expensive enough on its own. That's why any old instruments and most of the 1,500 songs you may have owned through previous games will work with this latest title. Tub-thumping all on your lonesome is thoroughly discouraged. When you consider that games you play in-person with your mates and family members have virtually perished with the advent of Call Of Duty online, this is a strangely old-fashioned way of doing things.
Rock Band’s central premise remains unchanged too: you are (yep, you guessed it) a rock band who must ace their gig. As the game blares out your chosen anthem, players must press keys on their instruments in time to the passing of patterned blocks on-screen. Arrangement, tempo and duration of the desired presses regularly shift to keep things interesting.
First-timers will find themselves crawling like newborns, their fingers as effectual as egg soldiers, but old schoolers will undoubtedly be able to dive right in and feel at home. It’s striking how familiar the whole arrangement feels, especially the guitar, even to those such as myself who’ve only ever dipped in and out of the genre.
Fight for your right to party
So what of those instruments? As with before, they’ve been built to take a beating. The guitar is made of the same sheened, light plastic that looks as though it’s been lifted from a child’s toy box. When you’re slapping away on its whammy bar (euphemism alert!), you’ll be thankful for the sturdiness.
Playing on each instrument is a satisfying experience, each offering its own challenge as they require different forms of coordination. There’s a good amount of schadenfreude to be enjoyed as your friends’ limbs fail them in spectacular style. Especially, when they’ve switched from being a god on their six-string to a dunce with the drums.
With others is clearly how Rock Band 4 wants to be enjoyed, even if for fresh players the social aspect is dampened by their desperate focus on coordination. Some helpful tweaks have been made in line with Rock Band 4’s aspirations to communal play.
When a set ends, it’s now possible to continue straight to the next song by voting on a set of criteria. Players are presented with options like ‘a song by a female artist’, because apparently that’s a genre, or ‘a song from 1984’ and then select their preference. Majority rule usually wins out, but sometimes the system will favour the outlying vote, even if that vote is as unpalatable as R.E.M.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER ROCK TOGETHER
Also new to Rock Band 4 is the freestyle solo feature, which allows players temporary creativity. At a musically appropriate moment during some tracks the pattern of blocks disappears and the guitar can be strummed and keys pressed however the players sees fit.
Whether done spasmodically (my preferred approach) or with due care, the game then translates this into a guitar solo that’s in keeping with the track, providing a break in which you’re no longer a slave to the rhythm. It’s a welcome change, and translated my inarticulate slamming into something truly audible that matched the movement of my fingers.
Where Rock Band 4 struggles to meet expectation is in its 60-odd song repertoire. Classic rock and a smattering of ‘alt-hits’ is the order of the day here, and that’s okay. This is a game that knows its target audience and appeals to the days when they used to don a leather jacket and have piercings in unmentionable places.
The usual suspects like Aerosmith, Van Halen and Foo Fighters are all present and correct. There are also several entries from contemporary figures like the Arctic Monkeys, Black Keys and Fall Out Boy too. Playing these songs back-to-back can become a drag though.
A quick glance at the music library in the upcoming Guitar Hero Live is all that’s needed to see which game won out round the negotiating table with publishers. From Royal Blood to Sleigh Bells and Haim, the list is swamped with names that have shaped the past few years of alternative music. Rock Band 4 has St.Vincent and Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ but their inclusion seems tokenist when you consider that Guitar Hero Live will reportedly launch with a catalogue of hundreds of songs on its online service.
In contrast, Rock Band 4 will be releasing new tracks through DLC packs as time draws on. As we mentioned earlier, players will be allowed to import previous song purchases from previous Rock Band games. For those starting afresh, the selection is unlikely to delight.
Rock Band 4 Verdict
If you adored the previous games in the series and delight in the sounds of yesteryear, then you’ll have a blast with Rock Band 4. Especially, if you can cajole enough friends together to strum along to The Who, Van Morrison and the like.
In a time when local co-op stalwarts like Halo are ditching split screen play and Nintendo’s Wii U is suffering a slow death, Rock Band 4 strikes an awkward tone. There’s fun to be had soloing away in a state of inebriation, but its kit is expensive if you don’t own any instruments already. I also doubt that the multiplayer experience will provide much in the way of longevity.
For those folk who grew up in the era of music streaming, Rock Band 4 feels like an artifact that belongs to another time.