The video game industry is all about two things: abusing consumers and milking concepts until the cow dries up. Pre-order culture is a great example of the former while the modern MOBA fad showcases the latter. Sometimes the stars align and they both happen at once, as we saw during the plastic instrument craze of the late 2000s! Every year another iteration of Guitar Hero, Rock Band or both would come out, bringing with it a new, pricey chunk of plastic with which to pantomime along with licensed music and purchase DLC.
Gradually, people wised up and the flow of plastic instrument money slowed to a trickle…but now, both Harmonix and Activision are trying to smash that dam wide open again. It’s time to look at 2015’s first attempt at bringing plastic instruments back: Rock Band 4.
The most obvious impression I got during my time with Rock Band 4 is that your overall enjoyment of this title is going to be directly related to your investment in previous games in the series. It’s a little ironic, given that this is one of several attempts at reviving the plastic instrument genre this year so you’d think there would be a strong focus on bringing new players into the fold. Instead, a newcomer to the series has several options. The most obvious kits cost $130 for a guitar and disc or $250 for a guitar, drums, mic and disc. Many older instruments are compatible with this game, so you can purchase the disc alone if you’re on PS4, which will set you back $60; if you’re on Xbox One, you’ll need a “Legacy Controller Adapter” as well, a black plastic box that tacks another $20 onto the cost for $80 in all.
For your hard-earned cash, you get 65 songs on the disc. For reference, Guitar Hero launched with 47 songs when it started the fad back in 2005, a year later Guitar Hero II featured 64 and a year after that III had 73 songs; if you’d prefer to stay within the same series, such as it were, Rock Band launched with 58 songs in 2007 while Rock Band 2 had a whopping 84 a year later. The point is that if you were expecting some deep reservoir of content to dive into, well…it might be time to revise those expectations. You get a few more songs if you preorder, because of course you do.
The songs on the disc are okay, I guess, with a few heavy hitters like Mumford & Sons’ new single as well as classics from Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Scorpions. I also appreciate the presence of The Protomen, along with a personal favorite or two like Live’s “All Over You.” On the other hand, we’ve got some more odd choices that only genre fans might really “get” – St. Vincent, for instance, is a talented musician and her “Birth in Reverse” is a very nice track, but I can’t think of any friends that could even name the song if they heard it.
Then you’ve got your question marks: who are Slydigs, Dark Wheels, and Eddie Japan? I’d have looked them up, but they’re apparently not even notable enough to have Wikipedia articles, stymieing even the most tenuous attempt at research. At least two of them appear to be local Boston acts, which makes sense given it’s Harmonix’s home city and licensing them was likely inexpensive. Contrast this with what we know about the songs in Guitar Hero Live. Or don’t. You’ll end up depressed.
I’ve been talking about this game in largely numerical terms because the point that needs to be made here is mathematical: see, if you’re a new player and you’re not happy with only 65 songs when games from 2008 offered 80-plus, Harmonix would be happy to sell you more at around $2 each. I’m not going to go over the specifics of the many different bundles and pricing options available on songs; suffice to say there’s a vast selection of ways to turn your potential $250 investment into a drop in the bucket.
If, on the other hand, you’re a returning player who’s already dropped money on Rock Band tracks…well, you’re in luck! All your old DLC is going to work with this game; as previously mentioned, there’s a good chance that your old instruments will as well, though the value of this can vary given there’s a newly redesigned guitar available with a second set of fret buttons used for the new Freestyle Solo segments. You won’t be stuck playing anything by Dark Wheels, no sir – chances are you’ve got entire albums from bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, Judas Priest and dozens of others!
Oh, regarding the actual gameplay: we haven’t talked much about this because it’s largely the same as previous plastic-instrument games. There’s a long path that scrolls down the screen; notes pop up; guitarists hold the appropriate fret and strum, drummers hit the appropriate drum pad and vocalists ignore all that and sing along with their own path at the top of the screen. It’s a pretty good time, actually, especially if you can wrangle up some friends and get a bunch of instruments going at once. At the appropriate moment each player can activate Overdrive, a chargeable score-boosting mode that provides bonuses when synchronized between players.
There are a few modes to go through, including a career mode that offers light story elements and customization parts for your band members, though it’s worth noting that online play is gone in any significant capacity and may not be returning.
The newest addition to the basic gameplay are those Freestyle Solo segments I mentioned for guitarists, which are basically segments of a song’s note chart where you’re given a little more freedom in what to play. There’s a “proper” way to do this, taught via hilariously cheesy voiceovers in a series of tutorials, and doing it correctly will maintain your combo and increase your score. It’s a cute idea, but you can’t take full advantage of the new feature unless you’ve got the latest iteration of plastic guitar, since as mentioned there’s a second set of frets on the new guitar that are used here.
There’s also the slight issue of input lag, which appears to be more significant than in previous games; despite my best efforts I was unable to properly calibrate my instruments, for instance, though this didn’t stop me from playing and doing relatively well.
Long story short, the quirks of Popzara’s rating system mean that Rock Band 4 gets a YAY; it’s a competently made game that does what it sets out to do without crashing or breaking your system, which fulfills my requirements for that rating. If I could break things down a little further, though, I’d say that returning players will get much more out of Rock Band 4 than newbies will. The relative paucity of content, high price of entry and costly DLC combine to create a prickly experience to the point where newcomers to the plastic-instrument scene are likely better off waiting to see how the incoming Guitar Hero Live turns out. Long-term fans, on the other hand, will appreciate having access to all their old content and gear on their new consoles and will be well served by Rock Band 4.