Like an old pair of slippers that you can comfortably slip into on a cold January evening: it’s more Rock Band.
That’s an obvious statement to make, but it’s one you need to hear and understand, because while Harmonix has made an effort to introduce a handful of new elements into the overall package, Rock Band 4 feels more like a service, designed to let you bring all that DLC over to your shiny new consoles, and in some cases, use the legacy hardware that you spent hundreds on back when everyone was spending absurd money on plastic toys to play games with. Kinda like Amiibo, I guess, only actually good and worthwhile.
Some background info that will give you a bit of context, then: I love music, it’s my first love (entertainment wise, in case you’re reading this, dear), and therefore music games are one of my favourite genres. I play guitar to a reasonably high standard (though am self-effacing about it), and have done for many years. I could never decide which of the two guitar game series’ I preferred, which is why when reviewing Rock Band 4, I had to ask Mad Catz for hardware, because a trip to my loft caused me to find two Guitar Hero controllers, a World Tour drum set, an (disgustingly expensive at the time) Ion Rocker Rock Band drum set, an empty Rock Band 2 band in a box box, and the original imported Rock Band (in a box) I grabbed way back when it first hit the USA before us UK-folk.
And none of these fucking plastic toys work with Rock Band 4. Kinda. Sorta.
You see, being a sane person, last generation I spent all my time buying DLC on Xbox 360, which means, obviously, I’m playing Rock Band 4 on Xbox One, which (thanks Microsoft) means that none of my hardware works. I don’t blame Harmonix for this, at all. It’s cool that if you own a PS4 and played Rock Band previously on a PS3, you can play with your old gear on your new game. Xbox owners have to buy a dongle, because Microsoft have changed the way wireless controllers connect from Xbox 360 to Xbox One, and that dongle is the first of its kind – which is, again, cool of Harmonix to even bother.
I knew all of this in advance, but chose Xbox One, because I’ll be buggered if I’m losing all of that DLC. I’m a fan; I bought quite a bit. Despite the fact the store is a bit of a mess at the time of writing (some songs aren’t there yet, but more are coming – some say I need to buy them, even though I swear blind I did that five years ago) thanks to the searching not being quite on point, it’s a phenomenal effort on Harmonix’s part that it’s ported well over 1,500 songs from the library into RB4. It really can’t be understated: the work from both Harmonix and first-party to get this in any fit state for release truly needs commending.
But what of Rock Band 4 itself? Well, the sixty or so songs on the disc are a bit of a disappointment, but musical taste is the most subjective you’ll ever find, so your mileage may vary. It’s an awkward position to be in, really, but being four games in (not even including the superb spinoffs) means that you’ve used a lot of the classics already, and can’t re-use them for fear of being called lazy. Two U2 songs are a coup, I guess, but they’re not two of their best. Equally, two Foo Fighters song from their recent album (I’d argue two of the weaker ones) are here, but they’re a band so oft-used in Rock Band, you can’t complain that all the best ones are missing, and it’s likely you bought them before, anyway. I know I did.
That said, Uptown Funk is a blast to play on bass, guitar, and to sing. Elvis’ Suspicious Minds is great, and there are a smattering of other hits and songs that perform well in a party environment throughout. But it really comes back to the idea of “Rock Band 4 as a service”, and with a few DLC songs, you’ll have plenty to keep you going. It’s hard to imagine too many newcomers to the series jumping in now, due to the price point, but one would assume anyone returning would have to be invested enough at this point that they’ll have plenty to re-download. I’m not making excuses; that’s just how I see it.
The new guitar itself feels sturdy and well made, and I’ve no complaints there at all. The biggest addition to the guitar side of things is the freestyle solos, which I’m not a huge fan of. Part of being a “guitar hero” (sorry!) is playing a killer solo, stood on a box facing a full length mirror in your best tie-dyed jeans with a cucumber in your pocket. But imagine, suddenly, Slash’s solo from November Rain is ripped out, and a sticky fingered teenager is pumping all manner of notes out that are in key, but not actually well played. That’s how freestyle solos can play out.
From a technical standpoint, they’re absolutely fantastic, and very cool. But they are more fun to play than they are to listen to. Much thought has gone into these solos, and they change tone and note depending on if you’re playing the low or high buttons, whether you’re strumming up or down, and more. Again, very, very cool, but if I’m playing Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot”, I want to play that solo, not one made up on the fly. Maybe it’s the nerdy guitarist in me, but there it is. After two to three hours I could never get them sounding right, so switched back to the pre-authored solos.
The changes to vocals fare way better, and allow for a more talented singer to play on expert but have the wiggle room to perform the song as you would in a real band situation. On stage, a rock star rarely sings anything the same way twice. Inflection is king, perfection stays in the studio – and now, as long as you’re in key and not singing like a disgustingly drunk pub karaoke singer, you’ll be rewarded for actually being good. This is a change I’ve longed for in a music game for ages, and now it’s here, it’s brilliant.
Drums feel as great as they always did. In fact, passers-by are almost always drawn to them first. Maybe it’s the idea of smashing the hell out of something to get rid of all of your anger, bitterness, and resentment towards the games industry, but there’s something truly cathartic about beating the shit out some plastic drums. The new kit is still too loud when hit, however, which will mean many of you will either be playing during the day, or annoying your neighbours into the night, and the authored drum fills give structure to those that need it, and work well. Regardless, everyone loves drums. Drums.
It sounds like I’m really down on Rock Band 4, and that’s absolutely not the case. With a few friends (or even a small child you’ve literally forced to sing Uptown Funk) it can be electrifying. It’s not until you play it that you remember how amazing it feels when you’re all in harmony and killing it on the virtual stage. A revamped world tour lets you perform sets that are ripe for trolling (you get to vote on songs at some stages, so you can pick songs that are impossible for the vocalist of the group), and although it’s a crying shame there’s no online play this time, there are still leaderboards for you to compete with friends over. But this edition of Rock Band truly feels like one designed as a party game, one for old friends to get together and reminisce over.
Rock Band 4 is more Rock Band, and I’m glad that it exists. It’s neither revolution, nor true evolution, but when the planets align, with a few like-minded friends who’ve had a few drinks, there’s nothing that can touch it, and you’ll have tremendous fun. But you already knew that. Now you have to decide whether you’re ready to get back on the plastic train. I’m off to sing Still Alive from Portal, then smash the crap out of those drums a little more.
Review Update: 5th January 2017
It feels so strange to be writing about Rock Band 4 again, but credit to Harmonix, it’s updated the game, and had a change of hardware partners, all of which has seen improvements to the base game, which now seems to be called “Rock Band: Rivals”.
So the instruments, first. The drums feels largely the same, but the guitar has been improved upon. the Xbox button is still in a slightly awkward place if you rest your arm across the guitar, and it still plays nicely, but the best part is that the neck now has a quick release switch which allows it to fold in half, saving space. It’s a small thing, but it’s clever and a nice addition. The Jaguar guitar is the best to date, so there’s that.
The crown in Rock Band 4’s jewels, though, is Rivals. It sounds stupid, and it kinda is. This is a mockumentary about your fictional band, will full interviews from real, human people. The mode walks you through the journey from high school band to fame and fortune, and it’s a great excuse to play through some setlists, but it actually makes you laugh. The acting is well done, and just the right side of hammy, which is to say, it’s very hammy. You can place wagers on setlists to say how many stars you think you’ll achieve, and these are basically multipliers, and you’ll gain fans along the way. It’s simple but effective, and it really offers a unique way to play a music game: it’s essentially a story mode, but it’s different.
Rivals mode itself, then, allows you to play multiplayer and is a bit like a clan feature. It’s a nice mode, especially if you’ve a regular crew to play with. Thank God, though, that this update brings online multiplayer. An astonishing exclusion previously, you can now play online.
Rock Band 4: Rivals feels like the game it should have been when it launched. Dramatically improved by hook of the fact it felt so empty in 2015, this new version is a cracking party game with an enormous library of songs. I feel far more comfortable recommending it now then I did back then, even if, sadly, nobody is talking about, or playing it.
Review originally published on October 9th, 2015.
DLC backward compatibility.
New instruments are an improvement.
Loads of DLC, but so hard to navigate.