The rise and fall of music games was a true wonder to behold. The surprisingly sudden surge in popularity, following the release of Harmonix’s original Guitar Hero, was only trumped by the even more sudden failure of the entire genre. Too many games had been released too quickly, leading to gamers complete apathy toward a genre that, only a few years earlier, they had adored. Now, with five years separating the collapse from today, Harmonix is betting that gamers are ready to play with their plastic instruments once again, bringing Rock Band 4 to the masses. Keeping to the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Rock Band 4 is a wonderful return to form, but doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the past.
Rock Band 4, at its core, is the same game that you played all those years ago. You select songs and play along with them, strumming a plastic guitar while pressing corresponding green, red, yellow, blue, and orange buttons, or playing the drums, or singing along. It’s the total Rock Band experience, minus the admittedly excessive keyboard that was introduced in Rock Band 3.
Starting up the game will immediately bring back a flood of memories of having friends over, drinking some beers, and jamming out to classic songs for a few hours. Even those that prefer a more video game-esque experience, mastering songs to get that ever elusive 100%, will find Rock Band 4 back to its old ways. With some devilishly difficult tracks that will take hours to memorize and defeat.
Rock Band 4 is less a brand new game in the series, and more of a bare-bones platform launch
You’ll even get to play with all of your old instruments, if you didn’t unload them in a garage sale that is. PS4 will recognize almost all the old instruments immediately, with Xbox One requiring an adapter to get things operational (for our impressions of the new instruments click here). And your DLC will carry over as well, so if you have a huge collection of old Rock Band songs, they’ll be waiting for you on launch day.
So all of the old stuff is back, you’ll still have a ton of fun playing songs from all of your favorite artists. However, that is Rock Band 4’s true fault if you are wanting something fresh to experience. Aside from a couple of features, there is almost nothing new to be seen in Rock Band 4. In fact, many things have been removed from the equation, like the aforementioned keyboard, along with online multiplayer.
Rock Band 4 is less a brand new game in the series, and more of a bare-bones platform launch. The basics have been nailed to a tee, making sure all of the old fun you had before is ready for you to enjoy this time around. But outside of that, nothing truly new or revolutionary is here. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, Harmonix has said that they consciously chose to strip the series down to its roots with plans for additional features to be added later. Many players will be happy about this, finding it to be more of a benefit than a fault, but it is worth noting that if you grew tired of the Rock Band formula, there isn’t much in Rock Band 4 that will dissuade you from that opinion.
New things have been added, they just aren’t all that interesting, or necessary. The big addition was the “Freestyle Solos” that allow for more free-form music playing. When these specially colored sections of song come up, the guitar player is able to improvise more, strumming along to the beat, holding notes, or just jamming whatever buttons they wish, as the sections indicates.
Despite a long tutorial video, these new pieces of gameplay will take a large amount of work to figure out. Once you do, they don’t really offer too much that is beneficial, other than mixing up the formula a little bit. You can turn these special areas off, and many players will likely do this, although they can be somewhat rewarding once you figure out how best to utilize them.
The second biggest shift seems to be the new campaign mode, which gives you a little more control over the direction your band takes. You still go to various locations, playing different shows, with some being themed in unique ways. In between this though, you have some control over your band. You can buy customization options, such as new hair styles, accessories, outfits, and instruments, but you also can shape the way your band gains an audience.
In between major locations you get to choose between gaining more fans, while toughing out the rigors of travel yourself, or pushing for a more corporate style, making more money at the cost of some autonomy. These choices feel a bit more important than they actually are though, as the only real shift seems to be the humorous quotes that appear while loading different songs. Perhaps the choices will change how quickly you progress, or how many items you can buy in the Rock Shop, but overall it’s not a huge enough difference to warrant a second playthrough for most.
Outside of these, are the “Shows” that allow players to choose the next songs via a voting system, and of course, the tracks that can be chosen. The Shows are a better social way to choose the next song, taking away the feeling of one player controlling everyone else’s experience. But most of the time players will probably just agree on a song and pick that one, as they did before.
The songs themselves are a great mix of old and new that should please fans though. From Elvis to Dream Theater, Foo Fighters to Mumford & Sons. The more than 60 songs featured on the Rock Band 4 disc will have at least a few favorites among the crowd. Of course, adding to this are the over fifteen hundred DLC songs already available on the Rock Band Store, including those exported from previous games, so fans should have plenty to play, old and new.
Some smaller elements have also been tweaked, such as vocals allowing a bit more free-form in your singing, while also bringing back harmonies, in the rare chance that you have multiple people who want to sing. Drums feature a new dynamic drum fill system for triggering the Overdrive power-up. However, none of these are extremely integral to the game, and will largely go ignored by all but the most die hard of Rock Band fans.
With all of that said, powering up Rock Band 4, getting some people together, and playing a few songs is still a great time. While the formula hasn’t changed much, and has actually reverted a bit from previous titles, that is likely a good thing given the state the genre ended up in last time.
Rock Band 4 doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken, and actively removes things that were extraneous to the experience. Still, with the launch of a new game one usually expects something new and different to be there. With Rock Band 4 those expectations need to be tempered. Instead of a new entry in the series, Harmonix has put together a base platform on which to build future advancements. What they have is a solid foundation, which should be enough to get people playing with their plastic instruments once again.
Rock Band 4
- Available On: PS4, Xbox One
- Published By: Harmonix
- Developed By: Harmonix
- Genre: Music
- US Release Date: October 6th, 2015
- Reviewed On: PS4
- Quote: "Harmonix has brought the music genre back from the dead with a solid experience in Rock Band 4. All the fun you had with the series is back, with a few extra parts missing this time around. Nothing is particularly new here though, so if you haven't been yearning for the good old days, you might want to wait to see how this new platform develops."