All at once the music rhythm genre took center stage, filling living rooms with plastic guitars and drum kits a little less than a decade ago. Yet it just as quickly disappeared when both Rock Band and Guitar Hero stopped releasing new entries after 2010.
Five years later, both series are back, and Harmonix has shot out of the gate first with Rock Band 4, looking to make good on promises past by providing players with more of a platform and less of a mere sequel. Rock Band 4 is intended to be the only release in the franchise for this console generation, an ever-evolving game that can be adapted and modified to grow with players.
So how is the experience upon release? Well, it’s Rock Band. That’s a great thing for those wanting to take another spin on the plastic toms or colored guitar frets, but don’t expect an overhaul to your beat matching experience. This is very much the Rock Band you came to know, and possibly love, despite that friend who thought they could sing “More than a Feeling” much better than they ever actually did.
Rather than capitalizing on one major upgrade or new piece of hardware (sorry, aspiring keytarists), Rock Band 4 is distinct for the many smaller-scale adjustments that have been made. Many of them will be more recognized by the dedicated players than those who pick a plastic guitar up at a party every few weeks or months, but most translate into a smoother, livelier experience. The biggest most obvious addition is the 60+ song on-track setlist, which, this time out is sadly one of the franchise’s weakest. Music is such a subjective subject, however, that it’s worth checking out the full list.
There are definitely crowd-pleasers — 4-Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” remains a favorite of my band’s get-togethers even after more than a dozen plays — and “Brown Eyed Girls,” “Birth in Reverse,” “My God Is the Sun,” and many other on-disc tracks are certainly a joy to play with a full band. But for a series that has built such a massive library out of downloadable songs, many of the major acts featured are represented on-disc by some of the less popular and frankly, less fun, tracks to play. It allows your extra songs to shine, but they almost become a requirement after the setlist’s less enjoyable songs become tiresome.
Thankfully, Harmonix has strived to let your existing catalogue of downloaded songs carry over to the new consoles. It can give the Rock Band diehards a built-in library of dozens, or hundreds, of more songs, but sadly the process of bringing them over is by no means perfect. It’s a tremendous accomplishment on Harmonix’s part (as is the lifesaver ability to use your old instruments with the new game, even if Xbox players need to purchase one additional accessory to do_)and one that makes Rock Band 4 a properly rocking experience, but in practice, the player’s role is an arduous one.
Manually redownloading every track from the console’s online store (the in-game marketplace frequently did not register that I owned songs), and consulting fan-made lists to fully understand what’s working, depending on the size of your library, can be a lengthy and frustrating project. It’s an absolute joy to have those songs back, but don’t expect to go into the experience without some legwork required, as antithetical to rocking out as that may be. (Note: We played Rock Band 4 on the Xbox One using new instruments and can’t speak to the PlayStation 4 experience’s similarities or differences.)
As for playing the game, anyone who picked up a plastic instrument with colored buttons will understand how to play. There are small tweaks to drums that introduce different drum fills, and vocalists on higher difficulties can improvise and not be penalized. The biggest alteration comes in the form of guitar freestyle solos, which are a blast to play, though they can occasionally make you miss the actual, iconic solos The Who, Van Halen, and more are known for. The system also runs into slight hiccups, taking an extra beat to register the player’s control and throwing off the entire flow of the solo. But when it works, it is one of the most fulfilling promises of the series’ intent to make the player feel like a rock star, and is a reminder of the magic that made me, and many other players, fall in love with plastic isntruments when the phenomenon first hit.
The new tour system has some fun additions: doing well in a set may lead to an encore request from the crowd, while a group-voting system can make the flow of a setlist feel more dynamic. It’s a mechanic that adds some lively competition and teamwork to the song-choosing process, and jumping in with your bandmates has never been easier in the series. But growing your band from a bar-side act to a stadium-filling phenomenon feels like tracing a familiar path, and it may be easiest for the more casual players to choose the “Quickplay” option rather than launching into the career mode.
Rock Band 4 is more Rock Band, which is intended to be both high praise and tempered enthusiasm. The music genre is returning not in the revolutionary way it began, but with a safe reminder of what made it such a joy in the first place. There are few gaming experiences as purely fun as assembling a band and rocking out to your favorite songs, and my many marathon Rock Band sessions since the game released have solidified that ideal. But the sense of the new, whether it be a new instrument or structural overhaul, that has accompanied each new Rock Band experience feels absent. Rock Band 4 is Rock Band, so for those expecting to be brought back to the genre with some brand new idea or format should look elsewhere.
Rock Band 4 seems catered to making the experience as streamlined and easy to jump into as possible, with its new features and additions facilitating that in many small, sometimes less obvious ways. And Harmonix’s promise to continue supporting the game with updates and upgrades could mean Rock Band 4 a year from now is quite the different experience than it is now.
But as it is at launch? Rock Band 4 feels like the comfort of your favorite classic rock acts wrapped in a better yet sometimes overly familiar packaging. It’s a testament to just how fun that core gameplay is, and how smart Harmonix’s team can be about translating the real-world musical experience into an enjoyably virtual one. Even if the biggest promise after hours of playing can feel like “More Rock Band,” that can still be quite the tempting one for a lapsed plastic musician.
Rock Band 4 is one of the games in EW’s Fall Games Preview. Stay tuned to more on the game as new tracks and features are added. To see what else we can’t wait to play this fall, check out our full fall guide.