Originally Written for FlickeringMyth.com
Last week I got to go hands on with Rock Band 4 at a London press event. The new title, co-published by series developer Harmonix and peripheral maker Mad Catz, will see the franchise make its jump to current-gen systems later this year. Releasing on Xbox One and PS4.
With Rock Band 4 the developer seems to be taking a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to game design. Fundamentally RB4 is very much like it’s predecessors. Harmonix aren’t trying to re-invent the wheel, instead they are trying to keep everything that made the previous games successful while trying to fix ongoing issues.
One of the issues they are trying to fix is to do with song selection. In the past, much like Netflix, people have spent more time choosing which song to play next than actually playing the game. RB4 implements a new voting system to speed this process along. It doesn’t simply give you a choice of songs to play, instead a selection of themes or genres.
Other areas to see improvements are vocals and drums. In previous games singing was scored more on how close you could match the pre-set pitch and tone rather than your singing ability. This time around the system has been improved to reward people for experimenting with freestyle vocals. They didn’t go into too much detail on this, but it sounds like something you may only notice when spending more time with the game. The improvements to the drums are to do with fills. They are adding, what they call Dynamic Fills, to the songs. With this there will be a pool of pre-made fills for each genre and style that will be chosen randomly to mix things up a bit. This feature sounds good, but at the same time I hope it’s either optional or doesn’t replace existing parts of the music. And again, it’s not something that’s very apparent until you play songs multiple times.
If there is one big selling point for RB4 it’s the legacy support. This comes in both music and peripherals. While the game will see a whole new set of instruments (made closely with Mad Catz, improving the feel and build quality higher than ever before), both the PS4 and the Xbox One versions of the game will support the instruments from previous games. So if you still have instruments for PS3 they simply plug and play in PS4, and Xbox 360 peripherals will work with Xbox One (but only with a separately purchased adaptor in the case of the latter). This makes the barrier for entry far lower by either owning previous games or buying second hand instruments (better buy them now before there’s a demand).
The legacy support also comes in the form of previously released DLC. According to Harmonix, every song ever released as DLC for any Rock Band game will, over time, become available for RB4. That’s roughly another 2000 songs to add to the playlist. But the best part of this is that as long as you’re staying within the same console family (PS3 to PS4, 360 to X1) any song you already bought will be free when they become available. The guys at Harmonix are doing a great job of rewarding long time fans of the franchise. Inviting them back for another plastic guitar tour.
One piece of information about Rock Band 4 that shouldn’t be overlooked is that it is intended to be the only Rock Band game released for this generation of consoles. It seems they have learnt from the last generations over abundance of music games and intend to go totally the other way. The idea is to make the game a platform that will evolve over time as more songs and features are added.
Now for my actual hands on impressions. I probably spent a good 40 minutes playing the game. Two songs on Bass and then the rest on drums (all on expert, because that’s how I roll). For the most part I didn’t really notice anything different. As I said earlier, there will be new and improved instruments for the game, but unfortunately they were not at this event. Instead, the instruments available were from Rock Band 3. In terms of how it felt it would really take a hardcore Rock Band fan to tell the difference between this and previous instalments, especially without new peripherals.
Even the graphical upgrade, while technically impressive, takes a side by side comparison to really see the improvements made. But really, and probably most importantly, the game is still incredibly fun. Even with a group of total strangers I was having a blast. And apart from some minor technical issues the game ran like a charm (though I think it was running on a PC, a platform the final game wont actually be released on). I honestly could have played this game all day if they’d let me. But unfortunately, I had to share my time with other members of the gaming press.
The set list felt very familiar, at least from what was picked by my other band mates. Every song I played was either something I had played on a previous RB or Guitar Hero. There was some No Doubt, Pearl Jam, and obviously a bit of Hendrix. There were plenty of other songs in the list that we didn’t get round to playing so unfortunately I can’t comment too much on those.
Overall, while the game isn’t doing anything drastically new (at least from what I saw in my limited time) it’s still a hell of a lot of fun and has made me really excited about the return of the plastic instrument game. E3 is just a couple of days away, so we don’t have long to wait for more information. If they do things right and don’t overload the market again, this could once again become the definitive party game for a new generation.
Alan Heath -Follow me on Twitter