Rock Band 4 is concerned with you having fun, not learning guitar.
All right, so the major game releases people are looking forward to are Halo , Final Fantasy VII , and Tomb Raider , 2D shooters are selling consoles, everyone is playing Super Mario Bros. and Star Fox , and Rock Band and Guitar Hero are starting a new age of plastic instrument wars.
Am… am I time traveling?
Early on in E3 I got to check out Guitar Hero Live and TV . Later, I got to check out Rock Band 4 at its swanky outdoor E3 stage, very different from the chill back room meeting I had with Guitar Hero . This simple difference is what will paint the landscape of the rhythm game wars for years to come, as Guitar Hero and Rock Band are done trying to one up each other using the same formula. No, now the two giants of plastic guitar stardom are playing a game of opposites. Guitar Hero is trying to reinvent the genre in new and interesting ways, going so far as to completely recreate the plastic guitar peripheral. Meanwhile, Rock Band is taking the same formula that we know and love and innovating on it, bringing us back to the nostalgic memories of rhythm games of old, and by that I mean like 5 to 10 years ago.
The core gameplay of Rock Band 4 is the same that you remember from every other Rock Band . You have vocals, guitar, drums, and bass, all working together to rack up the highest score possible. Each instrument has its own abilities and strengths, like the bassist’s ability to rack up bigger multipliers. You each build overdrive by hitting glowing notes, and can use it to either increase your score multiplier even further, or to prevent someone from failing a song. Overall, it’s exactly what you remember right down to the extensive library of DLC, which isn’t a bad thing.
So why, you might be asking, should you purchase Rock Band 4 if it’s exactly the same as Rock Band 3 ? Details, my friends. Details. Subtle tweaks have been implemented all over the game to make the play experience feel better.
For example, guitar solos are now no longer canned sections of notes that are simply hard to play. Now, they are sections that actually allow you to freestyle a bit on your own. You still have to follow some basic guidelines. For example, you are told to play notes that are higher or lower, chords that are more or less complex, and you still have to strum the guitar to the timing of the song. You can’t simply strum away like a mad man.
But when you are soloing, the game loads a variety of pre-canned guitar licks for every combination of buttons, which go together quite well. So you aren’t just playing the song, you are creating and jamming, like you would imagine yourself doing if you were actually a guitarist in a live performance.
And these sections aren’t simply freestyle sections that let you do whatever you want. You are still graded and scored based on your performance. Creative, interesting, and well timed solos score more points than uncreative and monotonous solos. The note highway will change, asking you for different types of solos by showing you different shapes. Tiny little dots means you are supposed to play a lot of fast notes. A long bar means you have to hold whatever chord you are playing. There’s actually instructions you have to follow, while still being creative at the same time. This isn’t like the drum solo portions of the song where sometimes you would hit only two to three notes simply to access your star power.
Speaking of drums, these freestyle sections are gone. Instead, these sections are now replaced with “random fills.” Basically, it’s the game freestyling for you. Every time there is a section where you should be able to activate overdrive, the game accesses a variety of free-form drum licks saved in its memory. It will have a variety of different drum sections for each genre, but the sections will always be random. This means that the drummer will always have a slightly different note highway every time she plays a song, which is rather interesting.
Another thing that the drummer can do in Rock Band 4 is count down the song before it begins. This may seem aesthetic, letting a fan click his sticks together like a rock star, but it actually serves a rather important purpose. It lets you start the song whenever you want! This means that Johnny can go to the bathroom without you having to awkwardly get everyone off rhythm while you are in the pause menu. In fact, you will by definition start on rhythm because the drummer has to be on rhythm to make the song start. It effectively serves the same purpose as the real countdown before a song does.
On the vocal end, harmonies return. Originally only seen in The Beatles: Rock Band , this allows several players to play vocals at once. Harmonix has gone over every past song and added extra harmony sections for backup singers, if you have extra people wanting to play.
Not only that, but the freestyle system of vocals has been reworked as well. In short, you don’t have to sing exactly how the song wants you to sing, as long as you are singing on tune. In fact, the game encourages you to freestyle your own lyrics and performances, as your score multiplier fills up two ways. It fills up clockwise if you traditionally sing, and fills up counter clockwise if you improv. I can’t wait to dazzle everyone with my rousing rendition of Deep Purple’s Machine Head. “Ain’t nobody gonna take my car ’cause I tied it to a feeeeeence!”
Note that none of these altered details are really reinventing the wheel. Singers are still singing, drummers are still drumming, and guitarists are still strumming away while pressing different colored fret buttons. There’s just more added on top of this core formula. This makes Rock Band 4 easy to jump into, while still providing a unique gameplay experience.
More importantly, it carves out a niche for both Rock Band and Guitar Hero to exist at the same time. IF you remember my Guitar Hero previews, I said that the game focused on the single experience of being a guitarist in a band at a festival. It is, at its essence, a game you play alone or online with other players. But Rock Band 4 is still the game is always was, a party game for 1-7 players, where everyone gets to go crazy drumming, strumming, and belting out lyrics. It’s old, familiar, and fun, and it’s just what we wanted.