Band in your Hands
April 16, 2009 – Not to be outdone by the competition, EA isn’t about to let Activision’s recent successes in transitioning the Guitar Hero franchise into a handheld format on the Nintendo DS go uncontested. Rock Band may initially sound like an odd selection for a music rhythm game to bring to the PSP – particularly considering the original game relies on not one but three plastic instruments, a microphone, and a few friends to be properly enjoyed – but that’s not stopping Harmonix. Will the slick, new portable version of the developer’s console rocker hit capture the same spirit and addictive gameplay when it ships in a few months sans instruments? Signs point to yes.
Even in a diminutive format, Rock Band: Unplugged will let you create custom characters for each of your band’s four members and deck them out with all manner of wild outfits, appearances, and instruments with money earned in the game’s tour mode. Much like the console versions of the game, the PSP title features a World Tour that sends your group to 24 cities. You’ll progressively unlock new venues as you go and earn cash for how well you perform in each gig. The game features quite a few songs to rock out to, and you’ll be able to purchase and download additional songs to supplement the in-game content. Unfortunately, it’s all going to be a solo experience, since multiplayer is not part of the equation. Still, there are some interesting additions thrown in to switch things up.
Though Unplugged on the PSP may be lacking fancy accessories to noodle around with, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Attempting to concoct a multi-purpose peripheral to work with the PSP likely would have been too costly, too risky, and potentially disastrous. Instead, you’ll be able to tackle four different instruments – drums, guitar, bass, vocals – using the face buttons. The game is played using the left, up, triangle, and circle buttons to beat-match the corresponding red, yellow, green, and blue notes moving down a four-lane runway. Familiar features like overdrive and instrument bailouts will also return. Generally speaking, it’s essentially the same concept as the console game, but there are some unique differences in how the game works on the PSP.
Instead of focusing on playing a single instrument through an entire song, most of the play modes in Unplugged revolve around controlling different instruments at different times in a song. This juggling act is a substantial departure from the solo mode in past games, yet it looks like an intriguing way to increase the challenge and to make up for the inability to play with friends. The main note runway is front and center, but you’ll also see the runways for other instruments alongside it. Switching between the four instruments in mid-song is done by tapping the left and right shoulder buttons. In the career mode, you’ll switch to another instrument when prompted as the notes run out at certain points in a song and a new phrase transitions in. Failing at a particular section only drops out that instrument, which can be brought back in later with overdrive.
Band Survival mode will up the challenge significantly, since it requires you to juggle all four instruments at once. Any instrument you’re not playing at a given moment will miss notes and decrease the health of that track. You’ll have to bounce back and forth to keep your band from falling apart before the song is over. For players who just feel like sticking to a slightly more traditional format, Warm Up mode lets you practice songs playing any instrument you choose. You can still switch at any point in mid-song, but you’re not forced to.
Unplugged features a stylish appearance mirroring the first two games. Your band members will still rock out like they were blasting through a live gig or a music video in the background while you focus on the colored notes thrown at you along the fret board. The characters and environments are good-looking and exciting to watch, though they’re slightly less polished in handheld form. This shouldn’t be unexpected – it is a handheld version after all.
The 41 master recordings built into the game are a mixture of licensed tracks from other games and new ones. Unplugged sports nine exclusive songs, including “Kyrptonite” by 3 Doors Down, “Miss Murder” by AFI, “Would?” by Alice in Chains, “Gasoline” by Audioslave, “Show Me the Way” by Black Tide, “What’s My Age Again” by Blink 182, “Less Talk More Rokk” by Freezepop, “ABC by Jackson 5”, and “Rock Your Socks” by Tenacious D. Additionally, you’ll be able to buy and download new tracks from an in-game powered by the PSN.
In handheld format, Rock Band: Unplugged is a slightly different animal from what players have been accustomed to in the console Rock Band games, but the gameplay tweaks and being able to take Rock Band with you are enticing prospects. It may not be the portable multiplayer experience players crave, yet it’s worth keeping an eye out for.