Rock Band 4 Review (Xbox One)
Harmonix's Rock Band series let many of us live out our wildest rock and roll fantasies, as long as those dreams of stardom were contained to your living room and required nothing more than impressing your mom with how great you were at virtual guitar and drums. For the first few years of the franchise's existence, you couldn't go to a party (or have one of your own) without having to whip out the gear and play a gig on the spot. Rock Band's earliest entries were an inescapable mainstay at gatherings, and rightfully so; Rock Band got everyone involved on the fun, regardless of skill level or video game proficiency. Then slowly over the last five years, the need to fuel that fire faded. Like so many rock legends, Rock Band had burned bright and hot, and then it just disappeared.
Now, five years after the last full retail release, Harmonix has returned to its roots with Rock Band 4. Like your favorite band that's been out of the studio for too long, the series' return is a welcome one. Who better than the masters of the genre to bring back one of the most storied franchises of the last decade for another run at greatness? With new platforms and audiences to reach, the time seemed right for Rock Band to once again make a claim to the throne of the ultimate music franchise. Much of what makes up Rock Band 4 will be immediately familiar to longtime players, but that's not a bad thing. Rock Band 4 brings back feelings you didn't even know you were missing, and improves upon the formula just enough to make everything feel fresh and new, while being as comfortable as a pair of worn-in leather pants.
The core of Rock Band 4 remains identical to its earlier incarnations. Harmonix didn't have a lot to improve upon, as Rock Band 4's predecessors did a great job iterating on the formula to deliver one of the best rhythm game experiences. The note highways are still there and kicking, and so is the vocal track high above the rest of the band. While the visuals may have gotten a little tweak here and there, when you first fire up Rock Band 4, the familiarity of what's on screen helps set the mood. The music may have changed, but venue is still the same. It's like returning to a returning to a childhood haunt after many years away. There's a sense of comfort in knowing that while the world may have changed, this place is a moment in time captured just as you remember it. Before you know it, you're back in there riffing away and racking up multipliers like you never left.
Though the base of the Rock Band recipe has remained intact, Harmonix has spiced things up with this return. Most notably, the new freestyle guitar solos make you feel like more of a rock god than ever before. Previously, guitar solos were as meticulously transcribed and transformed to fit the Rock Band mold as the main tracks themselves. There were different versions for the various difficulties, but the solos you played were ripped straight from the song itself. Now, solos are instead completely in your hands, though there's a little bit of guidance from Harmonix.
Instead of the precise five-note format you've been used to all these years, Rock Band 4 brings a new note highway into play for the solos. While you'll still be required to hit buttons to make sounds happen, the freedom of just jamming away to your own version of how a song makes you feel is incredibly fulfilling. Guitar solos in previous Rock Bands were cool, but they required an attention to detail and fast reflexes to get the most out of them. Often if you weren't up to snuff on guitar, they were more of a chore and burden to the song than they were enjoyable moments to live out in your living room. With this new freestyle mode, you don't feel penalized for doing your own thing. You never have to do anything but strum away wildly if you don't want to, but there is a bit of structure for those who want to play a bit closer to the song's style.
For these solo sections, Harmonix has revamped the breakdown, and completely removed individual notes. Instead, the highway is filled with patterns that designate the style of notes you should be playing. There are long solid stretches to indicate you should be holding a note or chord, and there are hash marked sections to strum away with the beat. You can also noodle away on the neck during certain parts and jump back and forth between the upper and lower parts of the neck based on color-coded prompts. There's a tutorial to give you a quick taste of what's what, but it's not until you're actually in a real song's solo for the first time that you feel just how the freestyle sections put the power of guitar in your hands in ways it never was before.
If you recall, drum fills in the earlier Rock Bands were also freestyle sections where you could pound away, and as long as you hit the green note at the end, you'd activate your Overdrive. It gave novices a chance to get creative and more skilled players a chance to show off those chops. In Rock Band 4, Harmonix has changed the default drum fill to be more structured, like guitar solos were a few years ago. Instead of just hitting whatever pads you wanted, the note highway auto-generates a drum fill designed to fit in with the beat and the song at that particular moment. If you don't hit it, you lose your multiplier and a chance to jump into Overdrive. If you do, it sounds good, but takes away one of the few moments drummers have to take a break from the rigid rhythm-keeping.
Fortunately, you can turn classic fills back on (as you can turn classic solos back on for guitar) to give a bit of that freedom back to players. It's a bit curious that Harmonix decided to give guitar players more freedom and restricted the drummers a bit. It's somewhat understandable from a pure music standpoint that many of the fills didn't actually match up with the music, and were just people flailing away as a low-rent Buddy Rich. But that's what was so fun about these classic fills. Drumming required a lot of patience and required you to stay honed on the same phrases over and over again, and the fills finally gave you chance to break the monotony. The new fills do to an extent, but not quite in the same way the "do whatever you want" fills did in prior entries.
For novice vocalists, singing remains largely unchanged. The Hard and Expert difficulties offer a little leeway for well-practiced singers to improvise a bit, but we're not quite up to snuff for that kind of challenge. You've still got to be able to get the tone and rhythm right, and on Hard and Expert that kind of accuracy is a challenge for the casual karaoke crowd. Singing does still feel really good on less intense difficulties, and if you happen to have some of the supported microphones, you can bring the harmonies back to get even more people in on the action. Sometimes it's still just as fun to have one mic for multiple singers though, particularly if you're not taking things too seriously, and are just looking to have some fun with friends.
Creating a band with those friends is as easy as ever, though the creation process is very light early on. Cash earned during the tour can be used to beef up your arsenal of instruments, the costume closet and the range of haircuts you can have. At the start though, your band will be incredibly Spartan. There's a bit of a choose your own adventure vibe to the tour, which offers light choices between gaining more fans or making more money as you progress. You'll also have some unexpected results based on the choices you make, such as sleeping on the couches of friends and then getting lice, which leads to your band all performing with shaved heads at the next show.
Though the on-disc song selection is decent and deep, it's far from the strongest Rock Band has offered. That's not really a problem if you have a lot of the legacy DLC on hand, but as songs are unlocked as you progress on the tour, your options show-to-show early on are very limited. You'll be playing a lot of the same songs over and over when you first start out, which is okay, but not the best for a party atmosphere. Fortunately, in the free play modes, all songs are unlocked and you can jump around to whatever tracks you like as you see fit. It makes sense that Harmonix doesn't want all the songs open for you at the start so you feel like there's progress being made by "earning" the right to play new tracks, but that doesn't make it fun to keep repeating similar set lists.
As it has been in the past, it's rather difficult to take in the sights of Rock Band 4 while playing. You're often focused on the note highway, so you miss out on seeing your avatars perform the actual tracks. When others are playing, you do get to step back and see what Harmonix has done with the performances. Visually, the stylized rockers still look great, as the Rock Band house style has held up even all these years later. Whatever band you create also stars in the loading screen segments, which is a nice touch. No longer will random characters populate the screen, but very own virtual self will even star in the opening cinematic after you create one for the first time. They'll also keep all the customization you've done, which is a very minor thing to have included, but one that makes this version of Rock Band feel so much like you really are the star.
It's a little early to pass full judgment on the new instruments, as you can really only tell how good these new guitars and drums will be after dozens of hours of play. The guitars do feel more durable than before, and also offer a simple proprietary calibration for HDTVs, which definitely speeds up the set-up when traveling. The drums are solid, though the different texture on the center of the pads sounds annoying when struck dead on. That said, previous drum kits seemed to lose a bit of sensitivity the further you moved out from the center, but this new set offers just as much responsiveness on the outer edges as they do in the middle.
It's also worth noting that even though there's a lot of legacy DLC available to download if you already purchased it (it's also available even if you want to buy it for the first time), we weren't allowed to download some of the previously purchased tracks without being prompted to re-buy them. These tracks and bundles showed up as purchased, but when we tried to download them, we were prompted to pay. Additionally, there were tracks purchased that didn't show up as paid for at all in the DLC menu, which was more than a little frustrating. Hopefully this is just an issue that will be addressed early on, but it would certainly not be fun to pay for songs we already owned and were promised we could re-download at no extra cost.
Rock Band 4 hasn't been a prominent fixture on the scene for half a decade, but it's return shows that Harmonix hasn't missed a beat since the last entry. Breaking the full kit out for friends and family brought back a wealth of feelings, and it's surprising how quickly everyone fell back into the old routines. Though the on-disc music selection is varied, it's probably the weakest offering. Still, there's a lot of content available already to bolster that library if you're willing to invest, or you have already, which makes up for the tepid initial offerings a bit. Rock Band 4 might not reinvent the genre in the same ways the first game did all those years ago, but it also doesn't have to either. Harmonix has learned from the best bands in the business that all you need to truly be successful is keep playing the hits everyone knows and loves, and throw out a few new tricks to draw in new crowds.
This review was completed using a Rock Band 4 Band-in-a-Box set provided by the publisher for Xbox One.