Rock Band Rivals Review (Xbox One)
Just a hair over one year ago, Rock Band 4 revitalized Harmonix's dormant franchise after a period of music game excess. That absence allowed Harmonix to dabble in other areas like the tremendous Dance Central and the entrancing Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved. Still, the return of Rock Band was a welcome one. Improved over its predecessors in a number of ways, Rock Band 4 showed Harmonix didn't miss a step despite taking half a decade off from the franchise.
Over the past 365+ days, Harmonix has been tweaking and tinkering with Rock Band 4, delivering updates to tighten the game's user experience, and dropping new songs with frequency. This week, Rock Band 4 gets its biggest update since launch with the arrival of Rivals. This new asynchronous multiplayer lets you show off all the skills you've been working on for the last year on a global stage. It also brings with it the first true story mode Rock Band has seen in Rockudrama. Both are welcome additions that strengthen the already impressive Rock Band 4 package.
First things first, Rock Band 4 is still an absolute blast. The additions like Practice and Brutal Mode, the latter of which lives up to its namesake, that have arrived in the last 12 months have made the foundation stronger. Not that RB4 needed much improvement at its core. The guitar-playing and drum-thumping are tight, and the vocals are still unmatched. If there was a place Rock Band 4 was lacking, it was in things to do beyond the tour and jamming out with a handful of songs with friends.
Rivals adds in a much-needed social aspect which encourages community and competition in ways the franchise hasn't before. You and up to nine friends can form a group online, which will then battle it out in weekly challenges against the rest of the Rock Band Rivals out there to see which collective truly bangs their heads the hardest. Weekly challenges will task you and your group to not just put up strong performances, but also consistent performances across all of Rock Band's instruments. Your score in each of the aptitudes is counted toward your total, so if you consider yourself a guitar virtuoso but lack the quick reflexes of Buddy Rich, make sure you've got some friends in the group to cover for you.
Unlike past Rock Bands, which mostly tracked you on a song-by-song, instrument-by-instrument basis, Rivals now tracks you across all the instruments in a weekly challenge. You can play any song that qualifies, and you can play it numerous times during the period to ensure you get the best score possible. The same goes for everyone in your group, regardless of whether or not you play together or not. Since synchronous multiplayer isn't there yet, you'd previously have to hope you could get all your friends together to earn big scores. With Rivals you can just contribute when you have time, provided you get your work in during the time allowed.
Granted, during the period we had to play before release, there weren't a tremendous amount of players competing. You could still see how you were matched up against the rest of the world as soon as you finished a set. The standings will fluctuate during the week, which promotes you returning to Rock Band 4 more frequently. It's a smart way to keep people coming back well after Rock Band's initial release, and with the holidays coming up, a good excuse to break out the band when family is around.
Of course, the even better reason is the new Rockudrama mode. Though Rock Band has had a traditional career mode, it's mostly consisted of you just traveling around to random destinations to play an assortment of songs for in-game money. It's mostly been a no-frills experience, which is why Rockudrama is so interesting. If you recall the golden days of VH1, you might remember Behind the Music. The show provided an inside look at the life and times of a music group, through the ups and downs, and provided insight into how the group functioned. While Rockudrama doesn't quite get that intimate, it does inject Rock Band with some personality in an area that it was needed.
Your performances here are split up through the duration of a fantastical career that spans the globe, with interviews from fellow musicians, your roadies and fans, and radio personalities sprinkled in to offer commentary on the journey. Harmonix's writing is light and whimsical, and often hilarious, though some of the narrator commentary gets repetitive towards the end of the story. It seems the narrator only had a few different canned responses for great, good or average performances. After the handful of hours it takes to play, you'll have heard them all. It's not something that ruins the Rockudrama, but it is noticeable if you've been marathoning the mode in an afternoon. The narrative does have some small twists based on how you perform, so there is a bit of replayability built in too. Just be prepared to see most of the same footage the next time you hit the road.
Curiously, Rockudrama is entirely self-contained, so the only thing you'll earn there is experience, which... exists (you actually earn experience everywhere in the game now every time you play). It doesn't do much beyond show off that you play Rock Band frequently, though it could be a signal for Rivals recruiters to see if your worth a roster spot if you're a lone wolf. Of course, you could just be an average player that frequently plays, and have thus ground out a decent level. Regardless, it's strange you can't earn any in-game currency to customize your band avatars in Rockudrama. If you want to do that, you've still got to mash it out in the regular tour. That small, strange decision aside, Rockudrama is great, and especially fun with a full complement of bandmates to faux gripe with over imaginary issues.
Rock Band 4 never stopped being fun even if you've been away from the game for a short time, but Rivals is a great reason to return to your rock roots. Rivals gives Rock Band 4 some new life that injects the core game with modes fans have been begging for, and a new story mode that longtime fans and newcomers alike can get behind. There's still more to come to Rock Band 4 this year --- like synchronous online multiplayer, finally --- but Rivals shows Harmonix hasn't given up on continuing to make this latest iteration of the popular music game the strongest entry in the franchise.
This review is based on a Rock Band Rivals Band Kit provided by the publisher for Xbox One.