Rock Band 4

Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Har­monix For­mat PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now


PS4, Xbox One

When­ever a favourite band gets back to­gether, there’s al­ways an edge of trep­i­da­tion to the jubilation. The old ma­te­rial was great, sure, but can they re­ally re­pro­duce that magic? And even if they can, will it mean as much to us now as it did all those years ago? In­deed, when­ever some­thing that was pre­vi­ously pop­u­lar en­joys a re­vival, there is an un­spo­ken anx­i­ety be­neath the sur­face: are we all per­haps a lit­tle bit old for this now?

No, not in Rock Band’s case. Play­ing pre­tend in­stru­ments hasn’t gone from ri­otously en­ter­tain­ing to patently ridicu­lous – al­though, let’s be hon­est with our­selves, it has al­ways been both – in the five-year gap be­tween this and Rock Band 3. Play­ing in a suc­cess­ful band is still a near-uni­ver­sal fan­tasy, and play­ing Rock Band is still as close as many of us are likely to get. The ela­tion of sail­ing note-per­fect with band­mates through a tough sec­tion of a song; the surge of adren­a­line when you tilt your gui­tar or fin­ish a drum flour­ish to kick in your mul­ti­plier and send the vir­tual crowd into a frenzy; screech­ing the high notes in an ’80s me­tal clas­sic; in­vol­un­tar­ily fall­ing to your knees in the mid­dle of a solo: it all still feels great. Rock Band 4 is very good at mak­ing you feel bril­liant, and the few tweaks and ad­di­tions Har­monix has made to the near-per­fect Rock Band 3 sys­tems are all in ser­vice of that feel­ing.

The most sig­nif­i­cant of th­ese new ad­di­tions, freestyle gui­tar solo­ing, does what no mu­sic game thus far has done: it suc­cess­fully in­cor­po­rates im­pro­vi­sa­tion. For most of a song, you fol­low the notes and chords of a song as ex­pertly mapped to a five-but­ton gui­tar con­troller, as you al­ways have. But when it’s time for a gui­tar solo, in­stead of the usual avalanche of coloured notes, the track sparkles, leav­ing you to play along how­ever you like. The game sub­tly ad­justs your tim­ing and picks from pre­s­e­lected note se­quences to make you sound, well, awe­some, so long as you play with rea­son­able tim­ing, whether you’re shred­ding out six­teenth notes or tap­ping on the bot­tom frets or mo­rosely pick­ing sus­tained notes on the top frets. In al­most ev­ery song, it sounds fan­tas­tic, and makes you feel more than ever like you are re­ally play­ing mu­sic.

There is a small down­side to the new solo me­chanic, how­ever, in that nail­ing in­tri­cate so­los was one of the most sat­is­fy­ing el­e­ments of Rock Band for high-level play­ers. Be­ing able to tap, strum and whammy your way through by play­ing pretty much any­thing might make you feel like a vir­tu­oso, but it takes away the sense of tech­ni­cal achieve­ment that came from mas­ter­ing com­pli­cated note pat­terns. The solo sec­tions give score bonuses for fol­low­ing guid­ance, in­di­cat­ing with note-track pat­tern­ing when you should be play­ing on the top or bot­tom frets and what rhythm you should be go­ing for, but fol­low­ing it is op­tional. Rock Band 4 is still sat­is­fy­ing to play for the ex­pert thanks to the ex­cel­lent qual­ity of Har­monix’s note charts, but with­out those tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing so­los, it’s not quite as chal­leng­ing. Those who miss them will find an op­tion in the gui­tar-spe­cific menu to turn freestyling off and re­store the old cas­cad­ing note pat­terns.

Rock Band 4 is, of course, most fun with friends, though get­ting a full set of new in­stru­ments rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment. For the solo player, the main at­trac­tion is the re­turn­ing Tour mode (also playable with how­ever many band mem­bers you have to hand), a struc­tured jour­ney through all the songs on the disc pep­pered with witty text that is quite clearly the prod­uct of ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a choice me­chanic in here now too; it even leads to dif­fer­ent end­ings. Cre­at­ing a fan­tasy band and out­fit­ting them with in­stru­ments, out­fits and hair­styles is en­tirely op­tional, but if you choose to ven­ture be­yond Quick Play, it’s easy to get oddly in­vested in their for­tunes. The new in­stru­ments are ex­cel­lent, with an al­most-silent strum bar on the gui­tar and qui­eter pads on the drums, but it’s dif­fi­cult to rec­om­mend that any­one with ac­cess to older Rock Band or Gui­tar Hero in­stru­ments should up­grade im­me­di­ately, given the prices. Test­ing a va­ri­ety of old plas­tic with Rock Band 4 on PS4 proved en­tirely suc­cess­ful, once their tiny USB adapters were hunted down and re­trieved. Im­port­ing old DLC was also rel­a­tively pain­less, and it’s hugely im­pres­sive that Har­monix has man­aged to nav­i­gate what must have been an ab­so­lute night­mare of old li­cences and wire­less tech­nolo­gies to en­sure that ex­ist­ing Rock Band fans can play all their old pur­chases on all their old, over­priced plas­tic in­stru­ments.

There is, how­ever, one glar­ing de­sign flaw on the new PS4 gui­tar con­troller, which is a Share but­ton right be­low the strum bar, un­pro­tected by the raised plas­tic that pre­vents you from ac­ci­den­tally hit­ting the Op­tions but­ton be­low it. Un­til we im­pro­vised by tap­ing a bot­tle­cap to the in­stru­ment, our gui­tarist would in­ter­rupt things with an un­in­ten­tional press of the Share but­ton at least three times a song. An op­tion to dis­able it should be a top pri­or­ity in forth­com­ing patches.

Rock Band 4’ s fun is still the same flavour as it was five years ago, cer­tainly. This year’s other re­turn­ing mu­sic game su­per­star, Gui­tar Hero Live, is tak­ing the genre in a new di­rec­tion with a new gui­tar, aes­thetic and busi­ness model. In con­trast, Rock Band 4 is an old favourite re­turn­ing al­most ex­actly as you re­mem­ber it. It’s play­ing things a lit­tle safe, per­haps, a con­ser­va­tive, ret­ro­grade step from the mas­ter­ful Rock Band 3. Yet it is im­pos­si­ble to dis­like some­thing that is brim­ming with the same pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm for the trans­for­ma­tive power of rock. It’s in­fec­tious, and it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that any­one with any af­fec­tion for rock mu­sic could fail to ap­pre­ci­ate it.

Play­ing pre­tend in­stru­ments hasn’t gone from ri­otously en­ter­tain­ing to patently ridicu­lous in the five-year gap

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