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