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Rock Band 4

Rock Band 4

At the game's preview debut in London, we see what's changed, what's not and what's to come as Harmonix returns to the world of rock.

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I'm sitting at the illuminated end of a fairly decent underground bar, foot tapping in time to the music blasting out of the speakers down the darkened end of the room. My gaze takes a stretch of the basement that's filled with a milling crowd who nod along to the fumbling feats of the mock band on stage.

There's a missed note here, a restart silence there, earnest singing approximating the lead vocal track it's overlaid on. The band are all writers that have come to cover today's event, and all of whom are relearning how to rock while staring intently at a series of notes scrolling down a stage-side screen.

I fire a grimace over to a friend as an awkward guitar solo croaks out of the speakers, while simultaneously imagining the adulation for when I'm up there and nailing every note as they appear in the game. You can't listen to the bounce of Weezer's Buddy Holly or the gallop as No Doubt's Just A Girl builds up to its chorus line without picturing yourself playing along. Music that's just too catchy to ignore.

It's a lie of course, that picture in my head. My friend and I discuss over a soft drink, trying to rehydrate as the bar's air conditioning struggles to combat the mass of bodies crammed together. We both admit our guitar skills are rusty, fingers last set to work on this action-rhythm series far too long ago for muscle memory to keep us performing decently on anything harder than normal difficulty. We know our performance is going to be bad; that the darkened room hides staring faces from the crowd is welcome.

We talk a bit, about the rise of the genre - my not quite fond memory of getting a beer can full of piss thrown against my head while playing Iron Maiden's The Trooper on stage at Download directly after the band themselves closed the festival on the bigger stage across the camp - and its death. Guitar Hero got lost in needless complexity with its newest instruments, Rock Band got complacent in continually pumping out DLC. There was no drive, no excitement anymore. Aside from a few core players, virtual bands disbanded worldwide.

Yet much like karaoke, we're only one rightly-timed suggestion away from it being a good idea again.

For project director Dan Sussman - who's billed as the person who started the original craze in the first place by creating Guitar Hero - the timing came for Rock Band's return while Harmonix tinkered with another concept, one of many the studio worked on post-Rock Band to try and get the creative juices going again.

Even in the quiet room upstairs where the interview's taking place, away from the ear-filling noise of wailing guitars and drum beats, the bass below thumps against the floorboards. My pulse can't help but pick up. But there was a time not so long ago for Harmonix, that such sounds cued them slamming into a creative brick wall.

"[With Guitar Hero through to Rock Band], we'd been making a beatmatch game for seven years straight," he says of the series. "That's a grind. Some time back to focus on some very creative projects was really healthy."

Flexing that creative muscle obviously worked. Something, somewhere in the past year or so, just clicked ("we're in our creative prime right now," says Dan). The new concept was "a rock and roll thing", but it wasn't Rock Band. Yet, almost inevitably in discussions about where to take the idea, Rock Band came up. There was a lot about the new concept that mirrored what the team had set out to achieve with its older, now defunct franchise. Excitement from one bled into the other, but there was one big concern. Two, actually.

Rock Band 4

"We wondered: ‘are we sick of this game or not?'" Cue a gallop through the three previous Rock Bands, and the firm answer: no, they weren't. The second concern, ‘would people care?' would be answered in time. For the moment, the band was getting back together.

This tiny, sweaty venue seems fitting for the resurrection of Rock Band, and mirrors the campaign-like Career mode that has you starting off in shitty dives before working your way up to rooftop venues and stadiums. Be a band owner, play together with friends or get session musicians in for different gigs. It's much more about the tour narrative, emphasises Sussman. "We're trying to make it easy for people to structure their weekly Rock Band night and get into that long-form play session."

Today though it's about shorty and snappy sets, one song per band, rotating players come song's end.

Drums aside, instruments don't get the chance to rest on the stage as there's a steady stream of participants trading guitar straps and mics for single song run-throughs. Sadly a courier mishap means the new peripheral versions, all wireless, don't arrive at the venue in time to test them out. We're told older instruments however will work with the new game, a simple plug in and play for PS4, a separate purchasable dongle for Xbox One. Predecessor DLC will be transferable to new consoles of the same format. I once more briefly marvel at my brilliant timing in ridding myself of previous editions and guitars mere weeks before Rock Band 4 was announced.

This latest version is being sold as a platform for "this console generation", unspoken suggestion that once base game is bought, we'd only have to concern ourselves with DLC packs and extra instruments. I question Sussman on why they didn't just keep it simply "Rock Band" and lose the end numeral if that's the play.

"I wanted people to understand that this was a step forward from Rock Band 3. Not a little step; a big one. This is a bonafide sequel to Rock Band 3 in a lot of ways. In terms of what we're doing, and what we're not. It's a different game. I wanted there to be no confusion about that. And Rock Band 4 implies a real step forward." He pauses for a moment, then laughs. "Though Rock Band 4 does imply Rock Band 5 and 6. But that's what we're trying to stay out of and make sure people understand that our ambition is Rock Band 4 to be the game for this generation. And it will evolve over time. What you see in 2018 will be very different from what you see this year."

A look at the crowd-facing TV screen during the gig proves this is still very much like the Rock Band of before. Animated band and crowd all moulded in that particular series style, though sharpened and polished. Individual instrument runways run down the bottom third of the screen, vocals running left to right along the top. We're told vox is a lot more flexible now; as long as you keep in key you're free to play around with lyrics.

While we're unsure about the ‘warm up chatter' pre-gig, forcing the vocalist to to whip up the crowd before a single note's even played, the voting system is much improved. It keeps players from backing out of the gig and into menu systems as much as possible. Next song choice, along with other selectable perimeters, flash up on screen, with band members casting their vote with a button press. Majority vote decides what's next.

Rock Band 4

During his presentation, Sussman makes a comment that this voting system could allow you to select, as example, experts drums on the next song. It leads me to ask whether such a choice can be used in revenge for poor playing. Basically, if the drummer fucks your band over during a performance, can you fuck up the drummer next round?

"That's actually where the voting mechanic comes into play," Dan replies. "Because if the band wants to do that, they can vote for a really hard drum song. Then the drummer will have to drop down a difficulty or just struggle through it. But that's the kind of dynamics that are actually really fun. Team within a team, kind of thing."

The bigger, wider multiplayer structure, with its scoreboards and competitive nature is still to be talked about. That and the deeper gameplay and modes which will obviously be detailed between now and the game's launch later this year will ultimately decide whether this is just a cash-in reunion or the true rebirth of the genre. As it is, we look to be on very familiar ground.

For now though, hearing groups of journos hammer through Tenacious D's Tribute and I Believe in a Thing Called Love by The Darkness is enough to start me air-guitaring and consider a 'for one night only' reappearance. My friend's headed off to set up a camera to film his return to the stage. My throat dry from singing along over the course of the afternoon, I go to grab another soft drink, and ready for my own.

Rock Band 4Rock Band 4

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