It's been a few years since we last held a plastic guitar in our mitts and jammed along with various rock 'n' roll hits. Back then Guitar Hero was our game of choice, and when Guitar Hero World Tour launched along with a microphone and a drum set, the fun really started. It was an amazing experience playing it with our buddies while having a few beers, and a little group of friends quickly formed, we met up on a regular basis to rock out. Alongside the Guitar Hero series there was Rock Band, and after spending a week with the new game, we can definitely say it holds up from a technical standpoint, but we still found a few issues.
We mentioned that Rock Band 4 lives up to expectations from a technical standpoint when compared to its competitor, and this is where we will stop the comparison. The goal of this review is not to compare the two franchises, but rather to evaluate the return of the Rock Band franchise.
Rock Band 4 is excellent entertainment. It's fun to play across all of the instruments, whether it be guitar, bass or drums, and there's even the possibility of having a go as the band's lead singer, should one be so inclined. It's enjoyable solo, however, the game is by far at its most entertaining with other people involved, but this is also where the game stumbles, due to the lack of online multiplayer. The omission is baffling, especially considering how important online social interactivity is on the current generation of consoles. The decision could be due to the developer's wish to return the series to its roots, where you need to gather your friends in your living room instead of playing together from different sides of the globe, but the lack of online play still puzzles us, and we're sure many of you out there will miss the feature too.
Another unfortunate but understandable issue involves livestreaming. Due to licensing issues the music itself doesn't get played as part of the broadcast, so showing off your skills to the world has suddenly become a silent affair. The restrictions also affect Remote and Share play, as they simply don't work. In this case the experience had probably also been hampered quite a bit by the inevitable input lag, but not being able to invite a friend to watch one's performance is slightly annoying. Lastly, the option to save video recordings of your playthroughs has been disabled, which is sad, since we were looking forward to showing our friends how we beat a particularly difficult song, or perhaps how we made it through a song flawlessly. The game simply doesn't make use of a single social feature on the new consoles, which is rather unfortunate, especially considering the big potential it had in this respect.
On a positive note, the game's career mode is good fun. Here you create a musician and band, and then take them on tour around the world. The player needs to make choices that directly affect which items will be available. These range from deciding whether to stay in a fancy hotel or slum it on the couch, to whether or not you bring along a known fashion icon, who in return offers to update the band's wardrobe and overall look. Every choice results in either more fans and equipment, or more money and clothing options. The choices also affect whether or not you get to decide your own setlist during the shows, or if you have to play a predetermined list of songs. It all works really well, and it's a fun way to play the game should you have trouble finding friends to come over and play. That said, should a friend pop over unannounced, they can still easily join in.
In order to review the game, we were given the Band-in-A-Box version, which includes a guitar, a drum set and a microphone. We kind of missed the extra guitar that would mean we could complete our band with a bass player, but the problem was quickly solved after a quick dive into the cupboard. As it turns out, it's possible to use old instruments, but not just from old Rock Band titles, even old Guitar Hero instruments are compatible. The developers should be commended for making this decision. This isn't a new feature for the Rock Band series, but it is worth mentioning, in case any of you readers have hung on to your old instruments. It should be mentioned, however, that certain features can't be used on the old guitars, such as the five extra buttons that are present on the new version of the guitar, which play a significant role in Rock Band 4.
The aforementioned significant role is the game's new solo system. At certain points in the songs, it is possible to play guitar solos, where you yourself get to decide the tempo and complexity, and the system works surprisingly well. You are given guidelines on screen in the form of colours that indicate what the player can do, and in that way maintain your multiplier. It's also entirely possible to just go crazy, and the game will make sure it sounds right for the song. It's a lot of fun, and you always end up looking forward to these segments of the game, as it feels like you actually get to put a personal touch on each performance.
The drum set has also had a bit of an overhaul, and is said to be less noisy than its predecessors. We can't really speak to this, but we will says that there is a clear difference between these drums, and the ones we used with the old Guitar Hero games. We're not too keen on the pedal though, as it had a tendency to tilt as we put weight on it with our heels. It helped putting a rug under the drum set, but it was a slightly cumbersome solution to the problem. There also weren't any high hats included, as these will be sold separately at a later date, along with an extra pedal for hardcore heavy metal fans. It's nice to be able to choose, but it also feels a bit like an easy way to squeeze more money out of an already expensive game.
Getting the full setup is expensive, so it doesn't help that the song list included on the disc is underwhelming. There are only 65 tracks to choose from, and although the artists featured are of a high caliber, the songs just aren't. It's clear that the game relies heavily on its vast back catalogue of DLC tracks, which can be downloaded at no additional cost, if you have purchased them in previous versions of the game. This is a great feature for returning Rock Band players, but newcomers to the series will have to spend a little extra to build a great library of songs.
The built-in music store is also a bit of a mess, and there we even purchased a song but were unable to download it because it hadn't been made available on our platform yet. Harmonix have said that they are still working hard on updating the entire back catalog to the PlayStation Store, but it's simply ridiculous to let customers purchase content that isn't available yet. We did manage to get a hold of a couple of songs directly through the Playstation Store, but it was quite hard finding what we were looking for, as the sorting options are quite limited. Hopefully it will be sorted soon, but at the time of writing, it isn't a particularly user friendly experience.
In spite of its problems, Rock Band 4 is still an entertaining game, and if you've played other games in the genre, you should know exactly what to expect. We would, however, advise genre newcomers to consider it's not cheap to get all of the necessary instruments to make a complete band, and have an acceptable music library to go with it. Once these investments have been made you're left with a decent music game with plenty of potential for expansion. It works amazingly with friends in the room, but the lack of online multiplayer and other social features seems like too big of a step back for the genre. Harmonix themselves have stated that they will continue developing the game, so there is a chance the features will be added in the future, but for now we are left with a slightly lacking but still very competent music game that's full of potential.