Rock Band 4: prepare to dust off your old plastic instruments

Rock Band 4

You really can’t keep passionate creators down – and even after the unceremonious culling of the rhythm-game genre by publishers Activision (Guitar Hero) and EA (Rock Band) five years ago, developer Harmonix has never lost the faith.

By October of this year we’ll be able to see just why the studio has revived its series with Rock Band 4, and Harmonix is hoping by then we’ll all see just how much it truly, genuinely cares about the strumming-and-hitting-plastic-instruments genre.

The core experience will be familiar to anybody who played the numerous Rock Band and Guitar Hero games released between 2005 and 2010, but this time around we’re all going into it relatively refreshed. With around 23 of the titles released in just five years on near enough all formats, it wasn’t surprising people lost interest, sales dived and, eventually, the genre dropped off the map.

Harmonix is cognisant of that fact, as well as that many of us still have our old Rock Band/Guitar Hero guitars, drum kits and microphones stored somewhere in the back of a cupboard, and that a lot of us forked out a lot of money to download new tracks for many of the games.

As such, the studio is going to great lengths to clarify just what it is doing with Rock Band 4: you will be able to use most of the instruments from the Xbox 360 and PS3 releases with the new gam, and every song you own, downloaded for previous Rock Band titles, will be still be useable.

This attitude is refreshing, frankly, as well as absolutely necessary – people were bored of what was just too many releases in quick succession, and didn’t want to spend more, more and more on their games. Harmonix understands this and is doing its best to cater for former players (and, of course, current ones).

There will be new songs in Rock Band 4, though the final tracklist hasn’t yet been released – and you can pick up a “band in a box” edition of the game, with new peripherals created by publishing partner Mad Catz. At £230, it isn’t cheap, but it does actually cost the same as what Rock Band’s original instrument-heavy release cost in 2008, with inflation taken into account.

Rock Band 4 will be the only game in the series released this generation – all additions, new tracks, updates and so on will presumably arrive digitally, with the game itself (as with many others these days) seen more as a platform than an individual title.

This means it should feasibly last you five-to-10 years. How much use you’ll get out of it in that time is, of course, up to the individual. And how many parties you host. But it’s a positive step, and it feels an order of magnitude less cynical than Guitar Hero Live, with its emphasis on microtransactions and “day passes”.

There are changes to the central experience, of course – this isn’t just recycled from five years ago, even if it might appear so at first glance. Vocalists will be able to freestyle their lyrics at certain times, being rewarded for singing whatever they like, as long as it fits within the correct pitch-level for the song.

Drum fills have also been updated, offering a system that feels less random and more dynamic, fitting the song in a much more organic way. It’s certainly a step up from previous games’ tendency to encourage players to just wail on the drums for a few seconds – it’s far more tuneful and respectful of the fact that you’re supposed to be in a band.

But Harmonix has focused most of its work on the fantasy of being a true ... well, guitar hero. Aiming for the fantasy of being a rock god over the authenticity of actually having to learn an instrument – it’s a game for everyone, after all – has seen the introduction of freestyle guitar solos.

Popping up at certain points in a song, these solos allow players creativity within some slight, guiding constraints. Absolute freedom is avoided, according to Harmonix, as it often leaves people bewildered, not knowing what they should really do. Instead there’s a gentle pointer towards, for example, quick chord strumming, holding an extended note or tapping.

While you’re playing whatever you want in these solos, Rock Band 4 is doing the hard work behind the scenes – everything you play works with the song being played, changing dynamically and being altered on the fly. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a near-revelatory experience when you realise just how good the game is making you feel about playing it.

There is still challenge there for the players hunting the high scores – it wouldn’t be Rock Band without that - and following the loose instructions in solos, for example, will see you rewarded with more points at the end. But you won’t fail if you want to go off piste and shred it up to some Fleetwood Mac.

There’s little about Rock Band 4 that’s brave, or – aside from the soloing elements – particularly new. But it’s still utterly refreshing: a developer keen to share its vision of what the music genre could be, released in a way that walks a tightrope between making the companies involved some money while also not fleecing its customers.

Yes, £230 is still a lot, especially when compared to the US price of $249.99 (£161) – but this could still be the triumphant comeback a lot of players hoped for. And a cheaper one, too, if you’ve got some old instruments in the loft.

Powered by article was written by Ian Dransfield, for on Saturday 8th August 2015 10.00 Europe/London

  • Rock Band 4 is released on 6 October on PS4 and Xbox One. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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