In the last decade, the phrase “social games” has come to represent a very specific gaming category. Initially, on Facebook with the likes of Zynga’s FarmVille, and then on mobile led by the ubiquitous Candy Crush Saga, it tends to mean casual games that are highly connected to social media sites.
Yet video games have always been social. From Pong to Sensible Soccer to Mario Kart to World of Warcraft there have been titles that could be played alone, but were much more fun with friends. And perhaps the most joyful among them, were the ones that involved looning about with plastic instruments.
Friends were key to the joy of playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band back in the day, whether they were playing alongside you, or simply watching and laughing at your rawk theatrics. Declining sales and over-familiarity may have led to a hiatus for both franchises, but in 2015 they are returning hoping to reintroduce the pleasures of simulated pop stardom to the current generation of console owners. Very successfully, in the case of Rock Band 4.
In some ways, developer Harmonix has gone back to the series’ roots: no keyboards this time, just guitar/bass – the same controller is used for both – drums and vocals, with support for up to three singers at once if you buy the necessary microphone peripherals.
As before, the core gameplay involves playing or singing along to a range of well-known tracks, using notes falling down an on-screen fretboard as your guide. You’re rated on your performance, with the option to move through the difficulty levels as your timing and confidence improves.
Harmonix deserves a rousing ovation for its commitment to backwards compatibility: both in terms of supporting older Rock Band peripherals – although Xbox One owners will have to buy an additional wireless adapter – and in bringing its large library of tracks from past games across without requiring you to buy past download purchases again.
That’s a good thing, because the song lineup on the Rock Band 4 disc isn’t exactly a stadium-filler: some famous bands are represented by what you’d politely describe as “deep cuts” rather than killer tracks. Part of the fun of this genre has always been learning to play songs you don’t know by heart, but most Rock Band 4 players will want to hit the in-game store to buy (or re-download) some classics too.
Expect regular updates to the store in the weeks and months ahead, on past form. Hopefully Harmonix will find a way to make identifying and downloading your past purchases easier: for now, you’ll have to search for those tracks individually, or browse the entire catalogue spotting them.
The new drums and guitar controllers, made by Mad Katz, feel reassuringly solid, while the microphone does an impressive job of capturing your caterwauling. Pairing them with the PlayStation 4 used for this review was a painless process, although the Bluetooth connection did drop every so often, which automatically pauses the game.
You can get started by playing any song or a short set of tracks, but the meat of Rock Band 4 is found in its Go On Tour mode, where you create a band – the game will suggest a variety of laugh-out-loud names if you’re stuck for inspiration – and work your way up from zero to rock hero.
The story wrapped around it sees you making choices that govern whether your gigs are weighted towards earning cash, building your fanbase or unlocking more fashion items. It’s hardly RPG-level complexity, but the nuances – for example the choices that govern whether you can pick your setlist or play what you’re told – work well.
For guitar geeks, the new Freestyle Solo mode is marvellous fun: it offers space within songs to wig out with your own riffs – with an extra set of buttons high on the fretboard to help. A pair of clear tutorials explain how to make the most of this feature, which should be a big crowd-pleaser.
Harmonix has also done a good job of appealing to different levels of skill, from casual players who can stick to the Easy level through to players who want to crank up the difficulty, and even try the game’s Pro mode.
That idea of the crowd is important, too: like its predecessors, Rock Band 4 is at its strongest when you’re playing with other people, in the same room, synchronising your “overdrive” moments to bump up your score, or ribbing another when a song collapses into bum notes and tempo-shunning beats. It remains a brilliant social game in the classic sense of the phrase.
Harmonix has already talked about its intention to develop Rock Band 4 as “a platform and a live service” rather than simply to follow it with Rock Band 5. That will mean regular new features as well as new songs in the months and even years ahead. But what you get out of the box makes a strong start on that process.
Harmonix; PS4/Xbox One; £110 (with guitar)/£220 (with guitar and drums); Pegi rating: 12+
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Thursday 22nd October 2015 14.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010