It’s easy to forget just how big the peripheral driven music game market was at the tail end of last decade, but at the height of its power, Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock managed to sell more than 1.4 million copies and make over $100 million in its first week of release in North America alone. For a few years, the guitar-driven sub-genre looked unstoppable until, well, it stopped. Almost as quickly as it had become a cultural phenomenon, sales fell off a cliff with the brilliantly reviewed Rock Band 3 and the solid if relatively unspectacular Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock both falling well short of their predecessors sales successes. Genres come and go or course, tastes change and everything moves in cycles blah blah, but never before have I seen a whole genre so resoundingly and immediately dismissed. It’s as if the whole world got the memo that these games were no longer cool and should therefore be ignored……and ignored they were.
Fast forward a few years and it appears that both Harmonix and Activision think that’s it has been long enough, that the world has forgotten about that nasty memo and are ready to get back on the music bandwagon. Whether that is true, only time will tell, but like Rock Band 3 before it, it’s hard to argue with the quality of Harmonix’s latest release. It’s not as full blooded, all-encompassing or quite as glossy as its predecessor (Rock Band 4 has clearly been created on a smaller budget), but the quality is still there, and despite not doing anything particularly new with the genre, it remains a very enjoyable, very well made game in its own right.
For anyone who has played a Rock Band / Guitar Hero game in the past (they were both created by Harmonix), Rock Band 4 will feel immediately familiar. That same string of coloured chords will come falling down the screen with the virtual crowd reacting to the quality of your virtual shredding skills. There is a new freestyle mode that serves as an optional extra for those looking to rub a little stank on their performance, but other than a handful of minor refinements to the core gameplay, this is very much the same experience as it was back in 2011.
Some will inevitably be disappointed by the lack of online options (did people really play rock band online?) and the complete removal of Rock Band 3’s more robust learning tools, but the move to a more arcade friendly streamlined approach arguably benefits the experience, and with drums, bass and three-part vocal harmonies all still included, it’s not as if Rock Band 4 has abandoned depth completely. Sure, the keyboard has also been kicked to the curb, but as is always the case with a game of this ilk, cost needs to be taken into consideration.
Luckily, while the usual selection of available box sets are inevitably rather expensive, Harmonix have at least made the vast majority of last generation’s plastic peripherals compatible with the latest release (even if you do have to purchase a £20 dongle for the Xbox One version of the game). The songs too, while platform specific, can all be moved across, so if you already have a huge selection of songs saved to your PS3 account, they can all be moved across to Rock Band 4 on PS4. The actual process is more than a little cumbersome, but for those who have put down serious amounts of cash, the option return to their favourite tunes will surely be greatly appreciated.
It’s a good thing too as the collection of 60 songs available on the disk, while far from bad, certainly show signs of Rock Band 4’s somewhat diminished budget. It’s a pleasingly eclectic mix, but there is a lot here from lesser known outfits and quite a few second tier tracks from some of the more famous bands on the list. Again, it’s certainly decent enough, but given what has come before, those without a pre-existing library of tracks to fall back on might be a little disappointed by this relatively underwhelming selection of songs.
While some features and modes have been cut (practice mode and score duel have also been given the chop), Rock Band 4 is home to an extensive and surprisingly enjoyable career mode. By incorporating an impressive number of customisable options and even including a handful of light rpg-esque elements into the core design, Rock Band 4’s entertaining but unsurprisingly unoriginal rags to riches tale is a lot more enjoyable than one might have reasonably expected. It’s still the same old game underneath of course, but I found myself surprisingly invested in the ongoing success of my plucky little virtual band.
Unlike previous releases in the series, Harmonix have stated that Rock Band 4 will be used as an ongoing and upgradeable platform so, while inevitably dependent upon its ongoing success, I suspect that it may well be a very different beast 12 months or so down the line. Still, as it stands, Rock Band 4 can only be judged based upon what is available today, and while the on the disk track list isn’t as impressive as that found on any of its predecessors, this is still a highly entertaining and finely crafted entry in the series. Yes, some of the features that were previously available have gone missing (some losses are felt more than others), but if any series needed to get back to basics, it was arguably Rock Band. It has certainly played it safer than Guitar Hero’s more ambitious (but not necessarily successful) return to the genre, but despite doing very little new beyond the addition of the optional freestyle mode, Rock Band proves as enjoyable and addictive as ever. It may have fallen out of favour a few years ago, but this remains one of the finest local multiplayer games ever created and under the right circumstances, is as fun today as it was back in 2009.
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