Rock Band 4 probably deserves it’s own rock-umentary, such has been its ups and downs of the last year. Releasing in October of 2015, everything seemed set for a masterful return of the beloved series on the current generation of consoles. However, beset by missing features, song collection errors, and a pounding in the charts from a reinvigorated Guitar Hero, it wasn’t the launch that Harmonix will have been hoping for.
The past year has seen the development team continue to tweak and tinker with the core game, all building up to the release of Rock Band Rivals, a paid expansio that adds a number of new modes and features to the game. March also saw Harmonix part ways with long-time peripheral collaborator – and publisher – Mad Catz, and a new deal was signed with PDP, the results of which are being bundled alongside the Rivals expansion.
First impressions of the new hardware are thankfully positive, and it’s safe to say that the new guitar is a huge improvement, at least aesthetically. While Guitar Hero players have been treated to Gibson SGs and Explorers, the Rock Band faithful have been lumped for many years with a black Fender Stratocaster. Now, guitar preference is as personal as the clothes you wear, but as a guitarist myself there’s little more traditional than a Strat, and little less likely to excite.
Now a bold blue, the Fender Jaguar that’s packed in with Rock Band Rivals is simply far cooler – it was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite guitars for a start – and given that the entire series has been about making you feel like a rock star, this is unquestionably a step in the right direction.
From a manufacturing point of view, there have been steady improvements to the guitars over the years, and moving production over to PDP has done nothing to stop that. For many people the headline feature this year is the guitar’s newfound ability to fold down. As anyone who’s had a number of Rock Band and Guitar Hero peripherals over the years will attest, they take up more space than you’d think, and anything that shrinks them down is hugely welcome.
The headstock now has a little button at the back that allows you to attach and remove it as you wish, while a switch at the base of the neck lets you fold the entire neck behind the body of the guitar, shrinking its outline to something much easier to stash in a cupboard or drawer. This is the best version of the Rock Band guitar yet.
It’s fair to say that the other packed-in instruments – the drums and the vocal mic – aren’t visually that different from the previous versions, but have had improvements made to the internals to ensure they’re more accurate than ever. I love playing the drums in Rock Band, and have done since the first game, and these feel like the best set yet with no obvious dropped notes and low latency.
Rivals is the first of the much-requested online multiplayer modes, and you can start or join a crew with up to nine other players and compete online. You can form up with a bunch of friends, but the likelihood is that you’ll be requesting admission to an existing crew. A smaller crew is more likely to accept your membership request, while those that are close to ten members are going to be a bit choosier about it.
The thing is, once you’ve sent off your request you then have to wait for admission to the crew, which takes a large chunk of immediacy away from you. Sure, once you’re in a crew you can hop right in and play, or you can start one up on your own – why not use the random name generator to own a classic name like Lords of the Breakfast Meats? – but mostly, why would you want to start alone when there are groups with spots still available?
Anyway, once you are in, the aim is to compete against other crews by each performing well and earning points for your team. There are weekly timed challenges, Spotlight Songs to aim for the high score on, and you’re able to pick up new items for your in-game avatar as a reward beyond the bragging rights.
Sadly, true online multiplayer is still not completed, but as it’s due in January players don’t have too much longer to wait. The clear issue is that for players to make the most of it Harmonix will be hoping for strong sales of Rivals around the world in order to keep those new servers populated. Sadly I just don’t know if they’ve missed the boat, despite the much-strengthened core software.
For solitary players, Rockudrama is the all-new career mode and it sets you up as the subjects of mock-umentary Beneath The Tuneage, a VH1-flavoured trip that takes you from the very beginnings of your band to their super-stardom. It’s definitely played with tongue firmly in cheek, with ‘famous’ contributors – they have amazing band names like Big D And The Kids Table and The Ducky Boys – detailing your meteoric rise to fame with plenty of good humour. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but largely it’ll have you chuckling away, particularly if you’re into music documentaries.
The only jarring element is the audio for each of these interview sections has been heavily compressed, and while I’m fairly sure it was an intentional stylistic choice, when you’re wearing headphones it can be a little too noticeable. Still, it’s definitely enjoyable stuff, though largely it’s pure window dressing for a mode that was partly already there.
Beyond that, you’ve got the core Rock Band 4 package, which in itself has been steadily improved over the past twelve months, so that it now boasts all-new stat tracking and online leaderboards for each song. The next year looks to continue in the same vein, with promised content and updates besides the much requested synchronous multiplayer.
Rock Band Rivals marks the best edition of Rock Band 4, building on what was already a solid base and bringing in more features. Rockudrama does something different with the career mode that’s not only refreshing but often hilarious, while Rivals brings you into a bigger world of competition. The completion of the multiplayer modes is also set to finally round out what is still the best place to rock out with your friends, making Rock Band Rivals an unmissable entry in the rhythm-action series, though fans may still hanker for something more revolutionary.
Version Tested: PS4