Last generation the rhythm-action genre was a phenomenon. Ushered in by Harmonix’s own Guitar Hero franchise, livings rooms up and down the nation were beset by plastic guitars, rubber drum-kits and USB microphones for many, many years. However, the bubble eventually burst – partially under the weight of its own faux-instrumentation- and it seemed as though we might have seen the last of the play-along throng.
Seemingly though, Harmonix were simply biding their time, and here they are for a reunion tour, bringing Rock Band 4 to the current generation, ready and willing to rock living rooms around the world all over again.
Straight out of the box, and having worked in concert with Mad Catz, there’s a whole new array of Rock Band instruments, all of which have been refined and updated for PS4 and Xbox One. The drum controller has the most obvious changes, with a solid, metal-plated kick pedal that doesn’t feel like it’s going to break at any moment, along with velocity-sensitive drum pads, and – in the case of the kit I used – velocity sensitive cymbals as well. With the full set up it feels more like a real drum kit than ever before, and there has been a vast reduction in the disconnect you often had when playing fills on the old kit.
The guitar has less meaningful, but no less welcome, changes including a virtually silent strum bar and an improved tilt sensor for entering star mode. With the two sets of fret buttons the higher batch now prove essential for the all-new freestyle solos. These sections again make Rock Band 4 feel closer than ever to the actual sensation of playing a real instrument, as you’re put in control of the range and speed of your guitar solo.
Sadly I wasn’t able to test the new microphone, but if its improvements are as solid as the other instruments then it will undoubtedly only add to the experience. For anyone who has been storing their Rock Band gear away, you’ll be glad to know that a portion of it will work straight away with Rock Band 4, at least on PS4, while the Xbox One requires a legacy adaptor to get things on the road.
Taking to the stage the first misstep is that the character creator is initially woefully underpowered, especially considering the potential to hand – five hairstyles and nine faces per sex – and only four facial hair styles – does not allow much room for creativity, or indeed for creating an avatar that looks remotely how you want them to.
Admittedly it’s not the complete picture, as with previous entries in the series you can use currency earned in-game to flesh out your wardrobe, and indeed your hairstyles. Still, your base avatar choices remain very limited, and you’re all going to be ridiculously skinny as well – who knew that there are no husky-sized rock stars? It’s a huge shame considering the game is all about fulfilling your personal rock star fantasy that more time wasn’t spent improving the character creation.
Rock Band 4 offers a straightforward set of modes, any of which will swiftly see you rocking out. You can jump straight into Quickplay if you just want to play a single song, or you can opt for Play A Show wherein you can build your own setlist.
Alternatively you can get into the real meat of the game by entering the Tour mode, and take your band from playing small local shows all the way up to packing out stadiums. There’s some neat little narrative pieces holding the mode together, and branching choices such as opting to buy your own rickety tour van, which will gain you more fans, or hiring a vulgar but effective manager to earn more money.
For anyone that has played any of the previous Rock Band games, or indeed Guitar Hero games, you may well have a healthy sense of Déjà vu, and it’s entirely warranted. This is hardly reinventing the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, and for some players it may even be seen as a step backwards without support for online multiplayer or indeed the keyboard players of Rock Band 3.
The entire package is clearly geared more towards refinement though, with Harmonix having looked at the way players engaged with Rock Band previously and ultimately deciding that these features were not popular enough to warrant including them – though as one of that apparent 10% who did play online its loss is felt. That’s not to say that they won’t return mind you, as Harmonix have stated that Rock Band 4 will be a platform that is updated rather than expecting players to shell out for yearly iterations.
As with previous entries there’s still nothing quite like getting a bunch of friends together and bashing your way through a selection of songs. The fun that can be had watching your mate making it through a really tricky guitar part can only be matched by the fun you have berating them for stuffing the next one up, and for the majority of people that’s simply what being in a real band is like. The only issue that I have is that the included songs aren’t quite so chock-full of what I personally consider classic tunes. While I enjoyed playing through Cake’s ‘Short Skirt/Long Jacket’ and Jack White’s ‘Lazaretto’, there were plenty that I’d simply never heard of and found utterly forgettable – and two U2 songs is almost certainly two too many.
Fortunately a good portion of your previous Rock Band DLC will work just fine, fleshing out the set-list nicely, and as they’re playable in the Tour mode it makes the whole package much more attractive to previous fans. There is sadly one key omission at the moment, which is that any tracks ripped from previous entries in the franchise are yet to appear. While this is something that is being worked on it’s disappointing for someone like myself who has a huge swathe of tracks currently locked away that I want to play.
Rock Band 4 is fundamentally an excellent update to what was arguably the finest rhythm-action game of the last generation. However, it currently feels like it lacks ambition, and some features haven’t been given the update they could have had while others have been removed. As a platform it’s certainly a solid, and highly enjoyable, base that at its best makes you absolutely feel like a rock star. Fundamentally, with its series of planned updates still to come, only time will tell if Harmonix can make this generation’s Rock Band a truly essential purchase.
Version Tested: Xbox One
*As previously mentioned in the review, Harmonix is treating Rock Band 4 as a platform for future updates and content. With new (and missing) features currently in the pipeline, we’ll be returning to Rock Band 4 at a later date with our revised thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the game’s current score is indicative of the launch product and could be subject to change depending on the improvements Harmonix deliver.