After half a decade, Harmonix returned to the gaming subgenre that really cemented their reputation. Rock Band 4 wasn’t a game designed to reinvent the proverbial wheel, but one to get a foothold on the current generation of consoles. Sure, it made a few notable additions, like the freestyle solos, but if anything, it cut features and fine-tuned what was left.
So on the one hand, that was a disappointment. The game didn’t really go to new places that the series hadn’t already been, typified by the almost obsessive attempts to ensure backward compatibility to as much prior Rock Band hardware and DLC content as possible – sadly, there are still issues with legacy content on EU PS4s. However, Harmonix have always talked about Rock Band 4 being a platform, as opposed to the rekindling of a series. It’s a little like Destiny’s The Taken King or Rise of Iron, coming in as an expansion pack, but also with a unifying new retail presence, adding interesting new modes and gameplay.
Two new game modes are the heart of what makes up Rivals, with the eponymous mode a form of asynchronous multiplayer that lets you set up or join a crew of up to ten players and then head online to compete for high scores and bragging rights. Each week has a different theme to the battle of the bands, but whatever it throws your way, you’ll have to make sure you can perform. A little like FIFA’s online leagues, doing better or worse than the crews you’re competing against can see you promoted or relegated from leagues.
“One thing I’m really excited about, as we lead up to online play, is that logistically, it’s really straight forward,” said Dan Sussman, Harmonix’ Product Manager. “You have all sorts of tools to communicate with people in your clan, but you don’t have any of the like, ‘alright, at 10:30 show up and text me when you’re online,’ and, ‘I just bought some new DLC. Buy it before you come!’
“There was a lot of friction in terms of getting into an online session for Rock Band. It’s not like we can just throw 30 people into a session together, it’s a four player game, so Rivals shortcuts all of that and allows people to connect with one another.”
It’s an interesting sounding mode – but hard to explain and/or demo – but it’s just one part of Harmonix’ plans for online play and overcoming the hurdle of getting people into the same room to play. Rivals will come with a fresh series of monthly updates and additions to the game, just as the original release of Rock Band 4 did with Brutal Mode and Practice Mode. Synchronous multiplayer is planned for December, letting you hook up and play with friends over the internet – Dan says they’re looking to tackle the aforementioned issues with online play.
Personally, I feel that the other mode in the expansion, Rockudrama, is going to be the one that grabs people’s attention. Here you set up a band of your own, start performing shows in barely filled backwater venues – new venues are being added specifically for this – and take them on a rise to the top of the music industry. Then fall. Then rise back up to the top again. Maybe.
What makes it a little bit special is that it’s accompanied by live action video, very much in a mockumentary style. There’s more than a few shades of Spinal Tap or VH1’s Behind the Music, as you watch the amusing and dumb videos of people looking back on your career, expressing astonishment at how well you played, recounting stories from infamous and cataclysmic tours.
The trick is that it changes depending on how well you play. The clips are chosen depending on your performance, which also affects the overarching narration. It might let you know if the guitarist was great or if the singer was off key all night. It’s nice bit of positive reinforcement woven around the live action interviews and the tongue in cheek story.
“We’re not trying to be too cool or too clever,” Dan Sussman said after we’d finished finished playing the mode for a few songs. “A lot of it’s also designed to poke at the interpersonal dynamics of being in a band, you know? The idea that there’s this pseudo competitive nature, and the narrator’s actually egging me on to be like, ‘Well, Nick, I don’t know if you were there best.’
“That moment already exists on the results screen in Rock Band. Everybody sizes up their performance and you look at your percentage relative to everyone else’s and we’re just trying to poke at that a little bit.”
Of course, all of this is just window dressing to that core Rock Band gameplay. Nothing much has changed on that front, with Rivals and the same is true of the hardware. Now partnered with PDP as co-publishers and hardware manufacturers. There’s more of the same Fender-styled guitars, a further refined drum kit, and so on, and there’s new hardware bundles being shipped to retail. The best new creations for this is the Jaguar, a guitar with a neck that can fold back on itself, but again, if you’ve already got the hardware, you just need the game.
After a fair amount of positivity in the run up to Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, the genre seems to have crumbled. Mad Catz bet big on Rock Band 4 sales and found themselves unable to shift their stockpiles of inventory, while Activision have publicly said that Guitar Hero Live didn’t live up to expectations.
For Harmonix themselves, though, Dan said, “The addition of peripherals to any game heightens the stakes. We actually went through this with MTV, where we learnt a lot about the costs of carrying inventory. So the name of the game is not necessarily around selling millions of units, it’s making sure that you manage your forecasting effectively.
“We are actually right in line with our forecasts as a software studio and where we expected the market to go. We have done well, we’re happy, we’re hiring people, we’re committed to Rock Band. We have grand ambition, both for this year, for next year and for the foreseeable future.”
That in mind, Rivals makes Rock Band 4 seem like a bigger, better rounded game. Its one real weakness too? The lack of new tracks for those that already own Rock Band 4. If you pre-order, and only if you pre-order, you get ten DLC tracks included, with King of the World by Weezer, Happy from Pharrell Williams, Save Tonight by Eagle-Eye Cherry, and so on.
Is $30 too much for two game modes and the promise of more down the line? That will obviously depend on the player, but in Rockudrama there’s something fun and immediate to enjoy, while Rivals adds the longevity for those sticking around and playing the game for months to come.