Game review: Rock Band 4’s comeback tour takes the fun and turns it up to 11

It’s back to basics for the party game, with the emphasis on having a good time with a bunch of friends – although virtuosos will also find much to enjoy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 October, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 October, 2015, 8:00am

Rock Band 4 Harmonix

It’s been years since the first plastic instrument era ended. Eventually, the games stopped coming and the download-content releases soon followed. Fast-forward to 2015, and it seems game developer Harmonix isn’t quite ready to hang up its instruments – and the comeback tour has begun with Rock Band 4.

The first thing to note about Rock Band 4 (for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) is that it goes back to the basic idea of just getting together with friends and having fun. In its later days, the series was more wrapped up with overly complicated mechanics or trying to create pro musicians. That’s all well and good, but what made Rock Band so enjoyable was its pick-up-and-play element. That atmosphere returns fully intact, right down to the ability to drop in and out, mid-song.

On that note, one of the newest mechanics involves freestyle solos on guitar. On the surface, this looks fairly intimidating, since it introduces several new patterns to recognise. Fortunately, the game starts off with a detailed tutorial and it is highly recommended to guitar players of all skill levels. The tutorial explains the new system succinctly and in a straightforward manner, making it not only easy to pick up but also spelling it out in such a way that it’s easy to communicate to a friend.

The one downside of freestyle soloing is that it can be disruptive to score chasers. While solos encourage all-out freedom, the game does penalise users for not following the freestyle patterns. To the game’s credit, however, this change is not forced on users at all. In fact, this feature can simply be turned off in favour of the old note-tracked solos.

Part of the joy of the previous Rock Band games was discovering new music, but after a while it was easy to just settle into a pattern of playing the same handful of songs. Rock Band 4’s new Shows mode introduces a degree of randomness. Players can start with a song of their choice, but as a show goes on, band members will be prompted to select from a multiple choice list of categories. They can include a song from a particular year, band, genre, or other random choices. The game will pull then up a random song from that category. It’s a good way to throw more songs into a playlist and give bands a chance to discover music they might not have heard before.

Shows are also integrated into the standard Rock Band Tour mode, offering up the same voting system upon hitting various tour spots. The Tour mode also throws in another wrinkle, encouraging bands to change their initial choices by taking fan requests. The option to walk away is also present, but the crowd will occasionally demand encores, offering a chance to earn fans or cash for instruments or clothes. It’s a fun way to mix things up and keep sessions feeling fresh.

Part of what’s making Rock Band 4 such an appealing option for those that own previous games in the series is its support of legacy downloadable content. As long as you get the new game on the same game console family you’ve played on previously, you can download previously purchased tracks into Rock Band 4. Guitar and drum controllers from previous games will also work with the new game – automatically on PS4, with an adapter on Xbox One – but you can start afresh with new gear with a U$249 package that includes the game and wireless guitar, drum kit and microphone.

Unfortunately, the roll-out of previous songs hasn’t gone smoothly at all. The process of recovering old songs is cumbersome, requiring users to access the developers’ digital stores to download each track one at a time. There are some major issues to be found here, since there’s no easy way to organise song searches or sort out which tracks have already been downloaded. While that’s mainly a first-party issue, it doesn’t help that the in-game shop isn’t prepared to make this process easier, only pointing players to bundles that can’t be downloaded again, since old tracks must be pulled up individually. Worse yet, certain songs, even when already purchased for previousRock Band games, are still showing up as full priced items. This will surely be sorted out over time, but it is a huge launch day issue. This also puts the kibosh on exporting on-disc tracks from previous Rock Band games to Rock Band 4 for the time being, but that’s another conversation entirely.

So how about the DLC tracks that do work? Those actually do go a long way towards helping enhance the overall experience and fit into the interfaces seamlessly. All DLC tracks get integrated into the shows and the voting system, offering immense variety. Other new mechanics, like the freestyle guitar and vocal solos, are also integrated into these old songs. As much fun as it was to play freestyle on an on-disc track like The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love, these solos have been implemented brilliantly into older tracks like The White Stripes’ Icky Thump.

Rock Band 4 has another selling point: the interactive music game debut of U2 (the Irish quartet previously has only had songs in the karaoke game SingStar). The U2 songs included with the Rock Band 4 game software are I Will Follow, a hit from their 1980 full-length debut Boy, and Cedarwood Road, from last year’s Songs of Innocence. Future songs will be included in downloadable songs that can be purchased online.

Like any band’s reunion tour, it’s easy to get caught up in nostalgia. But Rock Band 4 proves to be far more than that. It’s a return to form, putting the focus back on four-player fun without any overly complicated mechanics. The new additions all focus on just letting loose and having a good time, and even those mechanical additions aren’t forced. The DLC situation is something of a mess, but those willing to bear it will have a sure-fire party gem on their hands.

Tribune News Service