I still remember the first time I played rock band at an impromptu party full of well-known press and developers in a cramped suite on the side of E3 2007. Even after years of playing Karaoke Revolution and Guitar Hero obsessively, the game immediately impressed me with its amazing ability to turn a room of strangers into an instant party united by the power of rock. Seriously, watch the video linked in the last sentence and tell me that the connection between that room of sleep-deprived, slightly drunk, E3-addicted revelers is anything but magical.
In the years since, the entire gaming world seems to have overdosed on rhythm games as a genre and is now going cold turkey during the recovery. Series like rock band and Guitar Hero were the hottest things in the industry and grossed billions of dollars to the sudden point where they weren’t. By the time rock band 3 failed to revive the genre in 2010 with the addition of a keyboard accessory and “Pro Mode”, it seemed like the whole idea of playing fake instruments for a game console was a fad whose time has already passed used to be.
Harmonix has had five years to help players and the industry at large get over the hangover from those years of rhythm gaming binge – five years to figure out exactly how to get players excited about wearing some plastic instruments again. to do. rock band 4 only slightly refines the mock rock experience I first fell in love with over eight years ago now, but it proves well that games based around pretending to be rock gods were more than a passing fad.
You can go your own way
If you somehow missed the rhythm game craze, the basic gameplay of the rock band games is remarkably easy to explain. Up to four players (or more on songs with vocal harmonies) get together on bass, guitar, drums and mic to play along with a wide selection of pop and rock songs (sorry, keyboards aren’t coming back this time). On guitar, you hold one of the five fret buttons as you strum in time with jewels on a scrolling vertical note track. Similarly, on drums, you tap one of the four drum pads and a foot pedal in time with colored notes. Sing along with the microphone and use on-screen prompts to match your pitch to that of the song.
rock band 4 will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a previous game in the series, but there are a few new tweaks to each of those musical roles. Most notable is the addition of freestyle guitar solos, which remove the colored note track and let you play whatever notes you want for a few bars in most songs. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, know that strumming during these sections is actually playing pre-recorded samples hand-tuned by Harmonix to match the key and rhythm of the song, only loosely bound to the specific frets that you choose. The result can make anyone sound like a surprisingly good guitar player, even if they’re hitting random frets and strumming away with no sense of timing.
However, if you want to get a little more technical, you can bend notes by holding down the strummer, generate feedback by tilting the guitar, or tap fast notes with both hands and no strummer. For those looking for a little guidance, the note track provides suggestions for strumming tempo and whether to hit buttons on the low frets or those neglected high frets on the fat end of the guitar. If you ignore these suggestions, you’ll lose your scoring combination, but your solo won’t sound any worse.
More than any rock band game before, these freestyle solo sections make it feel like you’re actually making music rather than just playing along with pre-existing tunes. Sure, the game does most of the work to make you sound good, but that’s the whole point: if you really want to learn how to play the guitar, there’s always Rocksmith. Here, however, I wouldn’t object to an entire mode where I can perform freestyle solos over an entire song [Update: such a mode apparently exists in the game’s menu and I missed it. My bad.].
My only criticism is that the game can be a bit slow to respond to timing changes during these freestyle sections. Going from a fast strumming part to a long, held note, there can be a lag of one or two beats, making it seem a bit off from what you were looking for. That’s probably necessary for things to sound right, but it’s still annoying.
The minor changes in the playing of other instruments are a bit more hit and miss. On the drums, freestyle sections gave players a bar or two to add their own drum fills before triggering the score that multiplied “Star Power”. That’s been replaced by ready-made drum fills, which are randomly chosen from a few handcrafted sequences of notes each time you play the song.
On the plus side, this removes those awkward, quiet moments where the drummer got stuck in the past or just completely lost the rhythm during a wide-open freestyle section. On the other hand, the ready-made fills are often a lot harder than the song around them. As such, bumping into them out of the blue can be a shock that breaks the good rhythmic flow of the rest of the song. If you’re more comfortable with the old way of working, you can at least disable this new feature.
On the vocal side, players comfortable enough to try the Hard and Expert difficulties can now also freestyle, singing their own harmony even when no one is singing the main melody. As long as you’re in key and you match one of the vague “freestyle” note lines on the on-screen vocal track (placed on ear-friendly fifths and sevenths of the core notes), you’ll get freestyle points in place of your usual points.
On tracks I really knew deeply and intimately, I was occasionally able to break out of the prescribed vocal track and hit some great freestyle sections. However, this is not a feature for those with a weak voice; the game seems much stricter about judging whether you’re really on the ball when you deviate from the script. More than a few times I was able to score some freestyle points when I wasn’t even trying because apparently I was off-field in just the right way to jump to one of those harmonizing note lines. So that was nice, I think.