Video games work, generally, on some kind of a cycle. What’s popular today won’t always be popular, but you can rest assured it will eventually make a return. In the early 2000’s, rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band released to insane fanfare, and quickly exploded into insanely popular franchises. Towards the end of the decade, they began to fall to the wayside as games began to be pumped out for the sake of money. While many thought the “fad” was dead for good, some know better.
Fast forward to 2015, and we are now staring at the revival of the rhythm game genre. Rock Band 4 is now out, and while I will call this a “return to form”, the truth is that Harmonix never lost their touch int he first place. The soundtrack, 60 songs deep, is not what you might expect compared to the previous iterations, with a lot less “big name” songs being added. This could point to either a lower budget for the game or the team wanting to focus on more indie bands. Either way, this is not entirely terrible, as Rock Band has always been a series that has introduced people to new music; bands, songs, genres have all been discovered by players, so the fact that not every song is already known is a surprising plus.
Another reason why this doesn’t matter much is the backwards compatibility. A mind-blowing 1,500 songs are available from the original 3 games library. While this is an amazing addition for fans with huge backlogs of songs (like me), the way in which you go about downloading songs is almost nightmarish. Players have to go through a laundry list of things to do before you can get all of your songs, and when you’re finally done, you have to “re-buy” the songs one by one in order to play them in Rock Band 4. While it isn’t a deal breaker, it’s a huge headache in an otherwise streamlined process.
What the previous Rock Bands lacked in story, this one makes up for in spades. Not only is there some form of story, it’s actually pretty fun to follow. As is the custom, the game follows your virtual band as you slowly grow from playing in stingy dive bars to massive arenas. Harmonix upped the ante this time around by introducing light role-playing elements into the game, allowing you to decide between things like where you’ll play your next gig, or whether or not to “sell out” and accept money from a sponsorship and lose your fans support. All of this rolled together makes for a solid story that keeps you wanting to play. Customization is as deep as ever as well, letting you dress your rocker in pretty much whatever you want.
While not all of your instruments will work (find a full compatibility list here), there is still a decent amount that will, which goes to show how easy Harmonix wanted to make this for customers. For those who have Xbox instruments, there is a special adapter that’s required in order to play your instruments with Rock Band 4, although that the $20 price tag is almost nothing when compared to the $100/$200 Guitar and Drum bundles that you’d have to buy otherwise. It would have been nice to be able to buy the instruments separately, but I can see why the only available options right now are bundled with the game. Hopefully in the future Harmonix offers them without the game included.
As far as gameplay goes, little has changed in the way you rock out. Your task is still to hit the notes in time, and of course there are varying difficulties as you progress in skill. Sadly, Pro Guitar and keyboard don’t make any return to the series, having both been removed from the game. Game modes like practice and score duel have also been cut, which is a bit of a head scratcher. Harmonix has hinted that it’s possible they make a return, but as of now hardcore players will have to make due with expert mode.
Once we get down to it, the main draw of Rock Band has and always will be the ability to play with friends, both online and at home. Rock Band 4 doesn’t disappoint in that aspect at all. The game is still tons of fun to play with friends, and while there may be some hoops to jump through in order to preserve your old purchases, the fact that it’s even an option speaks to how dedicated Harmonix was to pleasing it’s audience. At the end of the day, Rock Band 4 is a must buy for fans of the rhythm genre, and is a wonderful return to the rhythm genre so many have missed.
This review is based on a digital copy of Rock Band 4 for the Xbox One provided by Harmonix.