Rock Band 4 Review: Still Into You

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Developer: Harmonix

Publisher: Harmonix (Mad Catz as Distributor)

Platforms: PS4 (Version Reviewed), Xbox One

Release Date: October 6, 2015

Strapping on the guitar, stepping up to the mic, adjusting the drum set to your height; playing Rock Band 4 just feels like old times. Familiarity is key with the newest entry in the series, bringing the popular music rhythm game back with its latest edition in close to half a decade. Launching as a service intended to last the rest of the console generation, it’s the improvements in the core band experience that sees gameplay evolve. Paring down on familiar features, however, may prove to be too much for a revisit down memory lane. For those craving a Rock Band experience, however, Rock Band 4 comes at a perfect time.

Light The Fuse

Despite Rock Band 4 carrying its gameplay through playing drum, guitar and microphone peripherals, there are some inherent alterations and bonuses to how you play music introduced. Harmonix wants its players to express individuality through their experiences, and no better way is that exemplified than in Freestyle Guitar Solos. During a song, players can choose whether to play the standard rock offering or launch into their own unique guitar licks by clicking on the directional pad. If chosen, you’re in for a treat.

…Bands can effectively make their own sound within recognized music and share it to the world…

Freestyle Guitar Solo mode brings its own tutorial; inherently needed in order to understand the mode’s surprisingly demanding rules. For one, depending on the color displayed, notes must be hit on either the top or the bottom of the guitar’s neck. From there, players must follow visual instructions through the mode to keep within the system’s unlimited note potential. Tempo notches are marked when you need to strum between notes, long bars indicate holding notes, while free chunks may indicate finger tapping of notes.

It takes a little bit of practice to get used to reacting in a way that scores points, but because it keeps you in key, freestyle guitar solos bring variety to the Rock Band 4 experience. Not only will skilled players work diligently to craft the perfect-scoring guitar solo for high-level play, but creative types can use it to adapt how a song plays within their own view of the work. Harmonix balances technical ingenuity with artistic merit to create a wonderful blend that encourages trying it out. Best part is that you don’t need it. It’s completely optional. It’s a major sign of respect for traditionalists and those who want something new.

Speaking of, vocalists also get to jump in on this notion. Those playing vocals, at Hard and Expert levels in Rock Band 4, will get to sing to their hearts content in a number of interesting ways with Freestyle Vocals. As long as you stay in key (plus using a Harmonix secret measure that recognizes harmonic or pleasant notes), singers can go off the cuff and sing notes higher or lower than the vocal track. In conjunction with freestyle guitar solos, bands can effectively make their own sound within recognized music and share it to the world, spawning a new form of crowdsourcing musical innovation.

The Impression That I Get

As with every iteration of the series, Rock Band 4 launches with a brand new box of plastic instruments. The guitar is the mainstay for any band, and it comes with a bevy of improvements. First off, while the guitar itself is reminiscent in shape to previous iterations, the build is a lot sturdier than before. The neck, the attachable head, the whammy bar all feel right; not as frigid, but not bendy to the point of worry. Each of the ten available notes (five notes for the top and bottom, respectively) impress with a softer sound, and the strum pad doesn’t click with the same ferocity.

The Rock Band 4 Microphone has been upgraded in two equally important ways. Firstly, it must be somewhere about 50-100% longer than old Rock Band mics. Previously, as they were always wired equipment, you were confined to sitting as close as possible. Now that the cord has been lengthened, bands are allowed to set up in easier to manage setups and customizations. Plus, with a full 48 kHz quality audio, people will be able to hear you belt out those notes at a wider range of volume inputs. It’s an especially important advance due to the high number of songs being sung at high registers.

Finally, I come to my most important (and favorite) inclusion of the Rock Band 4 instrument set; the drums. The basics come with four toms colored in the standard red, yellow, blue and green configuration. Sold separately (or brought in from the Rock Band eras of the past) is the Cymbals Pack, allowing for Pro-Drums play as the only “pro” holdout from classic games. With space on the base for the resting of one footpedal (again, support for a second exists and is sold separately), it all rests upon a streamlined base complete with rubber drag padding to protect wood floors the world over.

Unfortunately, despite being able to beat any song on Expert on drums (with the exclusion of a select few alt-prog or heavy metal songs), my Rock Band 4 drumming experience has been flawed from the get-go. Any time I hit the blue tom in conjunction with any other note, it only registers the blue hit ~25% of the time. I’ve been working with Harmonix to get this problem fixed, but it requires a Bluetooth connection of the drums to a suitable computer that recognizes and pairs with the instrument to upgrade the firmware. My problem was that my laptop doesn’t seem to want to pair up with the peripheral. As such, my drums experience is limited at launch due to hardware technicalities.

I am not aware of how widespread this problem is, but it does come to present an odd problem with the way the new Rock Band 4 instruments are set up. On PS4 (which I used to review this game), all instruments connect to the PS4 wirelessly through Bluetooth. As such, there is no need for adaptors upon adaptors to plug up an already diminished USB space. It’s a great feature to have, one that, unfortunately is not shared across the Xbox One version; one which requires the use of an additional adaptor. My scenario for troubleshooting hardware firmware is to upgrade it through the hardware’s wireless capabilities, frustratingly coming up short in an at-launch situation. Hopefully, such troubles aren’t widespread.

Finally, I do have to talk about one nifty addition with the new guitars. New players might not know this, but each TV has a certain amount of audio and video lag when it comes to instrument play. Now, instead of having to play out notes in quick succession to calibrate, you can hold the guitar up near the screen, and it will do the work for you! It’s a few hairs off from perfection, but it provides a solid baseline for quick instrumental play across a full band.

Next: More Thoughts On Rock Band 4