Sunday 25 September 2016

Rock Band 4 review: Comeback tour plays the hits

Rock Band 4 (PS4/XOne); rating: 9/10; age: 16+

Published 20/10/2015 | 12:33

Rock Band 4: Less radical reboot than that of Guitar Hero
Rock Band 4: Less radical reboot than that of Guitar Hero

MEET the new band … same as the old band. Four years after music rhythm games died a death following a glorious run, Rock Band plays its comeback gig.

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While the forthcoming Guitar Hero reinvention remixes the template wholesale, RB4 sticks to playing the hits in crowd-pleasing style. Despite a few tweaks and nips and tucks, developer Harmonix’s revival focuses on bringing back the familiar gameplay in an accessible fashion.

Central to RB4’s attitude is back-compatibility with the previous generation’s instruments and downloaded songs. So your collection of plastic guitars and expensively acquired music work just fine – with a few caveats. They must be from within the same console family (PS3 to PS4 or X360 to XOne), while XOne users require a new dongle.

However, Harmonix has also teamed up with peripheral experts Mad Catz to build a new range of kit, including a Fender Stratocaster guitar, wireless drums and wired microphone. But going the full monty will set you back an eyewatering €300 – though that doesn’t include the optional cymbals for the skins. The game plus the new Stratocaster by itself runs to €170.

Rock Band 4: The full instrument set of guitar, drums and microphone will set you back €300 with a copy of the game
Rock Band 4: The full instrument set of guitar, drums and microphone will set you back €300 with a copy of the game

There’s no doubt the new kit is sleek and solidly made. The Fender looks genuinely authentic and comes with a second set of frets lower down the neck to enable the new freestyle solo options. The drums will take a beating yet there’s something disconcerting about the rubbery ”thwack” they give off when hit with the sticks. Maybe it’s just an impossibility to fake the real thing with the same success as the guitar.

Otherwise, though, RB4 plays as if the band never went away. It feels safe, yes, but still deeply satisfying in its fulfilment of the rock star dream, particularly in the social sense when you hook up with other players in the same room. Online multiplayer has regrettably been ditched but nothing beats three of you as a tight unit nailing a tune – although just failing together can be almost as fun.

Rock Band 4: A familiar interface
Rock Band 4: A familiar interface

Out of the box, you get 60 tracks on disc. It’s a mixed bag as always, with some awful dross such as Avenged Sevenfold, but notably including two U2 tunes – a first for a music game. But Harmonix’s master stroke was ensuring compatibility with Rock Band’s teeming back catalogue, instantly putting 1,700 downloadable songs at your fingertips – many for as little as 79 cent – with the promise of fresh tunes on a regular basis. Of course, any you’ve already paid for in the previous generation become available for free. Take that, Guitar Hero.

Harmonix has contented itself with some tinkering to freshen up the gameplay. New freestyle guitar and drum solos broaden the options a smidgen but don’t appear in every song, for obvious reasons. Once you get the hang of them (switching between high/low frets and triggering feedback on the guitar, for instance), you can generate a fearsomely impressive wall of noise, albeit only in short bursts.

Pretty much everything else feels familiar – the career mode, the dressing up, the acquiring of new gear (in-game and cosmetic only).

Ordinarily, a nostalgic rehash wouldn’t cut the mustard but Harmonix has jump-started the genre with such an approachable groove that it’s impossible to resist.

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