There is a cupboard in my house which has what can only be referred to as the rhythm-action shelf. A compartment stuffed with plastic guitars, microphones, a toy drum-set, keytar, countless microphones and a few sadly underused DJ Hero turntables. All the instruments in there are well loved, battered into submission by the music game boom of the mid-2000s, starting with Guitar Hero and culminating in the frankly glorious Rock Band 3.
Pretending to be a rock star, jumping around the living room with a plastic guitar matching notes on-screen and screeching into a mic had been one of the ultimate video game fantasies.
But it is a shelf that had largely gone undisturbed for about four years. Proliferation had done for the genre, there were too many games, too fast. And people got bored. Moved on. Stuffed their instruments into cupboards, lofts and garages to be forgotten.
In winter last year, apropos of nothing, we decided to stage a revival. Instruments down, booze out, friends round. And it was glorious. Familiar enough to slip back into its rhythms but exciting to visit afresh, Rock Band became a semi-regular fixture for weekends again. It was enormous fun and we wistfully hoped for a new game.
In March this year. Rock Band 4 was announced. Guitar Hero Live followed in April.
Now, I’m hardly claiming we precipitated the revival of the plastic-instrument genre. But presumably if we had chosen to dust off the toy drums, others had too. Rock Band developer Harmonix certainly had. Having played their game with the benefit of a few years hindsight, the developers say that their main takeaway was simply how fun the game that they made was. So much so they were almost surprised.
If this sounds like humblebrag 101, consider that Harmonix had thundered through an enormous amount of these games between 2005 and 2010. Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, Rock Bands 1, 2, 3 and two lavish band-specific games in The Beatles and Green Day. That level of production, along with improving the game and inventing new features for the back of the box can lead to a sense of inward-thinking, perhaps losing sight of what made the genre popular in the first place.
Rock Band 3 was, in Harmonix’s words, a ‘sprawl’. Good as it was (and it was very good) there was perhaps just too much stuff, which arguably diluted its worth as a party game. Or at the very least, meant that Harmonix was not focussed on making a party game. Rock Band 4 seems an attempt to redress that.
So things have been stripped out. Gone is the ‘Pro’ mode which valiantly attempted to teach players how to noodle on a real guitar (a market covered perfectly well by Ubisoft’s Rocksmith) and open up more technicalities in drum play. The keyboard’s out too as, frankly, no-one wanted to play it when they could be wielding an ax or hitting the skins. A fine instrument, no doubt, and well incorporated in Rock Band 3 but hardly the stuff of power-rock fantasies. The complex tangle of RB3’s campaign and challenges has been turned into a more ‘gamey’ type of role-play, tasking you with building fans and renown across the world, choosing between corporate shows for cash and underground gigs for credo.
The tweaks, then, are targeted more at party play and allowing players more freedom of expression. This is wish fulfilment, first and foremost, and Rock Band 4 seems at pains to bring out your inner performer. Talented vocalists now have the chance to riff on their favourite songs without having to exactly match pitch and lyrics, as long as your warble is in tune you will still rack up the points. For a delusional frontman like myself (and non-dleusional ones, of course), this is the most important development for a karaoke game ever.
In most karaoke games —previous Rock Bands, Singstar, Lips (remember Lips?! No? Oh ok.)— you’re trying to match an arrow to a tube, which can often mean singing worse makes for a better score. That would still probably work, to be honest, but at least now you’re not punished for letting out a little Freddie Mercury. The downside is now I have less chance to blame the programmed pitch when I’m murdering Weezer songs.
Drummers, meanwhile, will have the chance to insert authored fills in order to activate their ‘Overdrive’ score multiplier. A tweak from the random crashing about that Harmonix said knocked players off their rhythm when trying to boost their score.
More collectively, Harmonix are looking to keep players playing, rather than spending ten minutes between songs scrolling through the setlist and arguing over whether to play Blondie or Pearl Jam next. The new ‘Shows’ mode keeps you on stage and between songs brings up a panel with pre-determined options which band member can then vote on. It might be a individual song or artist, or it might offer something a little more randomised, like songs with a female vocalist or tracks from a certain genre. Often the crowd will ask for an encore, which you can choose to perform or not. The audience, apparently, are reactive and will request songs you are particularly good at. So if you belt out a particularly stirring five-star rendition of All Along the Watchtower or Walk This Way, the crowd will call for it to be played. I imagine there’s a Freebird gag to be had here.
It might not sound very rock ’n roll, but many of the changes Harmonix are introducing are, well, sensible. Upcoming rival Guitar Hero Live is taking an admirable gamble with its Spotify style streaming, reactive live-action crowd and redesigned guitar, but Rock Band, at its core, is very much the same game it has always been. Its tweaks aimed at keeping you playing, having fun and streamlining the experience so you don’t get lost in its tangle.
Legacy, as Harmonix call it, is a key factor. While there will be new instruments with the requisite improvements (made by co-publisher Mad Catz), the developer has confirmed that your old Rock Band kit will work with the new game. PlayStation 3 instruments should plug straight into the PS4, while Xbox 360 instruments will need a simple adapter to work with the Xbox One. Perhaps even more importantly, nearly all of the songs you downloaded to your PlayStation or Xbox Live account will be available to you on the new consoles.
This is big. As along with a disc with 60-70 songs on, Rock Band 4 will already have around 1500 songs available to bolster your library. The grand idea is that Harmonix will only be releasing this one game for this console generation, and will continue to add to Rock Band 4 via software updates and downloadable content.
The only music game you’ll need this generation, they reckon. Guitar Hero will surely have something to say about that. It might not quite be The Beatles v The Stones, but competition can only breed improvement. And that’s exciting. Which ever way you swing, the plastic instrument comeback tour seems perfectly timed.