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'Rock Band': The song remains the same, even if times are a-changing

Magic can be hard to recapture — that one amazing vacation, that wild night you talk about for ages, that time you and your friends finally conquered The Outlaws' "Green Grass and High Tides" on your plastic instruments. Even if you try to put all the same pieces back in place, you usually can't make things happen the same way.

The same could very well hold true for Rock Band. The guitars still strum, the notes all play and even some of the tunes are the same — but even so, the overall composition may not match up to what you remember. When you stand on the stage of your living room floor with three other friends, will Rock Band 4 give you the same good feelings it did in 2008?

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It's hard to say. Harmonix is counting on old fans to bring this franchise back, and for those who are already invested, Rock Band 4 is an easy proposition. But if your interest has waned or this is your first music game, the title's now-higher price tag and weak song list might be big deterrents.

Start a Band

Rock Band 4 is the reanimated version of a dead music game. There are no radical departures between it and the rest of the series; anyone who wanders in while you're faux-strumming will know immediately what game you're playing. There's a level of comfort in that, as most everything works like you'd expect it to.

For those who held on to their plastic instruments for the better part of a decade, you are likely in luck — as long as you own the next generation of the console you previously went all-in on. (Since Xbox 360 was the generational favorite last year, and that spot has now been taken by PlayStation 4, there might be some already excluded by this.) Your PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 instruments will work with Rock Band 4, with a few caveats: You'll need a special hub for Xbox controllers, and wired Xbox controllers just won't work

If like me, you had to shed all your Rock Band toys, Harmonix and Mad Catz are also offering the Band in the Box, which comes with one guitar, the drum set, microphone and the game disc. The price tag is a little discouraging; the whole kit costs $250. (Previous Rock Bandbundles were around $170.)

The guitar and drums feel solidly built, and seem to have benefited from all of Harmonix's instrument creating experience. The drum kit's pads have a nice solid thud, and the metal-plated kick pedal is a huge improvement over previous flimsy models. The guitar takes after some later models, with two sets of fret buttons on its neck. The buttons respond perfectly, and don't feel mushy like some previous Rock Band models. The strum bar feels smooth too, though during big play sessions some may complain that it no longer gives the well-known click when you strum.

Bluetooth connected wireless controllers are also amazing in theory, but sometimes tricky in practice. Our PlayStation 4 sometimes had trouble seeing the controllers and would occasionally disconnect them mid-song. You'll also have to add each controller to a unique user or guest account on your console, and remember which one they were attached to. (Honestly, I feel like this is more of a Sony restriction than a Rock Band problem; I can certainly recall similar account juggling on the Xbox 360.)

According to Harmonix, you'll only be able to buy the Band in the Box or stand-alone game at launch, with separate controllers not coming out until early 2016. That means someone starting from square one may be forced to scour Gamestop or Ebay for used guitar controllers to complete the full band. The Band in a Box price tag is high, too; while Harmonix is clearly aiming to ensnare lots of users that still have their old instruments, $250 is a lot to swallow for the full kit.

 

Kick It Out

If you've played Rock Band before — only once or hundreds of times — you'll find it easy to get back in the groove. There haven't been many changes to the main recipe: notes appear on the highway, and you have to hit them as they pass. But Harmonix has made a few tweaks to keep the game fresh.

The lead guitar is the most flamboyant part of any band, and that's even truer thanks to Rock Band 4's reformulated guitar solos. Instead of a set string of notes, solos are more free form, giving the players basic guidelines — when to hold a note, when to strum. when to use higher and lower fret boards. It doesn't really matter what you do as long as you stick to those guidelines; the game does an amazing job of making you sound like a rock star. The guitar solo is the biggest innovation in the game, and one that really solidifies the rock fantasy experience.

 

Drums and vocals get new touches as well. Gone are the drum fills that encouraged players to bang around randomly; now you'll be given more direction on how to sound like an accomplished drummer with designated notes. Vocals also has more flexibility on the higher difficulties, with the game rewarding talented singers who might want to improvise on the song while still remaining in key.

It's also easier than ever to get the party started, with Rock Band 4's "Shows" mode (accessible under the "Play a Song" menu option.) Once your band selects and plays the first song, Rock Band 4 tries to get you back to the next ones quickly. Instead of the sometimes-slow process of picking new songs each time, the game offers five choices for the team to vote on. They might be specific song titles, but are more likely say things like "a song from 1996", "a rock song", or "a song with a female vocalist." Each band member gets a vote (though I'm told the bass player has slightly more weight in the process) before the game progresses.

There's also the game's hallmark career mode, which puts a twist on your rise to fame by letting you make a few small decisions along the way. Should you sleep on couches or spring for a motel? Use a dirty van to tour or hope a manager will put you in better transportation? While these only have incremental effects on your cash or fans, it's a fun way to give personality to the game.

Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo

But a Rock Band game is only as good as what you're able to rock out to. Sadly, the fourth installment doesn't have enough of the musical magic that could get people coming back for more. While the artists included seemed like big names (modern acts like Fall Out Boy and The Black Keys stand next to classics like Live, Judas Priest and Elvis), it often feels like the 64 songs included are B-sides, at best.

While it's easy to appreciate a game that wants to curate a diverse list of songs, a title like this also needs a certain number of obvious, recognizable hits to bring people in — the classics they'll want to keep performing. When playing with a big group of people, we had a lot of trouble finding exciting songs after blowing through the first three or four "must play" tracks. If this is Rock Band as ascendant phoenix, wouldn't it want to rise to Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" (not included) instead of Ozzy Osbourne's "Medicine Man"? If you look at thetrack list yourself, then compare it to past games, this current offering seems even more lackluster.

 

There is downloadable music. A lot of it. Harmonix has spent time painstakingly transferring 1,400 previously released DLC tracks to the new system, and you'll be able to download anything you'd previously bought if you're on the same console type (PS3 songs will come to PS4, etc.). But that doesn't excuse a weak track list on the disc, which already costs $60 to $250. Harmonix has also said that Rock Band 4 is the final version of the game, meaning it will become a continuously updated piece of software through the years. If that's the case, wouldn't you want to put your best foot forward with that disc?

The decision to buy Rock Band 4 may come down to how invested you still are in the game. If you're new to the music space, or haven't played in a long time, you might want to weigh the costs. And in this world of mobile gaming and Twitch streaming, is there even a market for an involved game that requires all your friends to be in the same place?

Harmonix is brave for putting Rock Band 4 out now, when the gaming climate is dramatically different than that of the late 2000s. But while being able to jump back into Rock Band just feels good, it's only natural to have hoped for bigger changes, given all the time we've spent apart.

Rock Band 4 is out Tuesday for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

 

Rock Band 4

The Good

It's great to get the band back together  New instruments are well constructed  Guitar solos make you feel like a rock god

The Bad

More of the same  Song list isn't very impressive  $250 is steep for the full bundle

The Bottom Line

A return to form feels so good for Rock Band, but we wish the song selection or features did more to iterate.

 

by Chelsea Stark, MASAHBLE.com