Rock Band 4 is my first time playing a game in the plastics instruments genre. I’ve watched at the periphery but just never had a chance to play these games because I was never in a living situation that could accommodate big and loud plastic instruments. But now that I live in my own house, I was finally able to play a Rock Band game. In preparation for this review, I also purchased Rock Band 1-3 as well as Rock Band: Beatles to be able to play them and have some context about the series.
Rock Band 4 is a great party game just like its predecessors have been. But it also boils Rock Band down to the absolute bare essentials. It has the same mechanics for singing, drumming and guitar as previous games. You can even use the same instruments that you used in previous games, provided they were wireless and on the same console family (wireless Xbox 360 instruments work on Xbox One, wireless PS3 instruments work on PS4). There are some exceptions, and I’ll get to that later. Also, if you want to use 360 instruments on the Xbox One, you’ll need to purchase the Legacy Game Controller adapter.
One of the touted changes to the mechanics are freestyle guitar solos. Now during certain parts of songs you can mash out sick sounding solos with minimal effort. The game makes sure what you’re playing always sounds good. That being said it feels slightly pointless because there’s so little effort involved. You can try deliberately playing something, but then you need to figure out what notes the game arbitrarily lets you play during sections of a song to make any good use of the feature. And sometimes it can also just sound out of place– I’d rather play the songs as charted than mess around with this feature to be honest. Luckily you can turn freestyle guitar solos off if you’d like.
There’s three main modes in Rock Band 4: Play a Show, Quick Play and Tour mode. Play a Show is basically the party mode– it lets you start off by picking a song to play, but then over time it lets you and your friends vote on which songs to play. Sometimes the voting selections are specific songs, other times the selections are vaguer (like ‘a song from 1990’ or ‘a rock song’). I think it’s pretty slick and works well. Quick Play just lets you play a song– good if you just want to play specific songs as a single player.
Tour mode is a career mode of sorts– you play sets of songs and earn money to by cosmetic items for your band. Personally, I don’t really care about the cosmetic look of my characters. Thankfully, the game let me completely ignore that entire part of the game. Tour mode generally lets you follow one of two paths. Either you select your own songs to play, or you get a manager who selects your songs (and wardrobe) for you. I liked the latter option, because I wanted the game to present me with songs I didn’t know from the soundtrack. Ultimately it’s pretty basic, but for me it is a vehicle to discover the songs on the soundtrack. I did wish that it tracked your progress better per instrument. I attempted singing and playing a set in tour mode. My performance on guitar was good enough to move on, but my singing wasn’t. I dropped out of singing, but the game didn’t let me progress, and I had to do the guitar part alone to move forward in Tour mode.
After going back and playing previous Rock Band games, it did make Rock Band 4 feel pretty pared back in comparison. Among the missing features:
- Online play – Personally this was not a big deal for me.
- Pro Keyboards – Anecdotally, people genuinely liked this feature, and I do too from what I played from Rock Band 3.
- Pro Guitars – I get that not many people used this (my own thought is that it never had a chance due to the hardware being optional and late to ship), and part of it was that it was also daunting in Rock Band 3 (the training mode was poor). You can look at Guitar Hero Live in comparison (just released last week) and whereas Rock Band regressed back to 5 button guitar which doesn’t really feel like playing guitar, Guitar Hero Live feels like its setting up the series to eventually go down the road of getting a little closer to playing real guitar.
- Support for the Ion Drum Kit or other professional drum kits. I have only used the standard Rock Band drum kit with the Rock Band 3 Pro Cymbal expansion kit, and the construction does seem a bit flimsy as the cymbals flop around during play. If I had a better quality drum kit, I’d be pretty upset I wouldn’t be able to use it in Rock Band 4.
- Comprehensive Tutorial modes. The game assumes you already know the mechanics from previous games. It does have a tutorial for the new Freestyle Guitar Solos for example. You’ll have to either just know how to play, or pop into Rock Band 3 to learn all of the game’s mechanics. This is an unreasonable expectation on the player.
Not having the Pro Guitar or Keyboards is by far the biggest disappointment of Rock Band 4. I’m way more interested in trying to play with something that is close to being a real instrument. It’s why I’ve had a blast so far with the Pro Drums, and is probably what I’ll stick to using when playing Rock Band 4.
I did have some issues dialing in the Calibration. This feature allows the user to set what the input lag on their TV so that what you’re seeing visually is in sync to what you’re playing. It’s never felt perfect to me. Every time I start a game session I need to relearn the timings because they seem so off compared to my experience with the other Rock Band games on PS3. I don’t know if it’s a configuration problem on my TV or what, but I wanted to note this issue that I had.
The on-disc soundtrack in Rock Band 4 is not exciting at first glance. It seems as though Harmonix burned through a lot of great classic rock songs in previous games. Then again, I enjoy the opportunity to discover new songs so I’m not too hung up on the decision. If you are wanting of other music, there’s a library of 1700 songs online, and most of your purchases from previous Rock Band games will come over to Rock Band 4. It’s too bad exports from most of the previous games aren’t available from the get-go. Harmonix has confirmed that the Rock Band 3 export is coming soon to Rock Band 4. I’m hoping we’ll see the other games soon. Rock Band Blitz’ export seems to work fine currently.
Also, a Karaoke model for extra songs would have been appreciated as well (something that Guitar Hero Live is doing). As a new Rock Band owner, I’d prefer to spend $10-20 bucks for a party, rather than to having to spend hundreds of dollars in preparation for a Rock Band party.
It’s great that Rock Band is available to play on new hardware. And it’s great if you don’t care about the pro stuff as well. If Harmonix gets all of the DLC exports working, this does become the best place to play Rock Band for these people. However, if you missed out on exporting from games you own, or if you liked the Pro Stuff, then you’re out of luck. At that point, Rock Band 3 is the better option. I will likely go back to playing Rock Band Beatles (there’s just so much love and attention to detail in that game, plus the soundtrack is obviously incredible), and then Rock Band 3 to play around with the pro instruments rather than stick with Rock Band 4.
A PlayStation 4 code was provided by the publisher for review purposes, while the hardware was purchased by the reviewer