For some quite unfathomable reason the plastic instrument boom has gone bust. Started in 2005 by Harmonix with the Guitar Hero franchise, people were able to position themselves as rock stars, playing covers of their favourite songs with the plastic guitar imitations supplied with the game. Eventually Harmonix split from Activision, leaving the Guitar Hero name behind - itself becoming an annual behemoth inline with other big names such as Call of Duty and Fifa. Rock Band was born out of that split, allowing you and friends to not only play with an axe, but sing, drum and eventually play keyboards, too. Along the way covers had given way to original versions, DLC became a weekly release event and with its last iteration, Rock Band 3, the chance to learn how to play each instrument in real life, rather than the simplified five button colour coded way of playing up to then.
The innovation was immense, the quality of game top-notch but somehow along the way folks - aside from the hardcore few - fell out of love with it all and the business model wasn’t effective anymore. There is no Guitar Hero anymore. What we do have, from Harmonix the focal point of all of this, is a return to their pre-plastic rhythm game heritage (think Amplitude or Frequency), combined with the Rock Band brand name and pretty much all the three and a half thousand tracks in the wild on Xbox and PS3. What we have is Rock Band Blitz.
Rock Band Blitz does away with anything aside from a dualshock or 360 pad in terms of control. The control scheme in fact is so simple that it could have been done back in the 16-bit era quite happily. Your task is to play a song - all of it. Each Rock Band track has up to five instruments - drums, bass, guitar, vocals and keyboard, arranged according to five colour coded tracks from left to right always in that order - drums are green, bass is red and so on. You use R1/R2 and L1/L2 to change track, then hit X or the D-pad to play a note (unless you use the deviant control method of the analogue sticks, something wholly out of kilter with a fast-moving rhythm action game where notes are played or not played). As mentioned, it’s very simple. Even more so than its more recent analogue, Rock Band Unplugged on PSP - where you had four buttons to use to hit the various notes. The challenge comes from the fact there is only one difficulty level - expert - meaning all notes on each track of each song are there to be hit each and every time. You are rewarded for a streak, by activating Blitz mode, which multiplies your points score and keeps doing so the longer the streak is held.
Blitz mode is not the only way to multiply your score. Each song is split into seemingly arbitrary checkpoints. Each checkpoint you can ramp each instrument up to a capped multiplier. If you succeed, you can do the same in the next checkpoint. If you fail, the cap is lower meaning you’ll reduce your end-game multiplier. That means fewer points overall, and a lower star rating and score. The aim of the game is to get three, four, five or even gold star ratings and see how high up the scoreboard you are versus friends, or anyone in the world on your chosen platform. It is, at heart, a score-attack title.
An incredibly addictive and strategic one as it turns out. When you begin the game you just play the song, choosing which instrument track to go on at what times, hoping you can max the multipliers out and get blitzing. You know when you hit Blitz mode - aside from looking at the meter which is never going to happen given the need to hit the notes - as the viewpoint changes, and with the alternative perspective, the speed of movement increases. When you drop that streak it moves back from the lower, further back viewpoint, to the more top down view you start off with. This can be a little offputting when you’re in the flow of things and the speed with which you have to react to play a note needs to change. Early on you’ll find Blitz mode awkward to keep; when you improve you’ll spend most time in it and when you fail it makes it very hard to get going again. Often a song will have an instrument track you settle in and there’ll be a cadence that you’ll find. Losing this cadence as you drop out of Blitz mode is jarring but an encouragement to not drop any notes in the future.
As you play songs, and earn both Blitz cred and coins, you unlock various power-ups. There are three categories, each with multiple choices. You can power-up instrument tracks, notes and choose how to use your overdrive. Each power-up costs you coins to use. Originally the coin economy meant a lot of grinding was needed. Now, Harmonix have tweaked things and it seems you’ll always collect more coins than you spend, meaning power-ups are always available, once you’ve collected them all to form the smorgasbord before you. If you do start to run out for any reason, linking the game with your facebook account allows you to complete various challenges for extra coin. Or challenge folk to score wars, which if you win bring in plenty of currency. You can start score wars from in-game, too, but seemingly with no choice of who to challenge.
With Blitz mode, track multipliers and a choice of power-ups, the variation in strategy and success is massive. If a song has a particular bias to one instrument you’ll want to use the super power-up for that, increasing the scores you get. You’ll want to pick the best use of overdrive too - be it getting a bandmate to play a specific track when you’ve built up enough, or using rockets to blast notes out of your way instead of playing them. There are brute force combinations which will always grab you decent points, but to get gold stars there are more elegant solutions tailored to a specific song. Getting this right will be essential as you look to improve.
There is no doubting Rock Band Blitz is a superbly well made game that is fun, varied, strategic and encourages repeated plays to get those gold stars and beat your friends’ high scores. Where some debate comes into play is what level of Rock Band familiarity you start with. As an avid player, with other tracks from other games and a multitude of DLC Rock Band Blitz starts out as an oddity, a peculiarity, an ok little game but one which causes you to lament the lack of guitars, drums and keyboards - all replaced with a joypad. It doesn’t feel right. But then as you unlock power-ups and get into the rhythm of the game you’ll regularly get four stars, then fives and finally gold with your full complement of power-ups per song. It will click and you’ll be addicted forever more. It is an absolute time sink. Tracks you’d never imagine you could do justice to at such high difficulties - Green Grass and High Tides, any Metallica song, or Run to the Hills - suddenly become manageable, with the golden score within reach. It’s unthinkable for many, who love those tracks but have only experienced the whole song at a lower difficulty, or the hardest guitar difficulty stopped part-way through. It’s fascinating. Replaying favoured tracks is given a new lease of life as you’re the whole band as one. Even if you don’t like the game, the twenty five tracks it comes with for a digital offering priced as such makes it the best value track pack in the series’ history.
If you are not a avid Rock Band player the value proposition is altered. The game is still fun, although the learning curve will be different and high scores may not be as immediate. Regardless, the simplified control system versus the plastic instruments significantly reduces the barrier to entry, and as most people enjoy listening to music, it’s a great way to game at the same time. The problem comes when you tire of the songs it comes with. If you don’t already have DLC or other games you may want to buy some DLC, which encourages further outlay for just this one title. That in itself is fine, but you will probably tire of the songs before you’ve unlocked all the power-ups. That’s when the game becomes most interesting. To unlock more power-ups you need coins and to get more coins you either need to buy more songs or grind them out. If this is a situation you find yourself in, it may seem galling to have such a choice - replay tired tracks or buy some new ones. You don’t want to be forced to do either of those to enjoy the full benefits of the game. Sure, coin economy tweaks have helped here but it’s still a position some will find themselves in.
Other all-round disappointments with the game are things that come and go, or will be more of an issue to some than others. When getting used to the gameplay and how it works your focus is so much on playing the game you forget to listen to the music. This can be said of all the instrument based games though. What can’t, is that as you switch tracks to get more points you don’t get to appreciate a whole song as the instrument corresponding to the track you’re playing is louder and more clear than any others (unless you are failing at it...) so the sound of the drums can overpower much of the rest, if you’re playing on that instrument track. Switching means you get a completely different musical bias. It’s jarring at first when used to one instrument but both of these issues are minor and likely will be overcome after a few hours.
The facebook integration is a more odd choice. Some don’t want to link their game to their facebook account for certain reasons. Then it’s difficult to interact with others aside from in a reactionary way. You can’t challenge friends, you can’t compete in goals singularly or as a community. There is no multiplayer at all anymore of course. What used to be the party game du jour is now reduced to a single player only game with some facebook action. This focus on the single player, and the score attack nature of the game brings the presentation into focus. It’s all very bland, with limited ways to view and filter your collection of songs. Not an issue for newcomers, but if your library is massive you want extreme control - even the option to rate songs like in other entries in the franchise would be helpful. The fact it all looks samey and unexciting doesn’t help, but belies the fact it is only a digital offering.
None of this stops the game from being an amazingly fun, addictive and oh so moreish proposition though. Similar to traditional strategy games you can spend hours playing, developing tactics and succeeding in marginal gains. Time will pass and there’ll always be that desire for one more go. It turns out that Harmonix have once more innovated ahead of any others in the rhythm action genre, delivering - from a peculiar game on paper - a wonderful alternative to the seemingly busted flush that is the Rock Band we once knew.