Reviewing Rock Band 4 is a tricky one. It seemed like it would be a cinch, especially given the favourable relationship we have with the series. It doesn’t feel like five years has passed since the astonishing third entry and that time seemed even more irrelevant booting up the game. Like picking up a well-worn pair of drumsticks, Rock Band 4 allows current gen gamers to reconnect with their downloadable content libraries, most of their plastic instruments and, above all, that unmatched co-operative fun. With Guitar Hero also making a return is Rock Band 4 enough to entice fans and newcomers to the series?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but it depends on your experience with the series to date. Rock Band 4 is more like a compatibility patch, bypassing the need to fish old consoles out from dusty corners and instead offering your bought songs for use on current gen hardware (even with last gen instruments). If you still have reams of songs and some plastic tat in the cupboard then you’d be silly not to pick the game up again. There’s new hardware available too, unfortunately at fairly extortionate prices, although we only tested the Xbox One adapter that permits use of wireless controllers from the Xbox 360. It worked impeccably, but there are issues prohibiting the use of wired controllers, including the brilliant ION drums that are currently much missed.
The game itself looks much the same as Rock Band 3, albeit spruced up. The resolution and lighting is improved and the characters still have that spiky, angular look that’s been a trademark of the series. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game begins to feel more like a gateway than a leap forward. There’s a lot missing compared to Rock Band 3 and, although Harmonix have commented on trimming down extraneous clutter (including keyboards… boo!) for Rock Band 4, it feels like a lot is missing. The character creator has a good handful of options, but there doesn’t seem to be a body size modifier so get used to your character looking stick thin. Clothing options, aside from unlockables, are also far more limited. While this isn’t the main feature of a game where you tend to focus on a scrolling chart, fans of the series will notice that there’s a lot that hasn’t made the cut.
Thankfully, the game itself is as fun as it ever was. Harmonix have note charting nailed down and there’s even a new feature - freestyle solos. Initially this seemed a leap too far, running the risk of Fisher-Price MIDI squeals masquerading as riffs. The solution is elegant, even if it will take a few attempts to parse the new symbols on the fretboard. These sections send symbols representing single strums, double-time strums and finger-tapping, with the colour representing whether it should occur on the frets higher or lower on the guitar neck. The freeform guitar sounds are pitch-toned to match the song, so even the most frantic fretting sounds passable. Get it right and some of these solos can sound amazing, doing something never before seen in the series: rewarding guitarists and bassists for a degree of creativity. Drums and vocals also have freer scope to improvise, with drum fills charted to fit with the song and singers able to go off piste, as long as it’s still in tune.
As for the song list, it’s a strange mixed bag. This far into the series, a lot of the good songs have been taken so the on-disc tunes feature deeper cuts alongside some newer big hits. Scoring Elvis was a coup and it’s great to see Van Halen freed up to appear for the first time. Harmonix, however, are masters of picking the right songs based not simply on their popularity. Guaranteed some of those you won’t recognise turn out to be the best to play - Brandi Carlile for one - but there’s still an undeniable joy in seeing Uptown Funk amongst the tracks.
The new campaign mode is sparse - a choose your path route through gigs that determine the rate you earn fans and money - and doesn’t quite work with the on-disc songs alone. You’ll want to bulk out the playlist with downloadable content and it’s here that Harmonix has set trends. There’s more on the way - the newly released Aerosmith pack has better choices than the Guitar Hero game specifically about the band - and there’s always the fact that there are four instruments to master. A few glitches related to specific downloadable songs are being ironed out and there is the sad fact that some will never cross over due to licenses expiring, but Harmonix’ work on securing as many as possible is admirable. There are notable absences - no exports are currently available although Rock Band 3 will be by the end of the year. There are also still problems with new and legacy content appearing on PSN - something that seems out of Harmonix’ hands.
As for the missing features, the notion of Rock Band as a platform hopefully means Harmonix will stay true to their word and incorporate requested elements in future patches. This could be something very special - an evolving game alongside an expanding jukebox - but equally it lends an air of early access to a game that was a full price release. Rock Band is an expensive proposition and whether demand exists, either in an established or new audience, is questionable. There have been rumours that Harmonix and publisher Mad Catz are banking on the series to dig them out of alleged financial problems - perhaps another clue behind the barebones nature of Rock Band 4. Either way, the game is very much recommended - it all depends on what the cost of entry happens to be for each buyer. If you have songs or instruments you’d be silly not to use the game as a golden ticket to access it all again for the next few years. If you’re starting afresh then you’ve likely never played it before. Try it - Rock Band can be one of the most directly enthralling experiences and there’s a mastery to attain that will more than get your money’s worth, before the massive DLC library comes into question. It’s not as satisfying as Rock Band 3 then, but Rock Band 4 retains its power to turn the shyest wallflower into a karaoke god.