Crooning, beefcake pop sensation Thom Yorke once sang, “whatever makes you happy, whatever you want”. You get the impression that this was in the minds of Harmonix when they made Rock Band 3. An almost embarrassingly deep pool of riches, its breadth would have surely marked the end of the plastic instrument phenomenon if the genre wasn’t on its last legs already. You had harmonies, keyboards, cymbals, stringed guitars and thousands upon thousands of tracks. It seemed there was nowhere else to go; short of adding a saxophone or trumpet, whose inevitably salvia sodden mouthpiece doesn’t really bear thinking about. It was the utter pinnacle of the music genre; a game honed over iterations by a developer with an obvious passion and skill for what they were creating. It’s my desert island disc, my main stage headliner and my favourite game of all time. It’s as damn near perfect a videogame I can think of. Where the hell do you go after that?
The answer, unfortunately, is backwards. Rock Band 4 sees the next generation graced with the kind of version that would be crucified by the gaming community if it had Activision on the box rather than nice, cuddly Harmonix. Incomprehensibly lacking several major features and the distinct air of a ‘that’ll do’ attitude, what we have here is so obviously rushed to beat Guitar Hero onto the shelves that any goodwill you may have for the company quickly begins to fade away. It’s a quick fix, a hack job; and it’s utterly heart breaking to see the series treated in this fashion.
But first; let me bury the burning, black ball of disappointment in my stomach and sweep away the shards of my shattered hopes and dreams to assure you that the core experience is as magical and wondrous as ever. Despite making you look ridiculous and sound terrible in reality, Rock Band’s trick of convincing you of your musical expertise has not been dampened in the intervening years. To watch a group play is to see your favourite songs ruined by out-of-tune shrieks and the incessant clicking of toy instruments, but to actually play is to be transported instantly on stage in front of a crowd of adoring fans. It’s a captivating illusion and when everything falls into place; when all four of you are in the zone and the screen is alight with the yellow buzz of deployed star power; there is very little in gaming that can match it.
One of the other beauties of this series is the way it can nurture a love for a song or genre that you’d normally never touch with a bargepole. The presence of Rock Band 3’s Rammstein in my music library is about as appropriate as Damien Rice doing an acoustic set at Download. But in the actual playing of their particular brand of Germanic, industrial electro-metal, I found an appreciation of the raw power and intensity until I was uncontrollably head banging, legs stretched wide, doing that devil horn thing with my hands. I very nearly rushed out and bought a pair of leather trousers. Of course, you’re always likely to gravitate towards those songs that fall within your particular tastes, but by placing you within the creation of a song and making a game out of it, Rock Band has the potential to shatter your preconceptions and prejudices and even make shit like Alphabeat sound tolerable.
With that in mind, I approached the track listing in 4 with a receptive attitude. Unfortunately it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Music taste is wildly subjective of course but there’s an awful lot of bland, Brit-award winning fodder and ‘I hate you Mum and Dad, I’m not going to tidy my room’, American teen angst. When the final two tracks on disc were revealed as U2 (one of which being from their most recent album – everyone wanted that, right?) I shrugged so hard I nearly dislocated my shoulder. ‘Uptown Funk’, one of the finest pop songs of the last ten years, joins the ranks of tracks that seem like they should be more fun to play than they actually are and Queens of the Stone Age, whose songs normally seem tailor-made for this game, are represented by the rather dreary and monotonous ‘My God is the Sun’.
But it’s not all bad news; St Vincent’s ‘Birth in Reverse’ is delightfully mental and ‘Fever’ by The Black Keys is excellent fun; particularly when the crowd sing along to the stabby, synth hook. And you can all thank me for White Denim’s ‘At Night, In Dreams’ which I submitted through the games website when they were taking requests. A ferocious four minutes of pure, adrenaline fuelled brilliance it looks certain to join the ranks of my go-to songs each and every time I fire up the game. Given the wildly varying quality of the rest of the tracks in the game, I’m taking full responsibility for its inclusion.
But for goodness sake, just make sure to take the freestyle solos off so you don’t ruin the end for yourself. The big, new, back-of-the-box feature for this entry, which replaces the games complicated and epic solos with a kind of structured improvisation, seems like brilliant fun the first time you do it but the novelty wears off very quickly. If I wanted to be generous, I can kind of see the appeal for playing with the family on Christmas Day and making the songs easier and more inclusive. But to be completely honest (and more than a little snobby) if you enjoy this feature then save yourself £40 and buy a Fisher Price Rock and Learn Guitar and just hammer the buttons on that for much the same experience.
Of the other new features, it now counts you in when your instrument has a bit of downtime which is handy. And voting for the next song will perhaps prevent minutes of scrolling through hundreds of songs and make sure you spend more time playing, so I guess that’s quite good. Oh, and the brightly coloured disco beaming from the lightbar on the PS4 pad is pretty nice. And if it sounds like I’m struggling for plus points here, it’s because I am.
One of the big draws of this game was supposed to be backwards compatibility with your previously owned tracks. Now, this might be the fault of the infamously inept Sony EU PSN team, but so far I have been unable to download any of my hundreds of downloadable tracks despite trying several times. And even if it was working, the process of actually getting hold of them is excruciating. Hopefully this will be streamlined later down the line (and it may be grossly unfair laying the blame for this at the feet of the game) but it’s a problem that exists and it desperately needs to be given some attention.
Elsewhere, Harmonix have said that Rock Band 4 is a return to the core of the series, presumably in an attempt to recreate the glory days of the late 00’s. What this has meant in reality is that they’ve cut off huge chunks of the game. Pro Guitars is perhaps understandable; only appealing to a tiny subset of the audience and presumably a lot of work to implement. But it’s a massive shame that keyboards didn’t make the cut, as along with harmonies and no fail mode, it was probably the best innovation since the series began.
Other areas in which the game is lacking are just bizarre. The character customisation options are virtually non-existent. I hardly have the most outlandish appearance (think of a significantly less trendy Mark Ronson and you’re halfway there) but have found it impossible to make anything that looks even remotely like me. Of course, this kind of window dressing doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but it’s symptomatic of the lack of attention or care that has been given to the game in general. Hilariously, and I’m only putting this in because it made me chuckle in disbelief, but the character limit for your band name has been reduced too. The power of the next generation, ladies and gentlemen.
To be fair to Harmonix, they have said that they view this release as a ‘service’ and plan to build on it with free updates rather than release a 5 or a 6. But coupled with the supply issues that have plagued the games U.K release and you start to wonder if this half-hearted attempt to resurrect the series was worth the bother at all. No matter how much I may love prancing around my living room pretending to be Elvis Costello; I can’t help but think that like Wii Fit balance boards and Kinects, the general public has moved on from this phenomenon. The fact that despite my general cack-handedness on the guitar I’m still regularly getting into the top 100 on the leaderboards on the first time of asking, suggests I’m probably right. It’s more than a little worrying that Harmonix may have bet the house on this and it’s all about to blow up in their faces.
Rock Band 4 is bare bones sequel to a spectacular game and your mileage will depend on how desperate you are to play these games on the newer consoles. It’s still capable of producing moments of magic, and the solid foundations and framework are still present, but the rest has been trashed like Keith Moon’s hotel room. Notoriously well-groomed, social butterfly Thom Yorke once sang ‘no alarms and no surprises’. Sadly, what we’ve got here is far too many of the former and not nearly enough of the later.