Following our promising sneak peek of Rock Band Blitz back at PAX East, we couldn't wait to get more hands-on time with the arcadey, fake guitar-free, rhythm-based title. At a recent pre-E3 preview, where Harmonix revealed a number of new features and songs for the forthcoming XBLA and PSN entry, we were able to do just that.
The first thing that hits you about Harmonix's throwback to Frequency and Amplitude, well, aside from the fact it's not played with a plastic peripheral, is that it forces you to re-think everything you've learned in recent rhythm-based games. Instead of tasking players with nailing as many notes as possible, it encourages them to not play perfectly. Rather than measuring success by how many symbols are matched, it rates players' performance by how high they can rocket their score. Sure, posting big numbers still calls on some classic note-matching skills, but a variety of other factors play just as prominent a role in placing you atop the leaderboards.
Much like previous Rock Band games, Blitz features up to five note-filled tracks for guitar, bass, drums, voice, and keyboards. But because it's a single-player game, one person is responsible with managing all the instruments. It's at first tempting to fall into old habits, sticking to a single track and obsessively trying to tackle every note. However, while this method might have earned adoring fans in previous iterations, it yields only a paltry point total in Blitz.
After a few lackluster performances of Jessie's Girl, we started to master Rick Springfield's early 80's hit by frantically swapping between all tracks to top out their score multipliers. Each track only has two lanes of notes and the obvious strategy is sticking to the most densely populated areas. Cruising the drum track whenever Jessie's Girl approaches its infectious pre-chorus percussion section, for example, is a good place to start.
Of course, juggling tracks and notes is just a small part of the score-ratcheting equation. The best leaderboard squatters will also learn to master Blitz' Overdrive and note power-ups. The former is unleashed by the player once a corresponding meter is filled, while the latter is triggered by hitting rare purples notes. Harmonix had previously revealed Bandmate and Bottle Rocket, which allow the A.I. to tackle a track and clear faraway notes with a burst of fireworks, respectively. While these two were available during our demo, the developer also let the leash off a trio of new Overdrives. The self-explanatory “2X” doubles points when activated and “Shockwave” uses its namesake to consume all notes in its path. The most interesting one, though, was Jackpot; as its tempting name suggests, players can earn big points deploying it in a dense area, but missing a single note during its run returns those earnings to zero.
On top of these additions, our latest run at rock stardom also introduced us to Synchrony, Flame, and Runaway note power-ups. Synchrony allows seamless switching between tracks so streaks aren't broken, while Runaway notes take off, accrue points, and grant big bonuses when the player catches up with them. A bit of a cross between the Pinball and Blast point-boosters we saw at PAX East, Flame earns points for all notes it consumes and can be sustained with a bit of skill. Power-ups - some of which can be selected like load-outs prior to starting songs - generally send scores soaring even if used carelessly. However, mastering when and where to use them, as well as learning which ones complement each other best, is the key to squeezing the most points from them. For example, with some thoughtful tinkering - okay, Harmonix actually tipped us off - we discovered Bandmate power-ups keep Flame notes burning longer.
We also got to test a new control scheme. We still switched tracks with the 360 controller's triggers and deployed power-ups with the X button, but rather than using the D-pad and A button to play left and right notes, respectively, we did so with the analog sticks. Where we found the D-pad a bit clumsy for such a fast-paced experience, the sticks felt super-responsive.
Playing Rock Band Blitz - solo, on a gamepad, with headphones, for nearly an hour - yielded an addictive, arcadey experience that kept our thumbs busy and heads bobbing. We can't give the absorbing gameplay complete credit for that, though; as with all music games, Blitz is only as good as its track list. From Fall Out Boy to Foster the People, Blink 182 to Barenaked Ladies, Blitz boasts 25 songs, all of which are compatible with Rock Band 3. Even better, the series' existing library of 3600-plus tracks can be played in Blitz. Both a welcome evolution and nostalgic roots-revisiting entry in the genre, Blitz is shaping up to be the ultimate easy-to-learn-difficult-to-master music game.