On Monday I was invited to a bar in London to take a first look at Rock Band 4 in action. I'm a big fan of the rhythm game genre, and although I was initially apprehensive about getting up on stage in front of a room full of strangers, it wasn't long before I got into the spirit of things and rocked out to Living Colour's Cult of Personality with my newfound bandmates.
Little has changed with the game's main interface, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who's played a Rock Band game before. However, the new Forge engine has given the background action a visual overhaul, and although the characters still retain their caricature looks there's a much greater level of detail on display. Stage lighting shines back from the metal rims of the drum kit, and as the camera pans round we see hundreds of individual crowd members bouncing to the performance.
Gameplay wise, a few tweaks to the existing formula were on show. Singers are now given room to freestyle their vocal delivery as long as they remain in tune, allowing for a greater level of expression. Drum fills, on the other hand, are drawn from a pool of preset fills to fit in with each particular song, so they still provide variety without descending into random hits that can throw the rest of the band off. Band performances can be played out as dynamic 'shows', with players voting on the next track (by choosing a genre, decade, or artist, amongst other random options) rather than arguing over the complete song library.
Although 60-70 songs have been promised on the disc, most of those available to play at the event were previous DLC tracks, but this highlights a key point from Harmonix - Rock Band 4 will be the only release in the series for PS4 and Xbox One, acting as a platform to be supported with ongoing updates rather than returning to a yearly release cycle which saw the market become saturated with music titles in the late '00s. After the release of Rock Band 3, Harmonix delivered 280 consecutive weeks of DLC, so they have a proven track record (no pun intended) for supporting their releases.
If you're a returning Rock Band player, the good news is that any DLC tracks or song export packs you've previously purchased will carry over to the new game, instantly expanding your library. Likewise, any wireless instruments you own from existing Rock Band or Guitar Hero games will be compatible with Rock Band 4 - PS3 instruments will connect to PS4 using the original USB dongles, and Xbox 360 instruments will sync to Xbox One using a separate adaptor currently being developed with Microsoft.
I spoke to Alex Verrey, Global PR Director for Mad Catz (co-publishers of the game), to get the lowdown on the fresh set of instruments they're producing for those new to the series or looking to upgrade. The Fender Stratocaster guitar features improved fret buttons, a digital accelerometer to trigger Overdrive when tilted, and built-in sensors which can be used to automatically calibrate the output of any television and sound system combination. The guitar also has a more solid feel, with additional ribbing to reinforce the body and prevent the neck from flexing.
The drums have been upgraded with velocity sensitive pads to allow for more expressive performances, and they are sound absorbing to reduce noise coming from the kit itself. For those opting for the pro drum expansion cymbals, the sensors have also been improved to give more accurate feedback. Both the wireless guitar and drums now connect directly to consoles using native Bluetooth, to reduce input latency. Even the microphone has been enhanced to clearly pick up everything from softly sung ballads to death metal growls, as well as adding a longer cable to allow singers to roam further around their 'stage'.
I also got to chat with Daniel Sussman, Project Manager for Harmonix, about the narrative element of Rock Band 4. This will feature RPG-like elements, allowing players to live the fantasy of being a rock star and make decisions to shape the direction they take their band. Do you cash in by taking a big corporate gig and alienate your fans, or scrape your way around the country playing to die hard supporters? These choices affect how much money is available for buying new instruments and outfits, as well as which venues you can perform at and how many fans will turn up to see you.
When I asked about the possibility of taking on this band experience with friends, Sussman told me that "asynchronous multiplayer gameplay is an idea we've put a lot of thought into", but he could "neither confirm nor deny" what their plans are for this. What we have been promised is that much information will be revealed at E3 2015, so check back in next week for the latest on what's new in the world of Rock Band.