Five years have passed since the last Rock Band launched, and in that time the rhythm action genre has seen a dip in popularity, leading to piles of unloved plastic peripherals gathering dust across the land... and my lounge. Now Harmonix and Mad Catz are getting the band back together, and far from being a sad greatest hits tour performed by tired old rockers, this is a resounding return to its former glory.
Rock Band, at its heart, takes officially licensed music tracks and breaks them down into guitar, bass, drum and vocal parts. By matching the onscreen prompts you keep your chosen section of the song playing, and by teaming up with friends you can feel like you're actually performing the music together. This core experience is as strong as ever, but additional, unique features have made a real difference to how it feels to play.
The most important change is the addition of Freestyle Guitar Solos, which allow you to create impressive solos on the fly by following a set of simple prompts, so regardless of what difficulty you play on you can easily noodle away like the gifted yet improbable offspring of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. It's truly revolutionary and, by experimenting with different combinations of button presses and strumming techniques, I was able to produce a varied performance every time I played a song.
Thankfully, Freestyle Guitar Solos are only included in tracks that already contain a relevant solo section, so you won't be asked to inappropriately shred over the top of Van Morrison's 'Brown Eyed Girl', but songs that feature them are clearly labelled on the selection screen. I’ve been playing rhythm action games since the original Guitar Hero on PS2, and I can honestly say that no other feature over the years has given me as much enjoyment or satisfaction.
When calibrating previous Rock Band games, you needed to strum your guitar in time to various beeps and onscreen prompts to try and synchronise your TV and audio system to the tracks being played, often with varying degrees of success. Thanks to a built in sound and light sensor on the new guitar, however, you can now simply hold it up to your speakers and the screen in a fully automated calibration process, giving much more accurate results in seconds.
This spirit of improvisation and fluidity extends to the drums and vocals too. Dynamic Drum Fills are taken from a large pool of pre-made beats and are a big improvement over the chaotic 'play whatever you like' sections of previous instalments, so that even if you're not an aspiring Keith Moon you can still follow the simplified prompts and sound like you have a world tour under your belt. Singers get their own variation too, with Freestyle Vocals allowing you to sing your own lyrics, as long as they're in the same key as the original track. These additions remove more barriers to entry, making an already accessible series even more approachable.
Choose to Go On Tour and you can create your own band to hit the road with. If you’re struggling for a moniker, then the random band name generator will help you out - after a number of laugh-out-loud suggestions I felt I had to go with 'Fistful of Hemorrhoids'. Once you’ve customised your character and picked the rest of your bandmates from a varied cast of extras (the bearded Barnabus Mudflaps is my favourite), you’re off to take on the world.
Enjoyable RPG-lite elements allow you to make choices to determine the direction your band goes in. Embarking on Cash tours with preset playlists will earn you big bucks to buy new outfits and instruments, but you can also go down the fan-pleasing route and choose your own tracks to increase your fame and unlock exclusive showcases. Being able to shape your band's future gives meaning to the shows you play, rather than just rattling through a bunch of songs for the sake of it.
Play A Show mode features a new voting system to allow bandmates to choose the next songs. However the reality is, disappointingly, the outcome is randomly selected from all votes cast, meaning that a single person's suggestion can still win through and force everyone else to endure an unpopular choice. Sometimes the audience will throw in suggestions, which you can take or leave, and I often found myself unable to exit the stage at the end of a session due to incessant demands for an encore.
Get ready to rock
Freestyle Guitar Solos are a game-changing addition to Rock Band, allowing anyone to bust out their own killer licks. You can play whatever you like during these sections, but if you want to keep your multiplier going then you’ll need follow these simple onscreen prompts…
Anything that appears in blue needs to be played on the standard buttons at the end of the neck. Spread out horizontal lines indicate that medium speed strumming is required, and holding down individual buttons will repeat a particular note.
Conversely, anything orange indicates that it should be played on the higher solo buttons near the guitar body. Close horizontal lines show that fast strumming is needed, and holding down multiple buttons will cycle through a series of notes.
A long vertical bar represents a sustained note, so strum once with one or more buttons pressed then keep them held. If you strum this upwards, the note will bend.
A wavy vertical bar following on from a sustained note indicates feedback, so tilt the guitar upwards when it appears to start the distortion. Once activated, you can press additional buttons to vary the feedback.
These angled markers represent a finger tapping sections, so strum the first note then quickly and repeatedly press additional buttons to play a rapid sequence of notes. For additional rock star kudos, use your strumming hand to tap the buttons.
Of course, you still have the standard Quickplay mode if you just want to jump in and play some songs without any extra bells and whistles. 65 tracks are included on the disc, ranging from classics by Van Morrison and The Who, through rockers such as Van Halen and Soundgarden, to modern artists including Mark Ronson and St. Vincent. Previous versions may have used up some of their biggest hits already - let's face it, 'That Smell' by Lynyrd Skynyrd is no 'Free Bird' - but if you want to expand your library then look no further than the Music Store where over 1,700 (that’s SEVENTEEN HUNDRED) legacy DLC tracks are available at launch. Furthermore, over 900 of these have been retrofitted with Dynamic Drum Fills and Freestyle Guitar Solos where appropriate, and any items you bought previously (provided they’re within the same console family) can be added to your new version for free.
The good news for those aforementioned dusty instruments is that any wireless peripherals you own will still work within the same group of systems - simply plug your PS3 receiver dongles into your PS4, or attach the legacy adapter to your Xbox One, and your existing guitars and drums will integrate seamlessly. Even old Guitar Hero instruments work, and the game automatically adjusts to compensate for the lack of solo buttons.
There are definite improvements to be found with the latest kit. The guitar feels more solid than before, with buttons that are more tactile and much less clicky. The ballbearing system that used to activate Overdrive when you tilted the guitar has been replaced with a digital accelerometer, which is much more accurate and accident-free. For years I’ve sworn by my trusty Guitar Hero World Tour strat, but this is my new favourite axe.
The drums have reinforced pads that feel like they can take quite a beating, and there’s no longer any annoying crosstalk between the different tubs to unfairly break your note streaks. Even the microphone quality has been upped to studio-grade specs with a high sample rate, so whether you’re softly crooning or bellowing your lungs out, your performance will always be captured accurately.
Sadly, you can’t upload videos of your best performances to show off to your friends, though you can at least take screenshots to share your gold star scores. Practice mode has been removed so you can't work on nailing individual parts of a particular song, though this is something that I expect only a small handful of pro players will actually miss. There’s also no longer a persistent goals system to follow your long term progress, but these are small matters that in no way detract from the high quality of the overall package.
It’s impossible to overstate how much Harmonix and Mad Catz have achieved here by securing legacy support for both existing instruments and downloadable content. This is the only Rock Band game that will be released for current gen systems, with downloadable updates keeping it fresh throughout the rest of the generation. If you have any interest in rhythm action (or indeed music), then it’s one you simply must have in your collection.
This game was reviewed on PS4.