The plastic instrument rhythm game genre both thrived and died during the last generation of gaming. I remember walking into a Best Buy store with a whole aisle dedicated to plastic instruments for various rhythm games. Now you’ll be hard pressed to find any retailer who wants to dedicate shelf space to multiple games all using their own sets of instruments. Once Harmonix and Neversoft took a bow and ended the barrage of annual faux band games that oversaturated the market, some folks were relieved while others were sad to see them go. I was one of the few who were okay with the genre coming to an end, but I knew I would also miss playing new games in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series while not being able to see the genre grow or innovate.
The Rock Band franchise is easily my most played series of games from the entire last generation. I have spent countless amounts of cash on games, DLC packs, instruments and accessories. So while ending the series at Rock Band 3 made sense to me, it also made me a little bummed since the urge to rock out never left me. Thankfully, Harmonix decided to take to the stage once again five years later with Rock Band 4, a new addition to the series for the new generation of consoles.
This time around, Harmonix took a different approach to Rock Band by creating just one game and treating it as a platform that would continually gain support through music DLC and added features throughout the life of the generation. Harmonix is now an independent developer, so the studio doesn’t have Electronic Arts and MTV backing them financially this time, forcing the game to be made on a smaller budget. Did Harmonix successfully breathe new life into the plastic instrument rhythm genre or is Rock Band 4 just as stale as ever?
Let’s start by going into what has changed in the transition between the last generation and the current generation of consoles. Rock Band 4 is available on both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One. Does this mean that last generation Rock Band fans will have to pony up the cash for all new DLC and instrument controllers? Thankfully, Rock Band 4 supports legacy controllers and downloadable content on both platforms.
Playstation 3 players can connect their instrument controllers to the Playstation 4 and play Rock Band 4 just as they did before while also being able to download MOST of their previously purchased DLC songs. Xbox One owners are not quite as lucky. A legacy adapter must be purchased in order to use legacy Xbox 360 instruments and only the wireless instruments will work, aside from the USB microphones which are still supported. Any USB instruments will not function on Xbox One
The required legacy adapter will come bundled with the game for $79.99 or purchased separately for $24.99. Not only do Xbox One players have to pony up extra cash to use their old instruments, but they will also notice that finding a legacy bundle or the adapter separately is nearly impossible right now due to supply shortages. Playstation 4 owners can simply grab a $60 copy of the standalone game, plug in their old instruments and enjoy the game. I’m thrilled that Harmonix was able to make legacy controllers still function for both consoles, but Xbox One owners really got the short end of the stick here.
Legacy DLC is a whole other beast. While most previously purchased DLC tracks can be downloaded again onto the PS4 and Xbox One (as long as you stick with the same family of consoles), issues are running rampant on both Xbox Live and Playstation Network that make many songs appear as if the user has not purchased them at all even though they did. Disc exports from previously released Rock Band titles also appear to not be downloadable at the moment. Some tracks have expired licensing deals too and cannot be added into Rock Band 4. So overall the legacy DLC feature is hit and miss. Harmonix promises to get the issues sorted out soon but at the moment no one should expect to instantly download every song they’ve ever purchased for previous Rock Band titles.
Obtaining legacy DLC isn’t an easy task. There is currently no method to easily download all purchased songs into Rock Band 4. The only way this can be accomplished is by cycling through all 1500+ songs in the game’s music store library and finding all of the tracks that say “purchased” next to them and add them to your download queue. My first couple of hours with Rock Band 4 was spent trying to seek out all of my old DLC and download as many as I was allowed. A large music library enhances the game’s career mode a lot, so I would recommend doing the same before you begin a new career.
Things seem a bit rocky with Rock Band 4 in terms of legacy support for long-time fans, but how about the actual game itself? Luckily, Rock Band 4 still plays just as solid as it has in the past. The gameplay sticks to its roots by only supporting the four standard instruments — guitar, drums, microphone and bass guitar. Harmonix has ditched the keyboard controller and the pro guitar from Rock Band 3 to keep the game simple, but pro drums with the cymbal additions are still supported along with the harmonies that allow a couple of players to take the role of backup singers. The game may not be quite as expansive as it used to be, but honestly that’s okay since the core popular instruments are still intact.
While the gameplay is mostly the same, some new additions come to Rock Band 4 that make it a little more interesting. A new freestyle guitar feature replaces the charted guitar solos in certain tracks with a freeform, create-a-solo feature that allows the player to hit any buttons they want while strumming to make their own guitar solos. Freestyle solos are fun at first but will most likely be a feature quickly disabled by score-chasing, die hard players since it interferes with possible high scores and hit streaks. The drums gained a new drum fill feature that requires the drummer to complete a specific drum fill that is thrown into the track in order to activate the overdrive power. Drum fills make activating overdrive sound more appealing than the freestyle drum fills from previous games but tends to ruin the player’s combo streak if a piece of the fill is missed. I would only recommend the new drum fills to expert drummers.
A very welcome new feature to Rock Band 4 is the party voting mechanic. During a setlist, the option to vote for a new song may appear that allows each player to cast a vote as to what song the band will have to play next. This new voting feature not only allows players to change songs on-the-fly but also allows each player to have their say in what song is next in the queue, getting each player ultimately more involved. Voting adds some spontaneity to your typical Rock Band sessions that makes playing in groups more enjoyable.
Rock Band 4 may be the fourth core game in the series, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily an evolution for the series. If anything, Rock Band 4 feels like a huge step backwards in terms of design and innovation. Since the game was made on a smaller budget, more features were stripped away from the game than actually added in. Most of these omissions may see a return in the future, but all of them make the overall package less attractive than previous games in the series. The amazing pre-rendered cutscenes found in the three previous games are gone, along with the attractive menus and animations between setlists. The lack of flair and grandeur in the presentation hurts the excitement of playing Rock Band and makes the game come off as a budget title. The game also lacks surround sound options too, making the audio seem a little more flat and less lively.
The new campaign mode is quite lengthy and will take players a large amount of time to fully complete all of its challenges, but the core story can be finished in four to five hours if you’re a good player who earns 4 or more stars in average per song. Players now create their own story for their band by making choices as to the direction the band takes in their journey to stardom. The first choice given to players is whether to buy a junky van and hit the road to reach more audiences, or sign on with a shady gentleman who can make them more money. Basically, it boils down to two paths: going the indie route for more fans and respect or going the sellout route for more fame and fortune. Harmonix claimed in development that Rock Band 4’s campaign plays out like an RPG, which to my disappointment, it plays out more like a Telltale adventure game than anything. Still, the campaign is still an enjoyable experience.
In addition to taking away specific, less popular instruments from the mix, several features that were a staple in previous games made the cut. No longer can players play online cooperatively with other players, making the game a little less appealing to those who primarily play solo or do not have friends good enough to chase high scores and achievements. Filtering tools while creating setlists are not half as robust as before, which makes selecting songs more of a chore than it has been in the past. Speaking of setlists, the ability to create custom setlists is gone too, as is the Endless Setlist challenge that asks players to play all on-disc songs in one sitting.
Possibly the most depressing omission in Rock Band 4 is the extensive character creation tools. Harmonix simplified the create-a-rocker feature quite a bit by including a significantly smaller amount of clothing and accessories for your custom rockers. I found that creating a character that looks similar to myself and matches my style to be much more difficult. After spending a lot of time creating characters, I never felt happy with who I created, which was not an issue in previous Rock Band titles. Also, there is currently no ability to create stand-in characters for your band that replace the spots that lack actual human players. You can select from a group of pre-made characters as stand-ins but none of your own, making your band feel less like your own and more like a pieced together group of random folks with goofy, over-exaggerated styles.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is the fact that Rock Band 4 seems to have some nasty issues with calibration. I have spent tons of hours playing all of the various Rock Band, Guitar Hero and DJ Hero titles without any calibration issues in the previous generation. Using the same TV as before, I seem to struggle getting Rock Band 4’s audio and visuals set to that sweet spot that prevents latency while playing the game. I had to run the in-game calibration tool around 10 times to finally get the game to a state that feels playable but still not perfect. As a pro drums expert player, this makes Rock Band 4 extremely frustrating to play until you’re able to get it right, which is a chore and detracts from the early hours playing the game. Check out my article here to see a live stream archive of my early struggles with calibration.
Graphically, Rock Band 4 doesn’t look too much better than the previous games on the last generation of consoles. The game seems to be running on the same engine with some slightly beefed up visuals at a 1080p resolution. The framerate runs at a solid 60 frames per second with some reports of slowdown in some songs, but I have personally not experienced any slowdown on the Xbox One version myself. Some of the textures on character clothing seems higher quality and the lighting and smoke effects have received some tweaks, but otherwise the game looks sadly about the same. Rock Band 4 certainly fails to take advantage of current gen hardware.
The new Xbox One and Playstation 4 instruments have had reports of latency and note dropping issues running rampant through online communities. While both the new guitar and drum sets now have an ability to allow the firmware updated on them by connecting the instruments to a PC, it also makes playing the game a bit more complicated since it isn’t quite as plug and play as it was before. Harmonix has been working on releasing more stable firmware updates, but owners of the new instruments are finding it difficult to play the game at high difficulty levels due to the issues plaguing these new instruments..
Lastly, let’s talk about the on-disc soundtrack. Rock Band 4 includes 65 songs on-disc that range from many different musical styles. In typical Rock Band fashion, you’ll see a lot of classic rock tracks from older eras that make up most of the setlist, but Harmonix did include some more modern artists as well. Unfortunately, those modern artists are bands that I personally could not connect with, like Imagine Dragons and Group Love. Tracks like the U2 additions and Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” infuse some great fun into the setlist. Many songs included on the disc I feel I’ve played before in other similar games, making them feel not so new to me. Overall I feel like Rock Band 4 has probably the least exciting set of tracks out of the whole series, but luckily the legacy DLC makes up for this as well as the continued weekly DLC releases.
As much as it sounds like I’m absolutely hating Rock Band 4 right now… I’m really not. In fact, I’m excited to play a new game in the series, even though it is a flawed experience. The gameplay is still solid and a lot of fun to play solo or in groups. The fantasy of being a rock star and the feeling of living that fantasy is still intact while playing Rock Band 4. The social additions like the voting mechanic make it even more enjoyable with friends. The huge bummer here is that the game is plagued with issues from the start and the lack of features makes it harder for me to recommend Rock Band 4 at a $60+ price range. The experience ultimately feels like an early access game that was rushed and shipped unfinished, making fans have to wait for the game to evolve before getting their money’s worth. It doesn’t help that the game is a bigger investment on Xbox One and hardware bundles are difficult to find.
If you’re a fan of Rock Band or the rhythm genre in general, Rock Band 4 is still a solid game with a lengthy campaign mode and a guaranteed good time at parties. I’m genuinely excited to own the game and see how it evolves in the coming years. Plus, the return of weekly DLC announcements make rushing to your browser to see if your favorite bands make the cut is as exciting as ever. In order for me to fully recommend a purchase, I would wait to see what Harmonix has up their sleeves in terms of future additions and updates before I would drop the cash for Rock Band 4 at the moment, especially when so many great games are on the horizon this holiday season. Be wary of the current state of this game, but don’t write it off quite yet
Final Score – 7/10
- Legacy controller support is much welcomed
- Ability to integrate previously purchased DLC
- Freeform guitar solos feel great
- A pain to calibrate
- Some great modes were omitted
- Game feels unfinished and rushed
(Rock Band 4 was reviewed on the Xbox One console)