Lights, Rhythm, Action: ‘Rock Band 4’ Is Just About More Than the Sum of Its Plastic Parts

The new-gen series comeback is a lot of what you know and love, but fireworks are disappointingly absent out of the box.

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Oct 6 2015, 10:39am

I've now known my wife for 20 years. We've not been married that long. That'd be illegal, I think. But in that time, I can probably count the video games we've played together on two hands. There have been Telltale adventures, naturally – the first Walking Dead was completed at a sprint, followed by The Wolf Among Us. I'm fairly certain that way back in the day we sat through The 7th Guest, and more recently we manhandled the murderous marionette strings of Until Dawn together. She's been known to watch me hacking away at monsters in The Witcher 3, lazily looking up from over the iPad to comment on someone's cleavage, though if you think I'm handing the pad over, come on now. I'm Geralt.

But we've never had all that many rhythm action titles in the house. Amplitude's been on before, buzzing away inside the PS2, but that's more gamey of looks than the plastic guitars and sing-along playability of the most popular genre entries, i.e. the various instalments in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series. The newly released Rock Band 4, though, has promptly joined our thin ranks of play-together interactive entertainment, arriving as it did to my door in the "Band in a Box" kit – a guitar, a drum kit, a microphone and a copy of the game. (Well, actually, the game came separately, but let's not dwell on that.) As soon as the pads were up and ready to be pummelled, the enthusiasm was palpable. "Can I have a go, now?" Course, let's both have a go.

Because as the series title so accurately implies, Rock Band has always been about the local co-op collaborative experience instead of Guitar Hero's solo axe warrior fantasies, encouraging shared sessions of shredding plastic props roughly in time to an array of tracks that veer from stuffy and old to somewhat newer but not particularly inspiring. (Who the fuck likes Dream Theater? This shite goes on for about eight years.) At least, that's the selection you get on the disc of Rock Band 4 – as a launch tracklist goes, which can be seen in full here, it's not the most exciting menu. But if you're a Rock Band veteran with a whole bunch of songs already redeemed through previous instalments, a great many of them – around the 1,500 mark – will be playable on Rock Band 4. And developers Harmonix are promising plenty more content, with no need to buy another, newer version of Rock Band in this console generation, with the first update arriving in November.

Rock Band, though its many guises, incorporating band-specific editions – The Beatles and Green Day – and LEGO tie-ins, has always been a great party game: better with friends, and even more so with a few beers on the go. And its basic format hasn't changed for Rock Band 4, which you can either see as a slightly lazy approach to design or very much an expression of the if-it-ain't-broke attitude. And Rock Band sure isn't busted in this iteration. Menus are easy to navigate, there are enough game modes to keep solo and co-op sessions lively, and while there are a relatively small number of songs available out of the box, I suspect that many players of 4 are coming at it having previously owned earlier versions, and will already have plenty of material to work with. Everything clicks on screen, even if the presentation of what's happening beneath the note runway – the prompts that you follow on your instrument of choice – is looking somewhat dusty versus the forthcoming Guitar Hero Live's responsive full motion video (previewed here).

When it comes to what's really new, the answer is not a lot. Gameplay wise, there's now the addition of freestyle sections where you can get creative on the guitar controller – a Fender Stratocaster model, smaller than the real thing but with a little weight to it – and drum solos serve a similar function, allowing for greater expression of the player's personality on the fly, fitting within the constraints of the mark-hitting main game. The drums, like the new guitar, feel more solid than what's come before – the kick pedal is metal-topped this time, and should stand up to some punishment. Which it is certainly going to take with Lightning Bolt's ferocious "Dream Genie" on the basic tracklist. The in-pack microphone is, apparently, a lot more responsive than previous models. I'd love to say I put it to the test at length, but what's worse than the sound of your own voice coming through your TV? My oldest son loved spouting nonsense about poop into it while my wife and I played Jack White's "Lazaretto", though.

But the actual act of playing Rock Band 4 is booby trapped by the guitar controller's design. I'm testing the game on PlayStation 4, which you'll know has a handy Share button for transmitting screenshots into the Twittersphere and elsewhere for pals and pricks alike to gawp at. On RB4's Strat, this button is almost directly beneath the vital strum bar, meaning that if you're building up a head of steam, riffing wildly, it's incredibly easy to nudge it – unlike the Options button beside it, it has no shielding – and interrupt the song. It takes just the slightest brush of Share to stop the rock, but several button presses to return to the action, at which point you may have lost your flow entirely. It's disastrous design on the part of peripherals makers Mad Catz, and a real dampener on the enjoyment of what Harmonix has worked so hard on. I've seen one journalist come up with a neat way of circumventing the problem using a bottle cap and some generously applied Duct Tape, but this isn't my kit I'm using here. It's been sent to me to try out, to get a feel for, to hopefully write positive words about. I don't want to cover it in sticky goo if I'm sending it back to the PR next week.

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Not that I haven't left my mark on these instruments. You've got to give the drums a healthy leathering, so the pads are now somewhat pockmarked, and when initially picking up the Strat and strumming speedily, I managed to bleed onto the scratchplate. "You're doing it wrong," observes my wife, noting how I'm holding my thumb and forefinger together, as if playing with an invisible pick. "Just use your thumb." Yeah, yeah, sure. But I don't see you getting 98 percent on St. Vincent's "Birth In Reverse". (Okay, so it's on easy mode, whatever.)

It takes me a little while to switch to the purely thumb style, but now that I have I'm pleased to report no further blood loss. A couple more quick points on the guitar (and drums, I think) – Rock Band 4 supports previous-gen controllers, but if you're upgrading from Xbox 360 to Xbox One you'll need an adaptor, which comes at an additional cost. As the PS3 used Bluetooth connectivity, anyone buying this for PS4 can use that system's instruments with no problems. You can't use an old Xbox controller with a new PlayStation, and vice versa. And if you wanted to play all those Beatles songs from 2009, yeah, sorry about that: no dice. Licensing, presumably.

Related on Noisey: We Reviewed Every Band on the New 'Guitar Hero'

A lot of Rock Band 4 sessions will take place via its Quick Play mode – pick your instruments, choose a song, and off you go. One at a time, and it's quick and easy to drop back to the song selection screen and fire up another. Playing a show gives you a slightly different way of doing things, where players get to vote on what comes next in the setlist. Career mode is my favourite way to play the game solo – you can create your own band's name and look from some very basic customisation options (my guitarist comes out like a cross between Black Jesus and Santa Claus, not that it makes me any better), and then progress from playing a hometown show for a handful of bucks to touring the world under the control of a domineering manager called "Uncle Tony". Or, you could go the DIY route, buy yourself a van and get out there, giving yourself greater freedom to dress how you want and play a set of your own selection, albeit for less of a cash return. It's some way short of a solid music industry sim, but having witnessed the world of international touring and band management first hand, aspects of career mode certainly raised a smile.

And yet, played on your own, Rock Band 4 isn't anywhere near as immersive as Guitar Hero Live. Whereas FreeStyleGames' imminent rival title shows its on-stage action from a first-person perspective, sucking you into the moment, RB4 is more concerned with the interplay between people in the same room. Its CGI visuals are crisp yet stiff, and the character models relatively expressionless beyond clichéd rock poses. Guitar Hero Live has its 24/7 streaming service, Guitar Hero TV, on its side to keep the content fresh, so whatever Harmonix comes out with next month to expand its base experience, it needs to be enough to make the substantial outlay on this new-gen Rock Band immediately worthwhile. It hasn't got enough songs to begin with, its guitar isn't in the same league as Guitar Hero's new six-button model (and that's before the Share balls-up is considered), and its visuals are strictly last-gen.

Which is my way of concluding that Rock Band 4 feels incomplete right now. What you buy, prior to any downloads, is much like the starter pack for LEGO Dimensions: enough to get by with, to keep you occupied for a few weekends, and enjoyable too; but the expansions can't arrive quickly enough. Harmonix has been talking a good game all year, as I found out when I met product manager Daniel Sussman back in June. "We're going to respond to people telling us what they want," he told me. "The main music discussions will happen later in the campaign." Which suggests that the greatest material is coming, that Rock Band 4 could reach essential co-op status after just a few batches of DLC. Today, though, it's more an exciting toilet circuit attraction than an arena-filling beast of a rhythm-action rocker, a lot of what you already know and love, and its familiarity never flirts with contempt, but distinctly lacking in unexpected fireworks. Not that my wife cares – she's doing whatever she can to improve her 58 percent on "Friday I'm In Love".

Rock Band 4 is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

@MikeDiver

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