The tics, twists, and Pavlovian bells of “Rock Band 4”

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So it’s come to this. In a week literally bookended for me by two concerts in two states (one of which you’ll hear tell eventually and the other of which was perfectly awesome, but too short and sweet to fit this format), a mere four days removed from a month that is essentially a rolling, 31-day horror film festival, with my childhood favorite baseball team having just been brutally, decisively removed from World Series contention (Thank you so much for this year, Mets!) and my childhood favorite football team dealing with critically uneven play from its franchise QB fresh off the disabled list even as its league best RB goes down to a heartrending, season-ending injury, have I somehow run out of things to talk about? Nah. It’s just that I’ve found this new thing, this one time. The point of this site has always been to give me a writing platform, whatever subject matter that might entail, though I never quite anticipated branching out into the world of video game reviews. For one thing, I don’t feel qualified anymore. After many, MANY years spent right there in the trenches – a prolonged period that split my entertainment passions into effective thirds, then (as I got increasingly into serialized TV) quarters – I traded in my consoles (metaphorically) for a halfhearted stab at full-fledged PC gaming. ‘Twas the dawn of the current hardware generation, and I didn’t want to get suckered into forking out entirely too much money for the latest technological marvel only for it to go criminally underused. Most everything in my home gathers dust, unfortunately. Most all of it was purchased at a comparative deep discount.

As I sunk my downtime into playing MMORPGs and Minesweeper, fumbled around with the Steam store, and, increasingly, PC streaming, the aforementioned quarter split reverted back to thirds. I rarely ever questioned my decision to sit out the new generation, let alone gave physical thought to purchasing a Sony PlayStation 4, though there remained one dormant property out there with the potential, once activated, to suck me irrevocably back into the gaming vortex. I convinced myself the day would never come, then, once the announcement was made, girded myself nervously for war, because my console sabbatical was officially living on borrowed time. For much of the previous generation, the Rock Band series had been the best value for money proposition going. The idea to cast the player as a rock musician – lifted from Activision’s long-running Guitar Hero series and expanded, polished, and monetized by publisher Harmonix, all to a ridiculous degree – was, of course, utter genius, the sort of idea you and I both wish we’d had, and translated beautifully to a home setting, especially when surrounded by like-minded friends. Rhythm games had been a subgenre on the periphery of popular breakthrough for years before Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution broke down the doors domestically. Rock Band expounded on their success through a subtle but, in certain ways, spectacular refinement of Guitar Hero’s “match the notes of hit songs using plastic instruments” formula. It was a philosophical throwback to times that for modern gamers might as well be prehistoric, when gameplay, and, to some degree, utility, thoroughly trumped graphics and presentation as the most important elements in any new title. In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, this was not only a point of pride but a matter of necessity, as a game’s visual component, though ever evolving and improving, was not yet its main selling feature.

With Rock Band, Harmonix created a self-contained environment and a platform for growth all in one. Its three official iterations on the PS3 and Xbox 360, plus another half dozen ancillaries (Beatles, Green Day, Lego, etc.), offered only incremental improvements from game to game, largely because the underlying experience was so strong and fun to begin with. Whether players one through four sang, drummed, or slang guitar, Rock Band was the ultimate single-serving game, easy to enter, difficult to master, rewarding to practice, with each play session lasting anywhere from a three-minute warmup to a party-fueled marathon. Kissing cousin to the Madden NFL franchise’s widely-derided yearly roster updates, each new Rock Band title was most notable for injecting 50-60 new songs directly into the user’s ever-expanding playlist, heroin style, this in an environment where Harmonix was not only preaching but banking on backward compatibility as the way forward. The junkie analogy here is both admittedly forced and horribly, horribly apt. I can testify. Harmonix anticipated a gaming world that would soon be lousy with transparent and relatively worthless paid add-ons by integrating a browseable music store into Rock Band itself and selling new, playable songs at $1.99 a pop (or packs of three for $4.99, or six for $9.99). It was maddening and intoxicating in measures that would quickly favor the latter, just like any addiction. I’m usually one who abhors spending any more money than I absolutely have to, but I am also a music fiend, a former drummer enamored from the start with the Rock Band approximation, and was, predictably, enthralled at the possibility of not only owning but playing on demand greatest hit sets from Queen, Stone Temple Pilots, and Iron Maiden, among dozens more, or all-time great albums in their entirety, like Megadeth’s Rust in Peace or Rush’s Moving Pictures. Once I popped, I didn’t stop.

I crave variety and serious engagement in my various entertainment options, and the Rock Band franchise, more than any other single game or series ever had for me, provided both in spades, alternately thriving and churning over the six-year stretch from 2007 to 2013, before finally sputtering to a halt in the midst of the console landscape’s larger reset. Most bystanders were content to move on – the moment used up, the movement passe – but a passionate minority daydreamed of and agitated for the game’s eventual rebirth on the PS4 and Xbox One. With the long-awaited release of Rock Band 4, the event that proved the impetus for me to finally break down and buy a PS4, Harmonix greets and courts the new generation with a rousing though pandering hymn to the old, stressing playability over innovation, boasting stability over change. The good news is that Rock Band is still an absolute blast to pick up and play. Fans of Rock Band 3 in particular will settle into this new title like a comfy chair, the old, warm feelings percolating almost immediately, ripping off 99% accuracy scores like they’re old hat, their ancient plastic instruments magically, thankfully compatible with the new hardware*, and their impossibly vast reservoirs of downloaded songs theoretically intact and ever expanding. Aside from a handful of new options and a couple of in-game presentation tweaks you’d have to be a nerd to notice (guilty!) let alone linger on, Rock Band 3 and 4 play identically. This is both a very good and kinda bad thing. Even with the increased graphical power of the PS4, there is practically no way to distinguish Rock Band 4 from its predecessor visually that doesn’t in the process draw unwanted attention to one of its several major shortcomings.

*I understand that Xbox One users will require a converter in order to use their legacy instruments, but as a PS4 owner who is focused on drumming, I can report that my Rock Band 1 wired kit works like a charm, and did so immediately. I’ll eventually get around to trying out my wireless guitar, but I’m in no rush. I can’t see that horizon from here.

Harmonix has been open about its intention to treat Rock Band 4 not as the launching point for another series of independent but associated next-gen titles but as a standalone platform on which to continue building, expanding, and refining the Rock Band experience through downloadable patches, content updates, and regularly released, purchasable songs. That is not only inherently exciting for fans – who, stray newcomers aside, will presumably come to the game with preconceptions in tow and a significant financial investment in purchased extras to protect – it is also a very good and lucky thing, because Rock Band 4 does not lack for issues that need to be fixed. My copy, purchased a week after the early October release date, immediately set off a tug-of-war between the realized pleasures, if not yet outright joys, recognized by my lizard brain, and my analytical brain’s steadily accumulating catalog of things that just didn’t feel right. Because the gameplay skews so ridiculously close to Rock Band 3’s, it’s a little alarming how many other things that should’ve been slam dunk details or inclusions were seemingly left out on purpose. First and foremost is the inability to create and save setlists, which one might already think would be important in a rock band simulator, but is somehow even more glaring when playing. One of the myriad pleasures of Rock Band 3 was the ability to create 3, 5, 8, 10, or more-song playlists on the fly. You could play them as one-off explorations or, as I often did, save them to allow the approximation of 18-song concerts by bands like Foo Fighters, Iron Maiden, or Rush. It’s the closest one can legally come to being Taylor Hawkins, or (ye gods) Nicko McBrain or (sweet baby Jesus) Neil Peart. In Rock Band 4, you can hold the “X” button as long as you want to but it still won’t trigger the start of a playlist. Harmonix attempts to compensate for this with the inclusion of between-song interludes where the band members have the ability to vote for one of five canned options** as the next song played (or encore, if appropriate). This is a perfectly enjoyable little quirk to throw in, and there’s no reason it can’t coexist with setlists, assuming Harmonix is serious about adapting the platform over time. The omission of this feature in the short term removes a healthy chunk of replay value, and not a little customization, from a game practically built on the twin pillars of providing replay value and customization.

Speaking of customization, that is in short supply as well. As before, you can create your own band in “Career” mode (i.e. set the name, hometown, and members), but the options beyond that are painfully limited. Character creation itself is positively anemic. Not that Rock Band 3 was a fully interactive offshoot of Pixar’s character development division or anything, but at least it allowed you free reign over inconsequential things like height, body size, hairstyle, and basic clothing. Here, all men and women are precisely the same size, have exactly five hairstyles from which to choose, and wear a drab t-shirt and jeans combo right up to the point you finally earn enough money to unlock some truly nightmarish costumes in which to dress them.*** My advice: save your in-game money for something more rewarding, like staring at it longingly as it sits there unspent. I skimmed the rock shop options once and haven’t been tempted to return since. The biggest gameplay innovations are the introduction of “freestyle” guitar solos and “dynamic” drum fills. I’m challenged enough in my axe-wielding without the added pressure of being responsible for inventing the notes I play, but I’ve heard good things about the solo enhancements generally. The now three drum fill options trigger your accumulated overdrive in different ways. The new “dynamic” drum fills eschew both the freestyle fills familiar from most all the PS3 games (here called “classic”) and the single note non-fills that were just so authentically Ringo-riffic in Beatles Rock Band (here called “static”).

***The November 3 game patch addresses a few issues, mostly audio surround support, as well as the ability to substitute created characters in as members of your band. Frankly, until the character creation options catch up to at least where RB3 left us, I’ll gladly do without. Much more crucial updates thus far left undone are playlist implementation and stat tracking, neither of which you’d think should be a bear to accomplish. I’m cautiously optimistic.

The dynamic drum fills are indeed a nifty concept, but can be sneaky and very hard to grasp in game, especially at first. Unfortunately, the classic fills in my experience are not in sync with the rest of the drum programming, so they tend to sound more like a car wreck than like Dave Lombardo, and inevitably throw you off the beat as soon as the song resumes. Lately, I’ve been making do with the distraction-free, comparatively boring “static” option. My hopes are that’ll eventually change. The game is also very wonky and erratic when it comes to tracking your stats. Like its predecessor, Rock Band 4 practically throws a parade when you reach a five-star score on a given song, which makes the frequency with which those star ratings and accuracy percentages – the two indicators that mean the most to a single-player wonk like me – simply disappear all the more baffling and frustrating. The loss of online multiplayer will rankle many but isn’t crippling for me, as my greatest moments with Rock Band historically have either been solitary scenes – playing 5-star songs on “Expert” difficulty, or 5-skull songs on “Hard”, or ripping out impromptu 16-song Nirvana or Pearl Jam concerts and basking in a rush of giddy accomplishment afterward – or special occasions down in the basement with a four man band of good friends playing together all night. Practice Mode, as valuable as ever, is also conspicuous in its absence. Keyboard support, which was added as a part of RB3 and only applied to a slim fraction of available songs, never had much of a shot to make the new iteration.

For its inaugural next-gen run, Rock Band delivers arguably its most eclectic and easily its most undistinguished soundtrack, a 65-song demolition derby of styles (modern country to prog metal), obscurities (Eddie Japan? Slydigs? The Both?), and vintages (1967 Van Morrison to 2015 Fall Out Boy, with an extended layover in the “Alt Nation” 1990s) that draws the game farther away from its titular headspace than ever before. There are still plenty of fun and interesting songs to play. The series remains a one-stop shop for all your interactive, digitized Foo Fighters, Rush, and R.E.M. needs, and each band predictably contributes a cool song to RB4, along with series vets like The Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, The Who, and Soundgarden. Metal fans are given short shrift, country fans are given a bit more than they perhaps deserve, while much is made of the debuts of powerhouse longtime holdouts Van Halen and U2. Sitting down to play Van Halen’s “Panama” is, indeed, a self-fulfilling prophecy of fun. No matter how much I may complain about this mistake or that omission, the songs are really all that matters, and with an overall catalog now numbering well into the thousands, plus the eventual (Harmonix promises) soundtrack restitution of Rock Bands 1-3 and the seven other dwarves to qualifying next gen owners, the future is bright both in terms of basic gameplay and the wondrous variety therein. Returning Rock Band aficionados can expect to invest multiple hours in re-downloading their previously purchased songs. It’s not the height of fun to rebuild your catalog in a few fell swoops rather than in the piecemeal manner you obtained the songs originally, but it’s not horrible either. You’ll get very used to the PS4’s notification sound, which comes tethered to the little download information messages that pop into the upper lefthand corner every time a song is added to the download queue or, having been downloaded, installed on the hard drive. The recently communicated Great Downloaded Content Workaround of ’15 finally allowed me access, after two weeks of banging my head against the wall, to some 182 stragglers simultaneously, plus the 25 included with Rock Band Blitz. The result: the blessed return of an embarrassment of pre-purchased riches, and so many accompanying bells that you could lean back, close your eyes, and be legitimately half-convinced (on both an aural and material level) that it was Christmastime.

Rock Band 4 is still buggy and annoyingly incomplete, though perhaps that’s what I get for finally buying a game at launch. (Seriously, I think the last time was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, back in 2000.) In strict gameplay terms, it is pretty wonderful. In terms of new features, it is just robust enough to qualify as an actual game, albeit a disappointingly unpolished one. It is also simple to grasp, disconcertingly easy to fall into, rewarding to play, not to mention compulsively replayable, making it the rare complete gaming experience anymore that is all journey, no destination. If I’m inclined to give Rock Band 4 good marks out of the box, it has largely to do with the tried and true quality baseline established by the series to date, and out of optimism that Harmonix will make good on its promise to leverage, support, and improve RB4 as a platform rather than abandon it as a one and done quickie. There’s no better way to pass the time while waiting patiently for everything to come together than to drum “Short Skit/Long Jacket”, “Toys in the Attic”, or “Friday I’m in Love”, or collapse into a contented heap after demolishing twelve songs in career mode. After all, first person shooter fans, on average, are not retired Army veterans trying to relive their glory days.

Recommended                                                                                                                               Reviewed on the Playstation 4, October, 2015.

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