Review: Rock Band 4 – old guitar, new tricks

Grab your friends and your plastic guitar, the band are back on the road.

Listening to a song you love is great; tapping your foot along, singing, hearing the music build to your favourite part, it’s great. But being involved in playing the song itself is even better, and that’s what makes the Rock Band series so good. Picking a song you love, grabbing a guitar, or a microphone, or the sitting behind a drum kit, and playing it almost note perfect, getting really into the music, and hearing a crowd cheer you on? Few things beat that feeling.

That probably explains why I lost my entire weekend to Rock Band 4 this weekend. If you’ve played Rock Band before, the fourth instalment isn’t going to wow you with any massive gameplay changes. If you haven’t played before, you and some friends grab a five-button guitar controller, a USB microphone, or an electric drum kit and try to match colour coded notes from Rock songs as they come towards you on the screen, Star Wars opening crawl style. If you miss notes, your playing in the game becomes jumpy and choppy, but keep up an unbroken streak and you’ll increase your combo multiplier, your stars earned, and just feel a general sense of satisfaction.

This sameness has its good and bad points. It’s great picking up a game and within a few moments feeling quite at home, but at the same time there’s a lingering feeling of ‘been there, done that’, with each instalment feeling more like series maintenance as consoles update, rather than a brand new game. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right?

The equipment, however, has slightly improved over the years, the guitar being noticeably better. That said, I don’t like the Rock Band guitar nearly as much as the Guitar Hero guitar; it doesn’t feel quite as well-finished or tactile, but that could be a matter of familiarity on my part. The drum kit is great, feeling safe and sturdy. It is really loud though; sometimes the thing you hear most when you and friends are playing is the persistent rap of the sticks against the plastic pads, which is quite off-putting for everyone else (and it’s not just because I play like the gorilla in the Cadbury’s advert).

If you have old equipment lying in a cupboard somewhere, it should, thankfully, work just fine with Rock Band 4. Mad Catz have put together a chart of equipment that they think works here.

In terms of content, a few things from the old games have been stripped away. Gone are instrument specific challenges, Road Challenges, and Battle of the Bands. Don’t even think about those keyboard tracks, because, you guessed it, gone. What you’re left with is “Play a Show”, “Go On Tour”, and “Quickplay.” It’s pretty stripped back. “Go On Tour” mode is by far the most fun, bringing an RPG element to the game wherein you and your band start on the road towards fame and fortune, choosing between cash, fans, and creative control along the way. The little stories that come up in loading screens and between tours are a nice touch to make you feel like your band actually has a story and a relationship.

The only really notable new feature is freestyle guitar, which is definitely a highlight of the game. Freestyle mode is essentially the guitar player’s chance to step up to the front of the stage and play a face-melting solo. At first this mode seems slightly all over the place; just a series of colours, curves, and lines, not like the solid notes you’re used to playing. If you just hit buttons randomly it creates an incoherent noise that will almost certainly ruin the song. So we advise you take a look at the tutorial, because it’s really quite good. Being able to read these strange patterns means that you can take their queues, add something of your own to it and create a solo that actually…sounds pretty cool. You can get really quite into it as well, it’s good enough to make you forget that, no, you’re not on stage in Berlin, you’re actually just standing in the living room wearing your dressing gown.

There’s room for creativity on drums and singing, too. Singers aren’t limited to a specific key; moving into hard and expert mode means that you don’t have to sound exactly like the game wants you to, as long as you’re tuneful you’ll get the points. Drummers also have fill options to choose from for their solos: Static Fills, which mirror the fill in the actual song; Classic Fills, which let you unleash your demons on the drum kit; and Dynamic Fills, which are pre-made fills that don’t exactly match the song, providing a middle ground between Static and Classic.

Where there isn’t much room for creativity is in the band itself. Character customisation isn’t especially deep; you can’t adjust your character’s body type, leaving you no choice but to put yourself on stage with a kind of human hot dog figure. There aren’t a whole lot of outfit options either, and the vast majority of them have to be unlocked. In addition to this, the game forces you to use stand-ins that have been pre-created any time your real-life band mates aren’t there to take up position as their custom character. This means your band never really has a consistent lineup of members, and all of these limitations together leave you feeling a bit like it’s not really your band.

When it comes to the track list, it’s not all that long but it’s not necessarily bad. There aren’t a whole lot of songs included on the disc, but it’s long and varied enough to keep things from feeling repetitive too quickly, ranging from Elvis to Paramore, but it’ll wear over time. Thankfully, if you’ve bought songs in past games, you are able to transfer them to your new library; when the system recognises that you already own a song you can simply download it for free. These classic songs have also been reworked to include the new freestyle guitar feature. If there’s one thing Rock Band 4 could definitely benefit from it’s a larger track list.

If you don’t own any more songs, you can still download them, with prices ranging from £0.69 up to £1.79 for a single track. When you’ve not built up your song collection up over previous games, which takes some of the sting out of purchasing new songs, you can’t help but feel this is slightly excessive, especially if you’ve already dropped £47 on the game itself, or worse, £220 on the Band in a Box package which includes all of the equipment. When you’re paying that much, you’d just expect a larger and better song selection than you’re getting.

If you’ve been on board with Rock Band series before now, loved every moment, and want to move things over to your current generation console for free, this game is probably worth looking into. Not just for the transferring of tracks, but also for creative new features like freestyle solo. But, to be honest, if you’re not already a fan of the series, considering the cost of the equipment and the amount of songs available on the Rock Band 4 disc, it might not be worth your time, because as enjoyable an experience as Rock Band is, it’s just not as vital a purchase as it once was.

Rock Band 4 is available to buy now on XBox One and Playstation 4.

Main Image: Screenshot via Game UK