It's been five years since the last Rock Band game, but it doesn't feel that long to me. That's because I continued to download songs for it for a good few years after its release, and broke the game out regularly when I felt inspired to play along to some of my favorite tunes in the unique way that music rhythm games let you. Indeed, it's probably only been a year or so since I last played it.
So jumping into Rock Band 4 with 3 still fresh in my mind has been an interesting experience. The two are so similar, that I loaded up the last version just so I could see how alike they are. Upon closer inspection, Rock Band 4 fundamentally looks the same in terms of layout and format: it's just more refined visually – to a degree.
Band members follow the same spindly body style that they did before (only there's less choice in terms of visual customization), the note highways have been moved over pretty much lock, stock and barrel, clothing and other purchasable accoutrements are still in the game, and, ultimately, Rock Band 4 plays the same way the series has always done.
So what is new?
Not a lot, to be blunt. What Harmonix and Mad Catz have done is essentially turn Rock Band into a platform that will be continually supported over time by updates and DLC. This first iteration is quite simple, with just three basic gameplay formats. There's the self-explanatory Quick Play, Shows, which is essentially a party mode where you play sets of songs that you can vote on to keep the action moving along without having to drop out to the selection menu, and Tour, which is the new career mode.
The latter is where the real meat of the game lies, and it plays out in the same way that career modes have done in the past – only it doesn't quite have the cool cutscenes and backstory that you had in prior versions of the game. As you play sets in different locations, you get to choose things like whether to take on a new manager or buy a big, shiny new tour bus. The former might net you more money, while the latter will enable you to travel further and gain more fans in new territories. Which do you go with? That's totally up to you. There are plenty of different choices to be made, and they all have different impacts on your band. For example, if you sign up with a fashion expert, you might get a bunch of fancy new clothes for free. But if sartorial rewards don't necessarily turn you on, you might instead be more interested in a promoter who can set up special gigs for you that'll significantly increase your fan base.
A nice feature of gigging is the way that you can choose songs. Some gigs have preset setlists, while others offer you a choice of songs based on a variety of criteria, including things like playing a tune from a certain year, or from a particular genre or band. These help you quickly assemble setlists for an upcoming gig, but with a random enough element that keeps you on your toes.
There's but one truly new thing in this latest version of the game, and that's freestyle solos. You can play these on certain songs by strumming along in time to the music while pressing any frets that take your fancy. Assuming your timing is on the money, you can't really go wrong here: combos of frets and strums play different notes, and enable you to pull off some pretty cool-sounding solos. It's a nice idea, and one that adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. If you don't like it, you can always turn it off – but I thought it was a pretty neat addition that lets you show off a bit, even if I almost always messed them up and trashed my multiplier bonus.
And that's pretty much the game in a nutshell. So review over? Nope. As you can probably tell, there's still plenty more I need to talk about.
First of all, there's the Rock Band 4 setlist. While it does include a few good songs, I did find it a little disappointing, especially compared to earlier releases, which have plenty of truly classic tunes on them. And speaking of which, I was really hoping to be able to import songs from prior Rock Band games – but that's not possible yet. Apparently it will be at some point, but there's no firm date as to when that'll happen. Maybe I'm being greedy here, but considering this has been a feature of prior Rock Band games, I was really hoping song importing from old discs was going to be available at launch. Still, it's something to look forward to I guess.
I've also had problems downloading some of my previously-bought songs. Most of them have been easy enough to install: I just went to the PSN store, viewed all the downloadable content for Rock Band 4 and sorted it by price – and that brought up all the "free" content that I've previously paid for. While the process of downloading was tedious – I've bought about 70 songs over the years, and each one had to be downloaded manually – after about an hour or so, I was done. However, not all the songs I've bought are downloadable. Some are still "unavailable." What that means, I have no clue – but songs from Depeche Mode, Police, Queen, Rush, and Foo Fighters are included in that "unavailable" list. If I try to download them in-game, I just get a basic error prompt telling me that something has gone wrong with my content, and I can't download them through the PSN Store.
What would be nice is some kind of more meaningful message that tells me what the issue is. If these songs are not available because they are no longer licensed, then tell me, and I won't worry about them again. But perhaps they're not available because they're just not ready for PS4 yet. Whatever the reason, I'd like to know why – it's frustrating not to be able to access all the content that I've paid for.
None of these issues are major deal-breakers, and I'm sure that they'll eventually be resolved, but they are inconveniences that are irritating to have to deal with. Still, it's reassuring to know that now that Rock Band has essentially become a platform, fixes will be made over time, and new features added that will improve the overall experience.
While some might be disappointed that Rock Band 4 doesn't offer much in the way of new ideas and features, I'm a fan of what Harmonix and Mad Catz have done. By sticking to what is a winning formula, they've spanned the generation gap nicely with a product that's pretty much compatible with legacy DLC and instruments (apart from keyboards, which are unfortunately no longer supported). And who knows what the future might bring in terms of new gameplay modes and ideas – and perhaps we'll see a return of online modes, something that's missing from Rock Band 4.
But whatever the future might hold, it's clear that Rock Band is here for the long-term, and that we'll be getting years of play out of this classic formula. I'm glad to have this back on rotation again - even if it's still rather basic at this point.
The classic Rock Band interface returns - the same as it ever was.
The game has become a platform that will be supported over the long term, so there's potentially years of play here.
Almost 1700 downloadable tracks means there's plenty of music for even the most discerning of consumers, whether they like punk or prog.
Nothing particularly outstanding - the game looks like a refined version of older Rock Band releases.
While it lacks some of the features of prior versions - most notably online mode - Rock Band 4 is a solid release that establishes the franchise as a platform that will be continually supported and updated in the future. It's a great model that brings the classic Rock Band gameplay to current-generation consoles, while being compatible with legacy instruments and songs.