Rock Band 4: Battle of the Bands - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rock Band 4: Battle of the Bands

If there’s one thing we love here on Play, it’s rhythm action games. Having grown up on a diet of PaRappa, Vib Ribbon and Dancing Stage, witnessing the rock takeover of the genre through Guitar Hero was a wonderful thing for us. But like many others, we enjoyed it too much. We enjoyed it irresponsibly and we paid the price. Rabid uptake on band-based music games quickly led us to the stage where we’d see a new one every few months, and that horrible beast called Apathy wasn’t far behind the hype train. Long story short, it caught up. With fans burned out on music games, two household names were effectively declared dead overnight and our all-too-brief rock-and-roll love affair was over. Harmonix at least had the decency to call every now and again, expressing its reciprocated love for us via DLC tunes we didn’t really want. But we bought them anyway, just in case. Just in case. And now, we couldn’t be happier that we did.

Yes, the two major players in music games are both coming back this year, and perhaps the best news (for both them and us) is that they won’t be going directly head-to-head like they did in the past. As we understand it, Rock Band 4 will pare things back a little to offer the full band experience without any of the fat (read: keyboards and Pro instruments, bar drums, are gone) whereas the new Guitar Hero team none other than Freestyle Games, the folks behind the wonderful DJ Hero has gone back to the drawing board to reinvent the series in the same vein in which it first began. But all of this exciting discussion of impending rock which we are about to experience begs one question: why now?
“When we were starting to think about why we wanted to bring Rock Band back, and why this right now might be the right time, we had to go back to it,” explains Harmonix producer, Daniel Sussman. “We went back and started playing it, and played through it all. Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Rock Band 3, The Beatles…as we were playing them, we realised there are quite a few things we had learned, in terms of our relationship to Rock Band and also our maturity as designers and developers. We could just see all this stuff that we could improve. Rock Band has a lot of elements that are pretty simple, and the core fantasy it’s about is pretty easy to explain that’s what I love about it the most. But that means that Rock Band is elevated to have this evergreen quality: if you like music, you will like Rock Band.”

Freestyle Games boss, Jamie Jackson, is similarly enthusiastic about the rebirth of Guitar Hero, offering his own reasoning as to why 2015 is the right time to get the band back together. “We always said that we’d come back when we had some great innovation,” he tells us. “Everyone loved Guitar Hero, but we want something new. I think that with the new gameplay, Live, first-person and GHTV, we’ve kinda done alright in terms of innovation and hopefully made something that people look at and say ‘I want to play that again’.” Okay, some of that might need a little explaining just as Rock Band 4 will focus on the band experience that has been at the heart of the series since Harmonix went chasing its dream of recreating band life, Freestyle is looking to recapture the magic of the early days of Guitar Hero, when all eyes were on the Axemaster. And so it shall be once again.

If you want to play drums, or sing, or even play bass, you’re a Rock Band kid now. As the name rightly suggests, Guitar Hero is back to being a single instrument game and the new peripheral reflects this. Rather than a line of five buttons, you’re now faced with two banks of three buttons on the fretboard, ‘low’ and ‘high’ if you’re thinking in terms of actual guitar strings. Veterans will be thrown for a loop by the lack of colours or traditional notation but it really doesn’t take long for it to click if anything, the new set-up allows for more interesting (and dare we say realistic) chord shapes while making logical sense.
Chugging bassy patterns will hog the black low notes while lead flourishes will generally work off the high white notes and once your hands adapt to a new format that spits on a decade of tradition, you’ll welcome the shift. Up the difficulty and you’ll find yourself forcing your hands into either very alien or very familiar shapes, depending on your string-strumming abilities the notation for chords, double stops and odd twin-string harmonies might be new, but it’s incredible just how quickly you’ll be able to pick it up if you’ve a proficiency for music, guitar, rhythm games or any combination of the above. Despite having to relearn everything, we were back on Veteran (the new Expert) within three songs, but that relearning process was one of the most satisfying we’ve had in the genre since we first embraced the idea that maybe the fifth button wasn’t evil after all.

It may seem at this point that we’re more invested in discussing Guitar Hero, but the reasons here are twofold for one, it’s the only game of the two that we’ve actually had the pleasure of playing, and second, it’s the one that seems to have most to prove at this point. Harmonix built this corner of the genre with the very franchise it now finds itself sort-of-competing with (history lesson: Harmonix made the original Guitar Hero and its sequel), but so well has it carved its niche that little has to change between one generation and the next. Rock Band 4 won’t be a radical diversion from what you know and love it’ll be three instrument staves and one vocal chart just as it has always been, but that lack of change means there’s a very real chance that most of your existing DLC will work with the new game. Specifics are still being locked down and it’s likely that this will only work on a per-platform basis (as in Xbox DLC won’t work on PlayStation platforms) but chances are if you’re bought a song for PS3 Rock Band, you’ll also get to enjoy it on PS4 when the new game arrives.

DLC and add-on content in general are arguably what killed music games last time around, so it’ll be interesting to see what both parties bring to the stage in this respect. If the recent DLC drop is anything to go by, Harmonix will likely carry on in much the same manner offer a catalogue of songs and charge for the ones fans will want to play over and over. Freestyle, though, is going for something different. “We wanted to come up with something that allowed players to have a ton of fun online together but that also allowed them to get content in a different way,” Jackson explains. “In 2010, we saw a lot less connected consoles. We ended up having to do discs for people, which got us to this place where we were trying to hit the demand but had discs getting in the way all the time. But with GHTV, we don’t have to do that anymore we’ve been able to come up with a new way of being able to give people content.”

GHTV is, as Jackson claims,a completely new way of enjoying music games. While the game will ship with its own full track list, this online mode offers a whole lot more. Tune in at the right time, see what’s happening and stake your claim. Live ‘shows’ will run to a schedule, meaning you might sign in to find a modern rock hour on one channel and pure classics on another there’s no need to download the DLC, so all you have to do is jump right in and rock all the way out. If Freestyle manages to find the time to chart and monitor enough songs, this could be rhythm action paradise, although spotting a ‘Premium’ option in the menus did make us think that this too-good-to-be-true deal may actually be a little more limited than it initially seems. Still, even if that is the case, you’re still looking at an ongoing DLC substitute of some description, which certainly can’t hurt.

Hold up what about those old instruments we referenced in the intro to this feature? For Guitar Hero, they’re out (barring some plastic-bending witchcraft), but how about Rock Band? Can the team get PS3 tech working on PS4? “ We’re consistently surprised by how many people tell us that they still have their hardware the old guitars and drums,” says Sussman. “As far as we’re concerned, that’s an investment they’ve made in the franchise, and we’re working as hard as we can to support that investment. It’s a very interesting bit of development work; we can do things to help out the compatibility on the software side, but there’s a lot of heavy lifting on the first-party side, too.” Fingers crossed they can make it all work a Pro drumkit is a hell of a piece of kit to have to throw away and between software solutions and USB devices such as Titan One and CronusMax, it seems like we should be able to make most of our old gear work on PS4. Score.

It appears, then, that the two games are chasing very different crowds Rock Band is looking to win back its old fan base with promises of functional DLC libraries and existing audiences while Guitar Hero is seemingly going back to its score-chasing formative years, only with a new instrument to learn. And that sounds perfect. Nothing could be worse for either franchise or fans than splitting allegiances at this early stage in the comeback and each offers something different now. Rock Band will be the tried and true simulated full band experience while Guitar Hero looks to wrap score-chasers up in the moment, be it playing along live with hordes or other wannabes or living the dream in the new live-action, first-person video that fits with each song and even adapts to how well you are performing there’s little better in the way of encouragement than approaching the runway for a huge solo only to learn that the hipsters entrenched below strongly believe that you can do better.

So, it’s looking like Rock Band for full-on multiplayer, or Guitar Hero for dream-living, leaderboard-chasing nu-fretboard action. Or, better yet, both as we say, each has managed to carve itself a niche for this comeback tour and we wish both the best of luck. May the best band win...

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