Rock Band 4 review — back to basics for the band

Nearly every Sunday since the original Rock Band came out, my family gets together for dinner, a movie, and some clicky-plastic-instrument fun. Hundreds of songs, and nearly seven years later, Harmonix has brought the series to a new generation of consoles in Rock Band 4. Having spent hundreds of hours, more than a few battery recharges, a number of dollars I’d rather not think about, and even a few sticks on this series, I was eager to see what Harmonix had in store.

“On Sundays I elude the eyes and hop the Turbine Freight” – Rush

Harmonix was teamed up with Electronic Arts and MTV for their previous efforts, but more recently they’ve decoupled those relationships. Back under the power of their own sails and operating as an independent studio, Harmonix has once again partnered with hardware manufacturer Mad Catz to provide for their hardware manufacturing and distribution skills. A tip of the hat to the power of the franchise, the game is effectively sold out at all retails chains for launch, but there are some wrinkles in that equation.

Hail to the King is one of the better tracks in the game.

Hail to the King is one of the better tracks in the game.

Due to the way Microsoft has chosen to “protect” the Xbox One against allowing users to use previous-generation controllers and wired devices, a special adapter must be purchased to use the gear you might have laying around from Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Even if you have said adapter, there is no guarantee that the game will be supporting the equipment you already own. For instance if you are an ION kit, e-Kit owner, or you happen to still have a wired RB1 drum kit you won’t be playing them — at least at launch, anyway. Harmonix was clear that this would be the case at launch, but it stings just the same. Alternatively, you can re-purchase the “Band in a box”, which contains the game, a new wireless drum and guitar, and a thankfully-longer-corded microphone.

If you are a rocker like me, drums are your thing. Banging away at the Pro Drums is how I unwind from a rough day at work. Since my ION kit doesn’t work, and adapters are sold out everywhere (and have been for weeks – not that they’d help with the ION), I picked up the Band in a Box SKU. Unfortunately, the drums included have no cymbals, though they do support existing Rock Band cymbals including both two-and-three pad varieties. Without the cymbals it neuters the drum family entirely, as the Pro setting relies on having that distinction. Worst of all, that cymbal kit is not available at launch, and no release date has been confirmed at the time of writing beyond “Christmas to Q1 2016”. I guess I can’t be in too much of a hurry to get to Pro settings, though — double bass pedals aren’t currently supported either.

Speaking of pedals, I’m fairly certain there are some issues with the pedal registering every hit. Unlike previous drum sets, the newest kit and guitar can have their firmware updated when connected to a Windows 7/8x/10 PC via a microUSB cable. There is already one update in the wild, and another coming soon at launch time. The ability to update and upgrade should keep our stock drums up to date — a nice improvement over the originals.

For my whole family to play, as we have for nearing a decade, I knew I’d need a second guitar once I’d made my decision to buy the Band in a Box. Unfortunately, Harmonix and Mad Catz have not released a standalone guitar. To get a second axe, I’d have to purchase the guitar/game bundle. It too is not available at launch, with no confirmed release date other than “early 2016” — a very long wait for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Furthermore, the adapter isn’t included in the Band in a Box bundle – both issues are glaring oversights when clearly the game is intended to have both guitar and bass.

A small subset of rockers purchased and used the Pro Keys accessory, or the Midi Adapter to use their own keyboard or guitar in their associated Pro modes. Support for the keys, pro or otherwise, has been removed entirely. Pro Guitar mode has also been removed. Obviously there are tracks that were keys-centric that are somewhat diminished by this, and the loss of Pro Guitar may be a deeper cut for some than others.

The audio mix in Rock Band 4 is much improved over its predecessors. The instruments stand out more, and do so without drowning everything else out. The audience cheers and sings along with your songs. I’m not 100% certain it’s running in 5.1 (and probably not, due to latency issues encountered throughout this series) but it sounds pretty fantastic just the same.

In a moment I’d like to talk about the new and exciting features added to Rock Band 4, but I do want to point out that all of the supply-side issues, missing SKUs, downgraded features, and removed hardware support, the game does feel a bit like it wasn’t ready for launch. On the other hand, it was also billed as a platform, not an annualized product. We should see improvements and new features patched in over time.

“Pull me under, I’m not afraid” – Dream Theater

It isn’t all bad news — far from it in fact. Before we get to that good news, however, we need to look at some of the software-side issues with the current release. The Rock Band you’ve known and loved for years has returned, with (nearly) full access to the entire library of songs…or it will eventually. Right now, out of the roughly 1700 tracks, only a very small handful of songs didn’t make the journey. Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to the Rock Band Network. While Harmonix continues to work on this issue as well, tracks from the RBN are currently inaccessible. Currently there are roughly 900 tracks that you can port over from the catalog of over 1700, all with upgraded feature parity with their Rock Band 4 counterparts. You’ll want to consult a chart to see what songs didn’t make the cut. There were promises made about porting those previous songs over for free (and they are indeed free if you purchased them in the past), but as a long-time player of the Rocksmith series, I knew what was coming next.

When you purchase a song pack, each song is individually licensed to your account. If you are a voracious consumer of songs, like my friend Bradford who has over 1000 of them, you’ll be selecting each song individually and re-authorizing them to your new platform of choice. Given how much of a blazing dumpster fire the launch interface on the Xbox One is (improvements are coming), this process is extra painful — and that’s only if it works. Some of my tracks are showing up for me to install, and others have a price tag on them to re-purchase. Harmonix was clear that all of the disc-based content from Rock Band 1, 2, 3, LEGO Rock Band, and Greenday aren’t going to be available at launch — something that many of us (including myself) didn’t know until now. This could have an impact on your purchase if your favorites were on the disc instead of in the store.

Retains that "Rock Band" look, with a new coat of polish.

Retains that “Rock Band” look, with a new coat of polish.

The biggest challenge in getting your old tracks onto Rock Band 4, sadly, isn’t that they aren’t available but instead that you can’t actually find them. On the PS4 version you can sort by price, therefore all the previously purchased content (that lists as such) can be filtered. Manually going through 1700 songs, 50 per screen with hiccup delays as preview music queues up, then manually selecting each track only to wait for the XB1 purchase overlay to recognize you own it is something you’ll need to set aside HOURS to complete. Furthermore not all tracks you own are flagged as “Purchased” so you can’t simply skim each list and grab everything.

Neither Sony or Microsoft marketplaces allow batch purchasing — we get that, but Harmonix could have put a “here’s your licensed software” section in-game without track previews to allow gamers to rapidly recover lost tracks. Working with Microsoft and Sony to create a method to show what licenses we hold, and what games are compatible with those licenses would have gone a long way.

I will say, however, that I enjoy the wishlist flag. By holding X with a track selected anywhere in the store it will mark it with a blue tag. There is a wishlist section that aggregates selected tracks and displays them (50 at a time). I currently have 103 tracks selected, and my only gripe is more related to the sluggish nature of the store and the need to hold down the X button for a while for it to register — a simple button press would do.

Early on, Harmonix announced that this iteration of Rock Band would be “returning to its roots”, discarding the periphery elements that people simply didn’t use in the previous games. Regardless of whether this was due to refocusing, changing publisher structure, or simply not having the time to get to launch it seems that they went a bit too far with some areas. The character creation is a shell of what it used to be, offering far less hair, head types, face, and clothing styles, and only providing one body type — ultra-skinny. There are still archetypes you can select as pre-builts, but for some reason characters you create won’t act as stand-ins when you are playing with less than a full band of active players. If you liked to create a specific look for your character in the past, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to replicate it here.

One feature that did make a return is the Tour Mode. Like before, you’ll start out as a garage band, playing local gigs. What’s new here is that there is now a RPG-lite decision system that gives band members the opportunity to switch things up. I don’t want to spoil these, but the first decision, as an example, gives players the chance to buy a ratty van or hire a manager. The van will give you more freedom over your song picks, but the manager will pull in more cash. While some choices are simply one of preference, some of them can impact your playlists – a very compelling change indeed. As the tour progresses, hilarity ensues as you might expect. It’s a fun time, and it does open up quite a bit of variety in clothing options — now you have a place to spend all that hard-earned cash.

For some reason, there isn’t an inability to restart a set of songs – the show must go on after all. You can always go through a tour again, but if you stunk up one song in a performance, there is no single track re-do. As always, Rock Band 4 includes changing difficulty levels, and drop-in / drop-out. Interestingly, there is no full game pause that I noticed – when I hit menu my vocals stopped but my bandmates played on.

Once people had beaten the tour mode in Rock Band 3, they typically lived in Quickplay for their parties, scrolling through tracks at will. While you can still do that, there are a few elements that are missing that would make it more useful. For unknown reasons, genre and decade were both removed as sorting options. Also, scores have been sanded down to the barest of metal, showing only an accuracy percentage — hardcore players be damned.

Play the encore, or tell your fans to stuff it. Your choice!

Play the encore, or tell your fans to stuff it. Your choice!

The third mode, entitled Play a Show, injects a voting system that allows players to pick from a list of four tracks, or less specific ones like “A long song” or “90s metal” and the like. The voting system is great, speeding up the song selection process – and if the four options don’t suit the band, you can vote to have a new set of four options presented. As with the other modes, I can’t help but feel like some Smartglass support would go a very, very long way towards making the party game more party friendly, giving your audience a way to “shout out” your next track.

Of the three game modes, only Quickplay registers your score on the leaderboards. This might confuse or aggravate some of you who want to keep track of how well you’ve done in songs, but there is a good reason for this. In both Career and Play a Show modes, your audience enthusiasm, performance level as well as power meter carry over from song to song – giving performances in these modes potentially unfair advantages in comparison.

There are a few elements that have also fallen under the axe, but I can’t say I miss them particularly. Specifically, online multiplayer and practice mode. I can’t say either were very useful to me, personally, but I know Justin needs all the practice he can get (too true!) and was very upset to lose them. There are still some song shenanigans going on as tracks like Hail to the King (great track, by the way) has the guitarist playing rhythm instead of lead. Instrument-specific challenges have been removed, as have road challenges and Battle of the Bands, but a quick informal poll with my friends revealed that most of those had forgotten they existed, so it’s hard to miss them.


“All this machinery, making modern music…” – Rush

Thus far I’ve been pretty hard on Rock Band 4, and I believe rightfully so, but there are some great additions that should have fans pretty excited. In every iteration of Rock Band prior, the drum fills feel pretty out of place, so most folks like myself simply turned them off after a while. Rock Band 4 instead gives us a dynamic drum fill system that seems to randomize against the general rhythm of the track. In practice, they do fit better than the previous attempts, but you can go back to the old method or turn them off again if that suits you.

Speaking of freestyle, the largest innovation and upgrade to Rock Band 4 comes courtesy of the free-form solo system for both guitar and vocals. During the solo sections of a track (or somewhat shoehorned in on tracks that don’t necessarily have a solo), the note chart transforms into a technicolor wavy playground for the guitar virtuoso. With only a few guidelines, you can fulfill that rock and roll fantasy in any way you wish. Not unlike the gem system in Disney’s Fantasia (also from Harmonix), the addition feels out of place, satisfying, and right at home all at the same time. Not unlike Fantasia they are only additive, never breaking your streaks or detracting from your score or experience.

The guitar solo sections essentially work like this — you’ll get an orange or blue colored strip on the note highway. Blue suggests you stick near the upper portion of the guitar neck, and orange suggests the lower – if both are present you can use either. Hitting a note and strumming does what Harmonix has been trying to do for years — makes the player sound cool. Note that I said the word suggests. This is because the game lets you color as far outside the lines as you want, granting freedom to make the song your own. As we played more, these sections became more familiar and fun, though if that sort of free-form frivolity is not your thing, you can turn these off as well.

Solos are a big highlight of Rock Band 4

Solos are a big highlight of Rock Band 4

Back in the Rock Band 3 days, Harmonix upgraded their vocal technologies, and we see the benefits of that upgrade here in a big way. Sure, there is a free-form solo system on higher difficulty levels here but it’s the accuracies in harmonies and voice tracking that shines here. DLC tracks that have been updated and brought forward have better harmonization and generally have a better mix to them.

“We’re gonna rock this town, rock it inside out” – Stray Cats

I’ve had a few negative things to say about Rock Band 4, but here’s the deal…it’s just as fun as it has ever been. Sure, it’s not going to blow your socks off graphically, and there are more than a few features that either came out half-baked or are still being worked on post-launch, but the part that matters most — the ability to rock out with your friends — is greatly improved over its predecessors. The question at this point comes down to one of device availability and compatibility. That question results in a fairly complex answer.

Harmonix has a chart that should answer whether your older instruments are compatible. This varies by platform, but if you purchased DLC in the last generation, you are locked to that platform family for this one, which may limit your options. If you are a newcomer to the series, your choices are certainly simpler. Whether Pro Drums with Cymbals matters to you, or having a guitar and bass is required for your family is also a factor.

There is one final thing that I can’t count as either negative or positive — the soundtrack. I say this as musical preference is a very subjective and personal experience. For me, it’s fantastic to see Rush, but Passage to Bangkok isn’t exactly burning up anyone’s playlist. I’d suggest tracks from Power Windows, but the keyboards were killed off. Maybe a little Force Ten? I do have to tip my hat to the inclusion of Dream Theater’s Metropolis, Pt. 1: The Miracle and The Sleeper, but the lack of double-pedal even on the stock kit makes that a little harder than it needs to be. Paramore’s Still Into You somehow gets the greenlight, but Decode is still unaccounted for in any music game. The whole thing is light on Prog, heavy on current, with Punk and Metal conspicuously absent. Guess we’ll jump on the DLC crack pipe once more and hope for the best.

– Co-authored by Ron Burke and Justin Pauls



Rock Band 4

Review Guidelines

The parts of the game we fell in love with feel like they’ve gotten a fresh coat of paint, but the feature set, and currently incomplete pieces, feels like a Kickstarter title that didn’t quite hit all of its funding goals. The parts that matter, however, are rock solid, and the new solo improvements are a hit. Harmonix has pulled off some amazing games. While this launch is a rough opening act, the platform is good, the game works well enough, and as soon as my library is back in order I'll be getting the band back together.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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