Rock Band 4 – Preview

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It wasn’t actually that long ago that I put down Rock Band 3. It was probably about six months ago after I had an aching need to complete The Beatles Rock Band (something I’d forgotten I’d already done). I then went in to the old habit of looking through songs and making a playlist of mostly Pearl Jam songs and rocking out a bit, whilst getting frustrated that my well worn guitar was betraying me.

Where as many games press have stories of Rock Band and the preview party we’ve all attended over the past week, mine is slightly different. I was a musician for many years. Now I’m a non-practicing musician, but at the time I was (trying to remain as humble as possible) a damn good bassist who’d gone from fronting a cover band to being a bassist in a rather fast and riff frenetic punk-grunge band.

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This movement to our awesome power trio removed a lot of the covers we had previously played. This led to Rock Band, and others, being my escape to just having a bit of fun with songs I loved. Thankfully, I was joined in this by my drummer and some other friends that has led to many drunk nights, parties and a mysteriously broken drum kit foot pedal (we all know who broke it really).

So why did we fall out of love with the game? Well, we didn’t really fall out of it, did we? We just moved on. The market got so saturated with spin offs to other music types that it became a bit of a joke. When everyone started doing the karaoke games we kind of moved away because it was no longer just “our” thing.

Our guitars and controllers through years of aggressive use were beginning to fail and we just didn’t want to spend a load of money to upgrade them. The DLC flooded our Xbox Live and PSN screens making it frustrating to find anything else released on the same day. We all moved to smaller places… Put simply, life happened and we had said goodbye to the rhythm game genre without even an epitaph.

Which is quite convenient as both Activision and Harmonix are sure that it isn’t dead. So sure in fact that both companies are releasing new games: Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4. The former has taken quite a dramatic turn from its previous incarnations but Rock Band is sticking with exactly what it knows. So on Monday, me and our friends from Xtreme Gaming and Xtreme Academy took to the stage and rocked out… Here I am, right there, strumming and drumming.

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Like an old friend we had met in the pub for a nostalgic beverage, we instantly found where we were and got right back to embarrassing Dad-level party rocking in front of our peers. That is because Rock Band 4 is sticking very rigidly with what it knows, almost to a point where it looks that very little has changed whatsoever. The next generation graphics help to better animate the backgrounds going on, but the basic design is the same – square notes to hit, overdrive accumulation and deployment, vocals on top with guitar, drums and bass on the screen on scrolling towards you.

The obvious thing to say is “why change anything if it works,” which it does. The team behind Rock Band 4 are the same team that it’s always been with years of experience from Guitar Hero to the many Rock Band releases and making little tinkering adjustments each time to perfect the formula. The main thing for Harmonix’s perspective is to make sure that the gaming experience is as fun as it’s always been.

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So we have a new next generation engine, which is in alpha build, a load of new and more refined peripherals coming along with support for all of the previous ones released on the last generation with some, and I quote, “gnarly engineering” to make the Xbox 360 stuff work with the Xbox One.

The game will have a voting system so that playlists can be dynamic and you aren’t just lumped with someone like me putting on every Pearl Jam song. The dynamic system for drum fills and the like is more refined and the vocals now become freestyle, so that even if it isn’t your strong point you won’t be punished like you would have before.

There is a lot of focus on backward compatibility with the song library from Rock Band 1, 2, 3, etc, and DLC being mostly available (thanks to a few licensing issues, it isn’t everything). If you had them all on the previous console then you can get them again for free. Xbox 360 to Xbox One and PS3 to PS4, but not across the platforms it seems. That’s 2000 odd songs, TWO THOUSAND… Better make some hard drive space available for that one.

Rock Band and Harmonix are looking to make the transition to next generation as painless as possible and because of this, Rock Band 4 we’ve been told will be the only release for this generation. The improvements and digital ability to patch the games whenever the team want means that they will be adding new content and constantly evolving the game via this method. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s stuck to, given the theories on the projected lifespan of this generation of consoles.

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This is all happening thanks to the further development between Harmonix and Mad Catz. For Rock Band 3, Mad Catz actually made the official controllers and this time they’re also acting as publisher for the game, making a long partnership a lot more solid. We need to see more, as the game is scheduled for a 2015 release, from the engine, the new controllers and the soundtrack. We would like to see the new consoles actually hitting a higher frame rate and really tackle any latency.

What we want to see and what we have seen is fun. The same fun as we had before, the same well-tried and enjoyable formula that kept us all occupied with our impressive fourth button skills in the late 00s until YouTube showed us how much we truly sucked at the game. Music has changed though and the younger people (which normally translates to the best sales) of today probably won’t feel like the frustrated musicians we all did at the time.

Our decision on if we buy this game will be a mixture of the desire to experience nostalgia and if we can justify buying the equipment again if we sold it. It’s probably not a great time to release a game that can require spending £120 on equipment alone (although eBay, Amazon’s marketplace and Gumtree/Craigslist will become hunting grounds for good deals on old controllers).

Right now, the frustrated musician in me is going to put on Green Grass and High Tides and see if I can fix my broken bass-drum pedal. Then we can talk business on Xbox One and PS4 later this year.

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