Review: ‘Rock Band 4’ is an imperfect return to form

Fender Rock Band guitar. (Creative Commons)

It’s something of a miracle that Rock Band 4 exists.

After the music-game crash of the mid-2000s, it looked like we’d never see another game like this. A saturated market and a global recession killed games such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and their ilk back in 2010.

But seven years later, series developers Harmonix are bringing the band back together for Rock Band 4. They’ve cut ties with previous publisher EA and no longer have a partnership with MTV. This once-sellout act is now an indie affair, and that’s greatly shifted the scale of this latest entry.

RB4 doesn’t stray far from its origins. You’re still using a plastic instrument to hit on-screen note cues, aiming for a 5-star high score and bringing people together for drunken midnight jam sessions. Rock Band is just as much about what happens off-screen as on, and RB4 brings that experience to a new generation of hardware.

But Harmonix isn’t resting on past accomplishments for the latest release. New features offer subtle adjustments, to varying degrees of success. Freestyle guitar solos are the most radical, replacing every solo with an open-ended music tool that encourages improvisational shredding. Thin guidelines assist you in creating something that fits the original song, but it’ll never be as good as the real thing. It’s easy enough to turn off.

Singers also get a “Freestyle” of their own, permitting them to play around with pitch at higher difficulty levels. Drummers can now play authored drum fills (rather than the free-form sections of past games). These additions are small, but they enhance their respective instruments.

Finally, the game’s “Shows” mode changes the process of song selection. Between sets, a list of four tracks appears on screen, and band members vote on the next song. It’s a welcome addition that encourages exploration of the game’s included soundtrack instead of just sticking to familiar favorites.

RB4 includes 65 songs, showcasing a diverse range of genres and eras. There’s a little bit of country (“Little White Church,” by The Reason Why; “Start A Band” by Brad Paisley ft. Keith Urban), some funk (“Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson), and a whole lotta rock ‘n roll (“The Seeker” by The Who; “Hail To The King” by Avenged Sevenfold). It feels like a tasting platter, reminding you of the 1,200+ musical possibilities in the game’s downloadable content.

If you’re a Rock Band veteran, RB4 comes with good and bad news. Most previously-bought content and instruments are compatible with the new game, and the release of a new game means more songs to master.

Unfortunately, the overall experience is a step down. Keyboards and Pro Guitars are no longer supported, character creation is extremely limited and even “Practice” mode is gone. Harmonix has promised post-release updates to address some of these issues, but hardcore fans shouldn’t “upgrade” to an inferior game solely on promises.

Despite its faults, Rock Band 4 is still solid. This is a reunion tour wherein the act shows off all its old tricks but can’t quite recapture the magic with the new material. Yet in the heat of the moment, you’ll have just as much fun as when you saw it all for the very first time.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter, @Mushroomer25

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