As I started contemplating my Rock Band 4 review, I began pondering metaphors that encompass the game’s feel. What I came up with was this: Rock Band 4 is like the girl of your dreams, who was abducted by aliens a few years ago. The last time you were with her, it was nothing short of magical. And now she’s just been returned! But now that she’s back… she isn’t quite all there.
That’s not to say that Rock Band 4 isn’t a great game at its core, because it is. But that’s all it is at this point: a core. Developed by Harmonix, Rock Band 4 is the studio’s big leap into the current generation of consoles. But the developer’s focus is changing this time around. On the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 we had Rock Band, Rock Band 2 and Rock Band 3. But on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it’s just Rock Band 4. No sequels. No spin-offs. Harmonix is dedicated to making this one game your sole rock platform for the generation. And that’s awesome.
Harmonix has promised “major feature updates” to keep Rock Band 4 continually evolving over the next several years. And those updates will be completely free, the first of which is planned for early December. It’s mostly unclear what will be added to the game at that point, but Harmonix did just announce one thing…
Harmonix just revealed this week that Rock Band 3’s catalogue of 80+ tracks will be making the jump over to Rock Band 4. This was previously up-in-the-air, and a big concern for those invested in those songs. The process at this point remains unclear, but for $14.99 (a pretty hefty price, yes) you’ll be able to purchase a key that allows you to carry your song rights over.
What isn’t news, but is still incredible, is that players dedicated to the Rock Band franchise last generation are able to bring almost all of the tracks they’ve purchased over with them to the newer consoles. You can’t change brand loyalty though – PlayStation 3 only transfers to PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360 only transfers over to Xbox One. Still, in a day in age when publishers seem to be nickel and diming players everywhere they can, this is damn near unprecedented.
Nearly all the DLC you’ve purchased for Rock Band 1, 2, or 3 is available for download right now in Rock Band 4. There are a few exemptions though. Tracks from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Journey are a couple I noticed were nowhere to be found in the Rock Band Music Store. Licensing issues I suppose. But in addition to your past DLC catalogue, if you’ve previously bought the keys required to export your Rock Band and Rock Band 2 tracklists, those too will be available for download within Rock Band 4 at some point at no additional cost – we just don’t know exactly when yet. Again, damn near unprecedented, and hopefully a feature that is making its way sooner rather than later. Because honestly, the tracks on the Rock Band 4 disc are bit lacking.
When I first played through Rock Band and Rock Band 2, I found bands and songs I was unfamiliar with, then became a life-long fan after a couple of plays. It happened to a lesser extent with Rock Band 3, but in Rock Band 4, it was essentially nonexistent. The overall track list isn’t bad, it’s just underwhelming. I had never heard The Protomen’s “Light Up The Night”, so that was a hell of a treat to play. Then there’s classics such as R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and .38 Special’s “Caught Up In You” – great songs to play too. You, of course, have your current radio-friendly hits in Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” and Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life”. And there’s the tracks that everyone has had some interaction with like Van Halen’s “Panama” or Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”. All good and fun songs, just nothing to write home about.
I guess the best way to put it is that Rock Band 4‘s tracklist feels like DLC. There isn’t really much in the list that makes you say, “damn, I have to play that track!” They’re mostly more in the wheelhouse of having extra money in your PlayStation/Xbox account and buying tracks on a whim.
That gameplay though… It’s there, and in spades (not literally this time). Rock Band 4 is the most visually impressive entry in the series and it really has nothing to do with the new console capabilities. Yes, your characters and environments look better, but really only marginally. It’s just the overall aesthetics of the game I’m really falling in love with. When staring down that note highway, everything just pops. The screen has so much going on, yet at the same time doesn’t feel cluttered. It’s subdued in certain areas yet beautifully vibrant in others. Rock Band 4’s note highway hits the pinnacle of design for series’ most crucial aspect.
Adding to the series’ classic note highway is Rock Band 4‘s implementation of guitar “Freestyle Solos”. The new feature incorporates itself into nearly every song in the old and new library. It boils down to now having the ability to freestyle certain segments of songs. All you’re required to do is strum at the mandated speed. From there, you wing it – and wing it wonderfully.
Using combinations of different frets, you can put together a string of notes that can rival even the most epic guitarists. It’s easy to learn and crazy fun to throw down in a song. You’re given a well designed tutorial when you first start out, but if you want to hone your freestyle skills there’s an endless Freestyle Solo mode for you to dabble with whenever you’re so inclined. The feature is an exciting and welcome addition to Rock Band 4, and one I’m excited to see used in all the songs I already know and love from previous Rock Band iterations.
“Rock Band 4’s note highway hits the pinnacle of design for series’ most crucial aspect.”
Creating your personal rock star, however, is a pretty lacking – at least at first. When you first boot-up and create your character, your customization options are sparse to say the least. You can only choose between male and female body types, with no weight fluctuations available for either. On top of that, you’re limited to only 5 options for both hair and facial hair. Clothing options are few and far between as you’re starting out too, as anything you want is likely too expensive for your budding band member. New character options, clothing and accessories do become available as you play out your career. It’s just discouraging to start the game off with a created character you likely aren’t incredibly happy with.
Once you’re on the road with your band in the “Go On Tour” mode, everything gels. Like previous Rock Band games, you have the option to focus on the money or the fans throughout your stops. I, not being a sell-out, chose the fans the majority of the time. This further inhibited me from upgrading my character quicker, but I was over that eventually, especially knowing my virtual fans loved our band that much more.
As you play tracks, there’s the typical five- (and gold) star rating based upon your performance. Doing well here earns you cash on your tour. In addition to that, there is now Stage Presence (SP) that is rewarded after each song too. Earning SP is where you bring in new fans. By consistently rocking long note streaks and hitting your Overdrive in crucial spots, you’ll get the fans further engrossed in your show. It’s a special feeling (and one of my favorite Rock Band 4 moments) to be crushing a song and then hear hundreds (and eventually thousands) of fans begin singing the track back to you as you’re rocking out. Then, have that same group of fans beg you for an encore, because you’ve been killing it all night and they don’t want the set to stop.
“Go On Tour”, Rock Band 4‘s main mode, is solid overall. It’s reward system is giving enough to keep you coming back and it’s peppered with good humor throughout. For instance, during a loading screen I was informed that a band member ate a suspicious convenience store burrito. During the next show, after that band member then farted up the tour bus, the entire group was on stage in gas masks. It was good for quite the unexpected chuckle.
The Missing Features
And here-in lies Rock Band 4‘s biggest issue: the missing features. Harmonix said that they have rebuild the title from the bottom up based upon fan feedback. It’s a new rock platform, remember? Whatever isn’t included in the series’ latest entry yet is apparently due to the prioritization the Rock Band fans gave Harmonix in surveys. And what isn’t included is quite numerous to this point.
For one, there’s no online multiplayer yet (continually evolving, remember?). Hell, couch multiplayer is limited. While it’s as amazing as ever to form a band in your living room and party, it’s limited to just that – band form. No score attack. No tug-of-war. Your only option is just banding it up with buddies.
The ability to create your own setlist is no longer there either. You can pick an individual song from the tracklist, play it, then return right back to the tracklist. As of now, there’s no way to pick multiple songs at a time. And while speaking of songs, the ability to rate them is gone from Rock Band 4 too. One of Rock Band 3’s most useful features was the ability to rate all the songs you love and hate, and thus, prioritize or avoid them. Now they’re all the same in the game’s eyes again.
The Final Say
Again, Harmonix plans to supplement the Rock Band 4 experience continually from here on out. But for now, while good, Rock Band 4 just feels incomplete. The gameplay you know and love is there, and there are plenty of quality improvements sprinkled throughout the game, but the true promise of what Rock Band 4 can be won’t be evident for many months (or even years) to come.
If you’re an avid Rock Band fan with local friends or a passion for rocking out solo, it’s safe to jump in now. But if you and your fellow band mates are many miles apart, you may want to wait for a few updates before committing to Harmonix’s sole entry in the series this generation. Just remember, every band starts small somewhere before heading out and hitting it big. Unfortunately, this one has to be judged while it’s still rocking out in the garage.
+ Classic Rock Band gameplay and UI
+ Freestyle Solos are an awesome addition to the series.
+ Promise of free "major feature updates"
- No online modes of any kind at this point.
- Local multiplayer is limited to just the band experience.
- Many convenience features have yet to be implemented.
- Promise of "major feature updates" could annoy early adopters
A Xbox One copy of Rock Band 4 was provided by the developer. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.