The day of the big-box, plastic-instrument-using rhythm games is over. Some of us still enjoy pounding those drums, strumming that guitar, and belting out some wailing vocals, but for many, the fad has seen its day. Colorful peripherals that once formed mountains of boxes in department stores now sit in basements and attics, gathering dust. However, Harmonix haven’t given up on the genre – they may have shed the oversized controllers for their latest offering in the Rock Band franchise, but they’re hoping to keep you rocking for a little longer.
Rock Band Blitz hits the Xbox Live Arcade this week, and it brings some familiar features, along with some unique elements. At a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was another Frequency or Amplitude-style game, much like the PSP’s Rock Band Unplugged, but the way the score and power-up system works brings a very different feel to this chapter in the franchise. Some of it’s good, but it may leave many longing for the pure musical simplicity found in previous titles in the series.
Okay, so let me break down the basics – rather than choose your instrument and stick with it throughout the entire song, you’ll have all the instrument tracks laid side by side, and you can switch between them at will. Instead of the usual number of ‘lanes’ (which used to correspond to the buttons on the instrument), each track has only two of them – trigger one with the D-Pad (or left analog stick) and one with the A-button (or right analog stick). If this sounds much simpler than the multi-laned games of old, well, it is. However, you have more to consider than just hitting every note….
Since you have multiple instruments to attend to, you can switch between tracks any time you like; there’s no way to play everything at once so you must carefully consider which track will get you the most scoring opportunities at any one time. And what happens to the tracks you’re not currently playing? Nothing – you don’t incur any penalty for missing notes, you just don’t score anything for them. This also means that there’s no way to lose. Hardcore players may sigh at the idea of a Rock Band game without failure, but I don’t suppose there was any other way they could do it with this style of gameplay.
That’s not all there is to it, though. As you successfully clear sections of notes, the score multiplier rises for that instrument, at which point it’s advisable to switch to another and bring that one up. Throughout the song you’ll find checkpoints, and as long as you’ve raised the score multiplier on each instrument since the last checkpoint, the multiplier cap will go up. What this means is that if you have all the instruments at X4 when you hit a checkpoint, the multiplier cap will raise so you can now bring the instruments up to X7; bring them all up before the next checkpoint and it will now raise to X10, and so on. This is your incentive to switch back and forth between instruments, as failing to raise even one of the instrument levels between checkpoint will prevent the level cap from going any higher. You still with me?
The final thing to consider is power-ups. These are unlocked as you play and can be selected from at the beginning of each song. As well as the standard Overdrive mode, you can employ power-ups to autoplay one instrument for a while, send off a sonic blast to destroy all notes in an area, increase the score for a particular instrument, and many other wild and increasingly-whacky things. Choosing the best power-ups for a particular track is key, but here’s the thing – every time you start a song you must spend Gold Coins to choose the power-ups. No, you don’t have to buy Gold Coins with real money, but you do have to earn them with repeated play and through the Rock Band World Facebook app. This means that when going for a high score on a particular song you may have to grind your way through a few other first before you have enough coins to select the best power-ups.
The track selection is decent, but the key feature is that every one of the songs already on your hard drive is accessible to play – all the RB1, RB2, and DLC you’ve acquired over the years (no Beatles Rock Band stuff – sorry) is waiting for this new title. However, they’ve taken away the brilliant sorting system found in Rock Band 3, so you can’t select sub-categories when arranging the potentially-thousands of songs in your library. You can still arrange by difficulty, location, genre, decade etc. but if you want to, say, arrange by difficulty and only show songs from Rock Band Blitz, that’s not possible. Shame.
The gameplay itself is fun, but feels far more casual than Rock Band proper. Part of this is the lack of failure, part of it comes from the crazy power ups, and part of it stems from the fact that there’s no user-selectable difficulty. That’s right – you simply choose a song and start playing – the easier ones will be easier and the harder ones will be harder. Well, slightly harder, anyway. This leaves me wondering about the replay value of the title. Sure, there are plenty of songs to choose from, but high scores seem to come not from mastering fast finger inputs and memorizing tricky sections, but from choosing power-ups and raising the levels of each instrument. What I mean is, although this is certainly a rhythm game, it’s not Rock Band, and the thrill of hitting every note in a difficult solo or perfecting a weird syncopated beat just isn’t there.
There’s also a distinct lack of multiplayer, something that many would find strange in a Rock Band title. For me, this isn’t an issue – I’d much rather play a rhythm game by myself, choosing the tracks that I want to play and slowly increasing my skills in order to place on the leaderboards. In this sense, Blitz adds a lot to the table, as the entire Rock Band World Social element gives people a chance to compete with others and show off their skills without all the hassle of cleaning the house and inviting round actual guests.
Rock Band Blitz is a tough one to score. It’s hard to place it as a standalone game without comparing it to others in the series. However, since so many players will no doubt own other rhythm games, they will be sure to notice aspects that have been omitted this time around. There is no campaign mode, no multiplayer, no failure, no selectable difficulty, and limited track-sorting options. But you know what? This is an entirely new game – the focus is different, the scoring system is different, the social aspect is different, and while the songs may be the same, it has a whole new feel to it. It’s also fun – not in the same way that Rock Band proper is, but in an alternative way.
There’s also one more thing worth mentioning – something I’ve been super-excited about since I first heard of Rock Band Blitz: Every one of the tracks is fully playable in Rock Band 3! Even if you don’t like the sound of Blitz, but you still play RB3, this is a must-buy – it’s a 25-song pack for a mere 1,200 MS Points. I imagine that long after I grow tired of Blitz, I’ll still be banging along to its songs on my plastic drums, and this fact is worth the price of admission alone. However, this is not a review of RB3, so I can’t really take that into account when scoring the game.
Overall, I’ve had fun with Rock Band Blitz, and I’ll probably continue to play it for a while, but I just don’t imagine it will have the staying power of Rock Band proper. It’s far more of a “game” than a musical-experience-platform like the others, and all games grow tiresome after a while. However, I have to give Harmonix credit for bringing the series in a new direction, and praise them for continuing to integrate all their various titles into one magnificent tracklist. If you’re a fan of the rhythm genre, or maybe someone who found regular Rock Band too tough, it would certainly be worth checking out Blitz. However, if you’re one of those hardcore players who’s grown bored with FCing The Perfect Drug on expert pro drums, you may find this one to be a little casual for your tastes. I’ll be interested to see where Harmonix bring the series from here.