Five years is a long time in the record business. If you’re a band and you go five years between albums people will probably forget you exist. It’s not quite the same with videogames, but it’s been five years since the last full Rock Band game came out (progenitor and rival Guitar Hero also ended in 2010), and although downloadable songs were regularly released through early 2013, the game was clearly dead as far as the larger world was concerned. The designers at Harmonix focused on dancing and Disney, we dropped our armory of plastic instruments off at the Goodwill, and the whole music game genre became a memory, a nostalgic totem that evoked one particular era as thoroughly as Rubik’s Cube and the Tamagotchi.
Well, it’s not 2008 anymore, but there’s a new Rock Band bundle hoping to shack up with the fancy young consoles of today. Harmonix targets the new generation of game systems with Rock Band 4, intentionally keeping things as much like the early Rock Band games as possible in order to recapture that late ‘00s vibe. The keyboard tracks and convoluted online of Rock Band 3 are gone, and stripped-down menus minimize the amount of time between turning the power on and launching your score multiplayer into overdrive while soloing through “Panama.” It’s just the basics, here: guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and a setlist of 60-odd songs that range from the ‘60s through today.
Once you’re playing along with a song, it’ll feel like you’re back on the Xbox 360, hosting a Rock Band party in the dying days of the Bush administration. The guitar has those five color-coded notes in a line at the end of the neck, with the same five buttons reappearing closer to the body of the guitar for easy soloing. The drums have four colored pads and a kick pedal. Colored gems rush towards you down a central highway and you have to play along in time on your instrument of choice. Words fly across the top of the screen as your singer tries to match the speed and pitch. The points surge upwards as you nail sections and unleash that score-doubling overdrive. In the background computer animated stand-ins for your band play in venues from dive bars to arenas. It is recognizably, undeniably Rock Band.
Even though the game’s only on the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, Harmonix has tried to make it as hospitable to long-time fans as possible. If you own instruments from the old consoles they will work with the new game, but only on the same family of systems—a PS2 or PS3 controller will work on the PS4, and an Xbox 360 controller will work on the Xbox One with a special adapter. Whatever songs you owned on older systems will probably be available on the new one, also only within the same corporate family. There will be some hiccups with that—Harmonix no longer has the license for some older songs , so those may not be available. Also, from my own experience, the game doesn’t always register that I’ve previously paid for these songs. The new store lists some songs I owned on the 360 as purchased, and I can just download those again without a hassle. Other songs that I own still have a dollar amount listed next to them (it’s still $1.99 per song); most of these songs will also still download for free, but a few have asked me to pay again. Currently songs from the Rock Band, Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band discs aren’t listed in the store, but will be added. Curiously, Rock Band 3’s songs are not confirmed to become available for Rock Band 4; Harmonix says they’re still “looking into the possibility of exporting” those songs. So accessing the DLC you bought on the old systems is still a little messy right now.
That DLC will pop up alongside the new songs throughout the game’s three modes. If you just want to get right into playing some music, you can open a quickplay session where you have freedom to choose every song you play, or you can “play a show,” where you’ll sometimes be asked to vote on songs or play requests from the audience. The former is a pure party mode, whereas the second option is halfway between that and the full tour mode. That tour mode lets you make up your own band, picking a name and hometown (very few options here) and styling them from the clothing options that can be unlocked through playing shows or bought with in-game money. There are branching paths throughout the tour mode that impact your ability to make up your own setlists or how quickly you make new fans or money. Will you hop in a beaten up van and book your own tour, or sign with a shady manager who’ll tell you what to play and how to look? It’s a barebones story, which is fine—you’re here for the music, man.
Despite openly trying to recreate the “classic” version of the game, Rock Band 4 does introduce a few new elements. The most hyped of those is a failure. In the past, during guitar solos, onscreen notes tried to recreate the feel and sound of the real solo you were playing along with. The new “Freestyle Guitar Solo” mode lets you hold down any button and strum along to the rhythm to improvise a new solo that still theoretically fits the song. It almost never sounds good, though. The solos are hyperactive but sloppy, like you’re able to keep up with Eddie Van Halen’s speed but without any of the grace or fluidity. It’s supposed to make you feel like you’re shredding your way through every song in the game, but it sounds more like one of StSanders’ “shreds” videos. You can turn it off in the options menu, and probably should, but screens during the tour mode will reference the pedals you used during your freestyle solos even if you’re not doing any freestyle solos.
There’s a similar new set-up for vocals that works better. On the hard and expert levels the game will now accept other melody lines that work with the original melody, letting singers explore a little bit and try to make a song their own. It’s a far more natural way to allow the kind of freedom that the Freestyle Guitar Solo aims for.
The drums now have something called “Dynamic Drum Fills”—in the past drummers would kick into overdrive by improvising their own drum fills. Now the game will recommend specific fills to play before triggering overdrive. Although also optional, this is a smart move because now it keeps your drummer from going into an Animal-style rage every time they can do a fill. It keeps them on the beat and sounds better, to boot.
These changes are minor. Rock Band 4 intentionally feels as much like classic Rock Band as it can, and that will be comforting for the game’s dedicated cult following. Letting you use instruments and play songs from older consoles is more than you should probably expect from a videogame, but it’s also something Harmonix had to do to make sure the most diehard Rock Band fans made the jump. I am one of those diehards, as is my wife, and we seamlessly slid into Rock Band 4 like we were still jamming on the Xbox 360. It is the same game, more or less, and that’ll be good news for people who love Rock Band.
Of course Harmonix will need more than just the diehards to make this game a success, and that’s the biggest problem the game faces. Five years is a long time, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been long enough to jumpstart the kind of nostalgia needed to make these games feel fresh again. The game itself is everything you’d expect from Rock Band, but are enough people expecting anything from Rock Band in 2015?
Rock Band 4 was developed and published by Harmonix. It is available for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. You can follow him on Twitter, if you’re into that.