Rock Band 4 is terrific fun, but suffers from rough edges and tightened belts.
First, a disclaimer: Rock Band 4 is the first in the series that I am playing entirely alone. I cannot divorce my feelings about Rock Band 4 from my feelings about, uh, my divorce. Forgive the tinge of bitterness that creeps through.
The new solos and fills in Rock Band 4 are actually amazing. The short tutorial that triggers when you first sign in with a guitar or drum controller efficiently communicates the basics, but it’s when you’re jamming out to a song you like and just start freaking wailing that it really clicks. Rock Band has always been good at making you feel like a rock star, but now it makes you feel like you deserve it.
I love the new song vote feature, because I can see how great it would be with friends (also, when I play alone nobody ever out-votes me. We take our victories where we can). I like that your set-list will be interrupted by audience requests (sure!) and extended by demands for an encore (of course!). I like that you no longer need to do so much of the work of writing the story of your band, extrapolating from vague cutscenes and progress gates; it’s foregrounded, encouraging your participation, but without overshadowing the rest of the game.
It’s difficult to know what else to say about the gameplay. It’s still one of the best implementations of rhythm action, and the set-list ranges back and forth across genres, eras, moods and beats while maintaining the excellent taste the music lovers at Harmonix are well known for (and no, I will not hear any lip about 4 Non Blondes; it is rad).
So, tentatively, let’s talk about the problems. I feel quite bad picking on Rock Band 4 when Harmonix has tried so very, very hard to be good by offering legacy DLC and controller support. I’m also painfully aware that it’s doing this independently (or at least, independently of a big games publisher) for the first time, and if there’s anything more breathtakingly ambitious than independently publishing a triple-A video game, it’s independently publishing a triple-A video game with custom hardware. The credits should probably include a “inspired by nervous breakdowns” section along with the usual babies and pets.
But there are problems. Some of them will be fixed, I hope – like the way I still can’t download my legacy DLC, or even access the in-game music store. This problem is quite widespread in European territories and I really, really hope it gets resolved soon. It’s pretty awkward when legacy DLC was a major selling point.
A cosmetic issue (which nevertheless was the first thing my pal Freddie texted me about after he started playing, because he also cares very much): I can’t get my custom characters to appear as stand-ins in my band when I play alone. This would be less of a concern if it had not apparently been fixed in the last patch.
Disappointingly, I can’t choose anything but an awkwardly skinny male or female body type for my character, which is a step backwards from past entries where you could adjust height and weight within admittedly narrow but comparatively far more generous parameters. I absolutely understand why Harmonix made this decision; allowing players to customise their characters with clothes, hair styles and makeup is much, much easier when you don’t have to make all those options fit a multitude of different 3D meshes. Tough decisions probably had to be made budget-wise. It’s a let down, though, and pretty off-putting to people who don’t look like they’ll snap if the wind machine turns on suddenly.
There aren’t nearly as many costume options as before, either. Again, this was probably a tough budget decision, and it was better to get more music licenses, or whatever – although if I had to throw U2 under a bus for a pair of pants that fit, I’d do it with few regrets.
Finally, the legacy controller support is a bit dodgy. I feel like a real heel for this one, because it’s magical that I plugged my ancient Beatles bass into the PS4 and it worked. But every time your legacy controller goes into power saving mode (I walked five metres to the fridge, took out a beer, opened it, told my cat to fuck off, and went back to find this had happened, to give you an idea of the time-frame) your profile is signed out, and signed in on the DualShock. Why! I am sick of fumbling for the Options menu (the key prompts do not adjust to acknowledge you’re not using a PS4 controller, so it’s Start or Select) and fiddling with the menus every time I take a moment to massage life back into my left hand.
Speaking of which, I have lost a shit ton of muscle tone in the two-and-a-half years since I last played regularly. This is not Harmonix’s fault. I’m mentioning it here to advise veterans that their muscle memory will come back within a few songs, but their physical stamina will take ages to rebuild. Ouch.
While I’m handing out caveats, switch your power saving settings off if you’re playing on PS4 with last-gen controllers and you don’t have a DualShock in use by a vocalist. If you don’t, the console will assume you have no active controllers at all, and eventually switch off. Before it does so, Rock Band will kindly let you know it’s about to happen – but it does so by floating an enormous pop-up right over the strum marker. Who thought that was a good idea! Who! Didn’t focus testers put their feet through the TVs?
Look, these niggles aside, Rock Band 4 is great. If you like to play Rock Band at all, you should definitely try it. I’ve written 800 words of complaint because I really, really care, and I’m absolutely going to spent my weekend sadly strumming away on my own, drinking and remembering when my house was full of people who didn’t hate me.
If I have to make some sort of laboured allegory I’d say Rock Band 4 is like an indie group that’s just starting to get it together but could benefit from an experienced producer, someone to stop them turning up to gigs half-cut, and a stylist. Fans love them because they have genuine talent and provide a really good time, but they need to get their shit together before they can stop working shifts at Costco.
Rock Band 4 is out now.