Harmonix’s Newest Rock Band Ditches Plastic Instruments Without Ditching Fun

In attics and closets around the world, plastic drum sets are gathering dust. Battery acid leaks into the casings of countless replica Stratocasters, long since pulled from under the coffee table and placed in the closet under the stairs.

A lot of people don’t really play Rock Band anymore. The game hasn’t gotten any less awesome, mind you, but our ability to pull together to play it has waned. Sure, it’ll make the odd appearance at a party — a few drinks in, someone will remember how much fun it is and convince everyone to make the effort. But it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to.

Harmonix’s upcoming downloadable XBLA/PSN game Rock Band Blitz aims to change that. The game, which is set to be released this summer, ditches plastic instruments altogether and allowing you to play through your entire Rock Band library with only a controller. A few weeks ago I had a chance to sit down and put it through its paces. It’s not very much like the Rock Band we’ve come to know and love, but that’s OK — it’s still a lot of fun.

Back in March I met up with a rowdy group of Harmonix developers and PR at a hotel in downtown San Francisco to preview Blitz. I figured I’d be seeing a new Rock Band game, but I wasn’t sure what it’d be. As soon as I saw the Harmonix guys playing the game with a controller, I thought, “Yep! This makes sense.”

One of the best things about Rock Band is its huge and constantly growing music library. Between the Rock Band store and the user-created Rock Band Network, and the songs copied from past Rock Band games, the current number of available songs is 3,640, and it’s changing every week. Even casual fans likely have hundreds of classic tunes on their Xbox or PS3 hard drives.

Lately, that music has mostly been languishing unplayed. Rock Band Blitz represents a smart way to address that, allowing players to pick up a controller and play through their entire library in a manner that is more laid-back than instrument-based Rock Band games.

The biggest change Rock Band Blitz makes is that it’s a singleplayer game. Rather than play one instrument as part of a full band, players take control of the whole band using only the console’s controller. Notes corresponding to each instrument’s part — Guitar, Bass, Drums and Keyboard — run towards the player down a road, and players can use the controller to hop from part to part at any time during the song.

Rock Band Blitz is a more purely rhythmic game than its predecessors.

“Why, that sounds a lot like Harmonix’s earlier game Amplitude!” you may be thinking. And yep, it is quite a bit like Harmonix’s now-classic rhythm game, though with a very Rock Band-ish coat of paint.

Players can play any part they’d like, and they’re only responsible for tracking the notes on the track they’re currently occupying. There are only two possible note inputs per part. So, each part basically has a “left” note and “right” note, which can be triggered with one of two buttons on the controller.

It sounds very simple, especially when compared to Rock Band 3‘s various pro-modes, but you’d be surprised how much rhythmic complexity can be conveyed with only two notes. Guitar runs, drum fills, bass solos and vocal melodies are all approximated for the controller but feel solid nonetheless. Each instrument feels more or less like holding two drum sticks and matching the rhythm of the part.

That means that Rock Band Blitz is a more purely rhythmic game than its predecessors. Of course, all peripheral-games concern themselves more with rhythm (where in the measure the beat drops) than with harmony (how high or low the note in question is). The simplest way that guitar-based video games would approximate harmony was with the five buttons on the neck of the guitar — you’d move up the neck as the part went higher and higher. It was a crude approximation, but a surprisingly effective one.

Rock Band 3 concerned itself with harmony more than any game before it, particularly with the pro guitar and the new keyboard peripheral, which gave players a full chromatic scale to work with. It was cool, but it was starting to push up against the limits of how far you can go with a music video game without actually just becoming a fully-fledged instrumental instruction tool. (Not that that would be a bad thing! In many ways, Rock Band 3 is exactly that.)

Rock Band Blitz represents a conscious move in the opposite direction; it’s a regression, but one that exists comfortably alongside Rock Band 3 and in no way attempts to replace it. In fact, in addition to the fact that your entire Rock Band music library will be playable in Blitz, all of the music that comes with the new game (more than 20 tracks) will be importable into Rock Band 3.

I don’t get the sense that Harmonix believes Blitz is the future of music games, but rather that it’s territory that they haven’t yet explored with Rock Band yet, and a logical addition to the franchise’s arsenal. Given the popularity of what I’ve come to think of as /”The New Music Games” like Pulse and Beat Sneak Bandit, I think there’s absolutely room for a simplified Rock Band amid the current music-game milieu. And given how much love there is out there for Amplitude, I’d hazard that plenty of folks will be happy with Blitz as well. In fact, while there would doubtless be lots of licensing hassles with a complete port, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a portable version of this game sometime in the future.

I had a lot of fun playing Rock Band Blitz. Playing with a birds-eye view of the entire band makes Rock Band Blitz feel significantly different from its predecessors; it’s a more strategic, video-gamey game, but it also gives a different perspective on the music, and how the band works together. There’s a “score-attack” feel to everything, and every song puts you into a leaderboard metagame that would doubtless prove compulsive for many.

The thrill of assembling in the living room and performing as a video-game band has faded somewhat.

The key hitting a high score is keeping all of the instrument-rows glowing, which requires hopping from track to track fairly regularly. You’ll be playing a guitar solo before hopping over to juice up a drum part, then diving into the bass and vocals, getting each part glowing before you hit a waypoint and have to start the process over again. It’s got a cool ebb and flow to it, and feels good to play.

That’s in part because the controls are customisable — when I began playing, my two inputs were the Xbox 360’s “A” button and the D-pad. I could see how some might prefer it, but I actually found it weird to have different-feeling buttons on the left and the right. So I was happy to find that you can assign the controls to the triggers, which felt much smoother for me.

Before long I was hopping from track to track, easily keeping track of the on-screen data, comfortably going for a higher and higher score. It’s an easy game to pick up and play, though it still will lend itself to the kind of virtuosic performance that can make Rock Band so much fun.

Rock Band Blitz is not a reinvention of the Rock Band franchise, nor will it be to the taste of every fan of the previous games. By removing multiplayer, it dons an entirely different identity from its collaboration-heavy predecessors. But even though that sense of goofy camaraderie was the heart and soul of Rock Band, Blitz does fine without it.

The thrill of assembling in the living room and performing as a video-game band has faded somewhat, but Harmonix has rightly concluded that there’s still life in the Rock Band franchise. Rock Band Blitz channels that considerable leftover energy and translates it into a fresh-feeling, fun game that anyone can play.

Slap a nasty bass;
pick-slide to a power chord.
Just two buttons!

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