Let’s say there’s a spectrum. On the one end, hunched in a leather jacket and stubbing out a cigarette on its boot heel, is Music. On the other end, peering over its sunglasses at a strobe-lit LCD, sits Video Games.
All music games exist somewhere on that spectrum. It has been fascinating, inspiring, and a bit discombobulating to watch Harmonix navigate it over the past seven years. Since the release of Guitar Hero in 2005 and then Rock Band in 2007, the Boston-based game developer has taken several bold steps towards the “music” end of the spectrum, culminating with the audacious (and borderline mad) pro-mode included in 2010’s Rock Band 3. That mode essentially turned the game into a fully-fledged guitar and piano instructional tool. It also languished, unused, by the vast majority of gamers, even those who live and breathe Rock Band.
Rock Band Blitz, then, is a definite step towards the “video game” end of the spectrum. A more idealistic critic might see that as a step backwards — an acknowledgement, however tacit, that gamers just weren’t quite ready to plug a keyboard into their Xbox and learn that piano part to Bohemian Rhapsody.
But Blitz, which comes out this week on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, is anything but a step backwards. Despite its throwback elements, it’s very much a game of its time — simple, social, compulsive and deceptively deep. It may be more video gamey than musical, but Rock Band Blitz has still got a hell of a beat running through it.
First things first: Is it fun? Yes. Yes, Rock Band Blitz is fun. The game is set up something like Harmonix’s early games Frequency and Amplitude, though re-shined under a Rock Band-y candy shell and graced with the now-seasoned work of Harmonix’s peerless note-trackers. Every song in the game is re-created as a series of four or five “lanes,” each of which represents a different instrument in the band. The lanes roll towards the player like nothing so much as a a big colourful bowling alley. Players are tasked with switching between the parts and tapping one of two buttons to match the color-coded notes and keep in time.
Rock Band has always trafficked in approximation (there are more than five notes on a guitar) and they’ve always been damned good at it (it’s astonishing how great that orange note on the Rock Band guitar feels). Blitz is no different, and even goes one further — as it turns out, you really do only need two notes to approximate just about any rock performance. Back and forth, left and right, two drumsticks, down-stroke and up-stroke, up and down-picking on a guitar.
So, the approximation is solid — drum parts tend to give you the kick drum and the snare, the two parts you were probably banging out on your desk in the first place. Guitar chords feel punchy with just two buttons, and basslines bounce back and forth with a nice smoothness. Vocal lines are weird, but they almost couldn’t help but be weird — I found that I’d play the vocal parts more out of obligation than out of desire, since they’re generally arhythmic and difficult to nail. Piano parts are a mixed bag just like they were in Rock Band 3. But overall, the parts feel good to play, even if they do get a little insane at times — for example, Vernon Reid’s shred-fest guitar solo on “Cult of Personality” is so hilariously tendonitis-inducing that I would A) love to see a video of someone hundred-percenting it and B) love to see a Tumblr made up only of photos of people’s faces when they play it for the first time.
Solo sections notwithstanding, it’s important to note that in Blitz, you aren’t just responsible for one instrument. In a big shift from past Rock Band games, you’re responsible for the entire band, and in fact are encouraged by the scoring system to hop around between each part to keep a uniformly high score multiplayer. This adds a lot of difficulty to the game — I can nail the drum part on The Presidents Of The United States’ “Lump” on drums, but when I have to bang out every single part and quickly reprogram my brain in between them, it’s a whole other story.
After a while, I got into a groove with Blitz, though I can’t say I’ll ever be particularly great at it. It gets me into a sort of zone that’s deeply pleasing, in that zen-like, video-gamey way. After playing Rock Band Blitz for extended periods of time, I’d go to my laptop and notice that the screen appeared to be moving — it wasn’t an optical illusion, it really looked like it was moving. Without oversharing, let’s say I haven’t seen something like that since college. Thanks for the flashback, Rock Band Blitz!
That video-gamey sense of flow and focus brings us back to that spectrum I talked about earlier. Blitz is in no way a rock-band simulator like the first three games; it’s a resolutely single-player experience, there’s no tour or band customisation, and it most assuredly does not inspire the sorts of ad-hoc drunken karaoke-rock-god-ing that Rock Band 2 in particular always seemed to.
Put another way: In the first three Rock Band games, you and your friends aspired to be the best rock band in the world. In Rock Band Blitz, you alone aspire to be super good at Rock Band Blitz.
Or more specifically, you aspire to be better than your friends at Rock Band Blitz — what the new game lacks in local multiplayer, it makes up for in a wickedly compulsive Facebook-enabled metagame. Harmonix has put a great deal of time and effort into “Rock Band World”, the Facebook portal that effortlessly links to your Xbox Live or PSN ID (I used my Xbox Live ID, and it worked flawlessly). Rock Band World gives players a constantly changing series of goals, pits them against their Facebook friends on persistent leaderboards, and lets them engage in “score wars” with others to try to outdo their best score. This can all be done on Xbox Live (or PSN) without Facebook, but Facebook is where the whole thing really opens up.
The metagame doesn’t fully have its claws into me, but man can I see how it could. It has clearly already gotten to several of my Facebook friends — my top score pales in comparison with theirs, and it’ll only get worse as time goes on. Every time I fire up the game, I see their scores — even Facebook friends I’m not Xbox Live friends with. And so those scores are always there, in the back of my head. To offer a further reminder, the game tells me how I’m doing compared with my friends while I’m playing, so I can always see how my score is measuring up to the next closest among my friends. It engenders competition in a way that even the leaderboard-friendly Rock Band 3 didn’t, and it’s positively sassy about it. “Oh, you think you’re doing well? Look at Jeff Gerstmann’s score! Eat that!”
Sometimes my inner musician balks at this — I’m pretty darned good at music! Why am I so comparatively bad at Rock Band Blitz? And then I remember: Oh yeah, these guys are probably better at video games than I am. And Rock Band Blitz is a video game.
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Song organisation is still something of a pain in the arse, and getting your whole Rock Band library together, particularly if you’ve got songs you purchased ages ago but haven’t copied to a new machine, can be a headache. And honestly, playing the game on an Xbox or a PS3 feels a bit odd — while I’m all but certain it’s tied to consoles for licensing reasons, Rock Band Blitz would be a superb fit on smartphones, or even on Facebook, and feels weighed down on a TV-based console. I hope we’ll get to see some version of the game on mobile platforms in the future, even if it’s constrained to those bananas-ass original compositions from Harmonix’s other smartphone app, VidRhythm.
Many games this year have staked out new spaces on the music/games spectrum, and in so doing demonstrated that it’s possible to wring a huge amount of music out of limited input, abstract nomenclature, and simplified rhythmic play. Rock Band Blitz may be more of a video game than a rock band simulator, but it sure is a fun video game. It feels “of its time” in so many ways — compulsively social, easy to pick up but difficult to master, and loaded to the gills with kickass tunes. Your thumbs will lock up, your hands will get sore, and still you’ll keep on playing. Onward to the stage, and to the mighty spotlight atop the leaderboards.