I can't be the only person who has been wondering whether, after a 5-year absence from our lives, Rock Band would somehow not be fun any more. I was 19 when the original came out, and so it was natural to wonder whether playing pretend instruments would still be so massively entertaining now that I'm a grown-ass woman.
Good news: it really is. Rock Band 4 is still pure wish fulfilment for anyone who's ever imagined themselves on-stage in front of a crowd, and indeed for anyone who loves rock music. After spending god knows how many hours (probably a thousand) playing rhythm games over the course of my life, and having mastered the art of pretend guitar a decade ago, I am amazed that these games still have the effect that they do on my psyche. But one night with Rock Band 4 is enough to be sure that the magic is still there.
So, what's new?
Honestly? Not all that much - but given that Rock Band 3's systems were nearly perfect, this is not a negative.
The main addition is freestyle guitar solos. Usually in Rock Band, when it's time for a solo, you're faced with a cascade of notes that you fumble your way through (or totally nail, if you're a badass). Now, the note track goes all shiny, and you can play whatever you want - on the high frets or the low frets, shredding or tapping, or just playing single notes with lots of whammy. Behind the scenes, the game selects from pre-determined note sequences and subtly adjusts your timing so that whatever you play - within reason - sounds great. No music game has ever successfully done improvisation before, so this is more significant than it seems. These freestyle solos are as close as a music game has ever come to making you feel like you're really playing. It feels freaking amazing.
Freestyle solos don't work quite as brilliantly in some songs as in others. Some of the slower numbers aren't really designed for sick riffs, and if you don't restrain yourself to picking out just the odd sustained note it can sound pretty comical. But this only applies to literally 2 or 3 songs on the disc - it doesn't sound brilliant in 3 Non Blondes' What's Up?, but it really, really works in Friday I'm in Love, even though that's hardly a track known for its awesome guitar soloing.
One thing to note about freestyle solos: the game still scores you on them, and patterns the note track with lines and dots to indicate when you should be playing on the high frets and what rhythm you should be strumming at, but they're much less challenging than the old note-charted solos. For expert players, for whom 100%ing a ludicrous solo is one of the greatest joys of Rock Band, this might feel unsatisfying. There's an option to turn them off in the guitar-specific menu. Honestly, though, getting perfect scores on songs is less important to me now than it was when I was 19. Freestyle soloing is more fun.
Drummers have something new to enjoy as well: dynamic fills, which replace freestyle drum fills. Those always sounded pretty rubbish anyway thanks to the inevitable lag between TV and plastic drum kit, so dynamic fills are a great improvement. Singers can now go off-piste a bit and harmonise with a song's melody, another thing that allows for a measure of improvisation that wasn't part of Rock Band before.
These wee tweaks make Rock Band 4 that bit more fun, because they allow for exuberance. With three or four players, when the singer is belting out high note harmonies and the guitarist is shredding away on a freestyle solo and the drummer is nailing every flourish, it is one of the most sublime, joyful feelings that video games are capable of providing.
There's also some new stuff in World Tour mode, where you create a wee fantasy band and dress them up and take them around the world. I was shocked - SHOCKED - to discover that there are only four hairstyles to choose from, but only until I found out that you can buy loads more in the shop (with in-game money, not real money). There's now a choice-and-consequence element to the tour: random things will happen, like a fashion vlogger offering to give you a makeover, or fans letting you sleep on their couches, and how you react to that affects your band's journey. There are different endings, even. As ever, you're guided through the tour by wry, funny text that could only have been written by a developer with extensive real-world experience of touring in rubbish bands (and some great ones, I'm sure).
Oh! Of course - this is pretty important for a music game. Rock Band 4 comes with 60-odd songs on the disc and 1500 in the DLC library. The on-disc tracklist is best described as "varied" - there's stuff from the 70s and 80s, contemporary indie rock, obscure songs, the requisite dose of metal, country, all sorts. My favourites are Jack White and White Denim. I will say, though, that it leans more towards American tastes, perhaps inevitably. There are plenty of songs on here that I've never heard of (and I listen to a lot of music), which is a problem for singers. Playing as a group, we found ourselves struggling to find more than 15 songs that any of us could sing confidently from the off.
Part of the fun of Rock Band, though, is being introduced to new music by playing it. I now have a weird, shameful affection for Brad Paisley and Keith Urban's Start a Band, which is very European-unfriendly.
The new instruments
I played with a PS4 Band in a Box set, which includes one new guitar, a new drum kit and a mic. This is pricey in the UK - £219,99, to be precise - and still leaves you one guitar short of a four-piece band, but they're great quality. They're very sturdy, the drum pads are quieter, the pedal feels like it might actually withstand a year of regular play without breaking, the guitar's strum bar is silent, the mic has a REALLY long cable, and they're about as aesthetically attractive as plastic instruments are going to get. Also of note is that this is the only Rock Band we'll be getting for years to come, so we will definitely not have to upgrade.
(If you're wondering, incidentally, about the price discrepancy between the US and UK pricing of Rock Band 4, Mad Catz explained it earlier this year. Short version? A lot of it is down to tax.)
There's one pretty massive design flaw on the new guitar: a Share button that's right below the damn strum bar, meaning I pressed it every time I got even slightly carried away. This was happening about three times per song. Here's where it is (note that it is not, like the Options button below it, protected by a lip of raised plastic to prevent you from accidentally pressing it):
This is what I had to do to get it to stop:
That's a bottle-cap secured to the guitar with duct tape, a solution suggested by my friend Kerry after I accidentally interrupted Friday I'm in Love for the fourth time. The crazy thing is that you can't even share screens and video from most songs in Rock Band 4 because of copyright. There is no reason for this button. It's essential that Harmonix adds an option to disable the thing in a patch as soon as possible. Other than that, though, the new instruments are super.
One other thing that's an absolute godsend: the guitar has sensors in it that enable you to automatically calibrate the lag from your TV and sound system. I can't tell you how happy this makes me, as I must have spent about 10 cumulative hours of my life in various rhythm-game menus adjusting things by a few milliseconds her and there. On the minus side, it means you can no longer blame the TV when you can't get a drum rhythm right.
Using old instruments
I'm guessing most Rock Band fans will still have some old instruments lurking somewhere in a storage cupboard. I'd thrown out about half of mine, but what I had left all worked perfectly fine with Rock Band 4, once I'd finally hunted down those tiny little USB adapters that came with PS3 instruments. I tried guitars from a bunch of different Guitar Heroes, some old Rock Band drums and some Band Hero drums, and all of it worked fine. (Well, my old drums have definitely seen better days and the pedal's broken, but hey, that's not Rock Band 4's fault.) Almost all old Rock Band and Guitar Hero equipment will work with Rock Band 4 - Harmonix has a chart here that shows them all.
If you've got a full complement of older pretend instruments, Rock Band 4 only costs £49.99 on PS4. If you're an Xbox One player, you'll need to buy a legacy adapter as well to make everything work. The game-plus-adapter package on Xbox One costs £69.99. At that price, Rock Band 4 is considerably less impractical, and no less awesome.
My old Rock Band DLC was all on Xbox 360, so I haven't been able to test importing old songs into Rock Band 4 myself. I've spoken to people who have, though, and it evidently works as advertised. Enormous kudos to Harmonix for dealing with what must have been a heap of bullshit around licensing and proprietary wireless technologies to make all of this stuff work for long-term fans.
Getting the old band back together
Rock Band 4 does not exactly revolutionise the music genre. Instead of going with a new direction - like the forthcoming Guitar Hero Live, with its new mechanic, new point-of-view stage shows and new business model - it is resurrecting and refining. But Rock Band 4 didn't need revolutionising. We're in a different era now, and the way we listen to and enjoy music across all media has changed massively since Rock Band was last with us, but the innate, human appeal of playing music with your friends has not faded at all. There's a lot of power in rock music, and Rock Band harnesses it to make you feel like a god.
For me, there is still nothing else like the elation of totally nailing a favourite song in all of video games. I'm so happy that Rock Band is back.