Thursday, December 29, 2016

Band Aid

Looking back in my blog archives, I see that I never wrote anything about the release of Rock Band 4. Harmonix's hit franchise had been hibernating for a few years, but in the fourth quarter of 2015, they updated it for the new generation of consoles.

I suspect that a big reason I never wrote about Rock Band 4 was that it turned out to be something of a disappointment. Music games were no longer a license to print money. Gone were the media conglomerate partnerships. And because of this, a franchise that was once being worked on by a massive team was now being labored on by a comparatively tiny group -- a group that had to prioritize its efforts and cut features to release in time for the holidays.

I understand the realities at play here. The fact remains that Rock Band 4 felt like an underwhelming and compromised effort, and was a game I played far less than any previous entry in the franchise. The keyboard and Pro Guitar instruments had been removed. The character customization options were significantly narrowed. The song list was shorter, and the weekly DLC more limited. There was no online play of any kind.

Now, a year later, an expansion has arrived to further flesh out the game: Rock Band Rivals. It includes a number of minor (but good) improvements like better filtering for your song library and new clothing options. But mostly, the expansion is about two added play modes: Rockumentary and Rivals.

Rockumentary shores up the core game's anemic story mode with a whole new system larger than anything previously seen in Rock Band. Your band becomes the subject of a "Behind the Music" style documentary that chronicles its rise from obscurity. In between songs, live footage of interviews with musicians, fans, high school teachers, and more talk about "you" back in the day. All the while, a quippy narrator praises your successes, chides your failures, and completes the faux documentary feel.

I have mixed feelings about Rockumentary as a mode. It's definitely funny, and there seem to be enough variations within it to allow multiple replays. On the other hand, to actually experience any of that, you have to spend a lot of time watching movies and not actually playing Rock Band. Because of that, I can't imagine ever playing this mode on a Rock Band night with friends. It seems like a single-player experience, and one that probably isn't as rewarding as the amount of effort Harmonix clearly put into it.

Rivals Mode is for the hardcore players, and aside from the existence of leaderboards, is the first thing approximating an online multiplayer experience. You join a "Crew" of up to 10 players. Every week, a new themed challenge invites you to play songs from your collection -- songs with female vocalists, songs with titles (or band names) containing a color, and so forth. Every song you play that fits the theme earns experience for your Crew, which is jockeying for position against every other Crew to be promoted in rank at the end of the challenge.

Any player, playing on any difficulty, can earn XP and help contribute. But XP is only half your Crew score in a challenge. The other half comes from three specially selected "Spotlight Songs" (also fitting the weekly theme, and usually found on the Rock Band 4 disc itself). Within each Crew, the single best score on each instrument counts toward a total that is also ranked against all other Crews. Here's where the Experts need to be doing their Gold Star, Full Combo best to keep your Crew in the hunt for promotion.

To be clear, none of this is actual online play. It's really just a system to get you loosely cooperating with 9 other players out there in the world somewhere, working against everyone else. You don't even actually talk to any of these people, unless you avail yourself of your console's chat features.

There is a "be the best of the best" appeal to all this, if you're the competitive type. It does encourage you to play perhaps-lesser-played songs from your library, as the challenge themes change from week to week. And I will admit, it has me playing Rock Band 4 more over the last month than I did in the entire year prior.

Still, it's not what I was really looking for. When Rock Band really had its claws in me back in the day, I had a whole Playstation Friends List full of fellow players. True online multiplayer let me join in with all-expert bands -- not fun in the same way that having close friends there in the room can be, but a different kind of fun that had me logging on almost every night for a song or two. That mode is planned for a Rock Band Rivals patch (at no charge) in January, and we'll see if it brings back the "glory days."

For now? Rock Band Rivals is something of a mixed bag. Props to Harmonix for trying something different. And for actually getting me to play more regularly again... for now, at least. But even this expansion still leaves Rock Band 4 feeling like it lacks a lot of what the franchise used to have going for it. I'd grade the expansion about a B- (to the unaltered game's C). If you have Rock Band 4 already, Rivals might be worth picking up to rekindle your interest. (It is priced less than a complete new game.) But if you left Rock Band behind on the last generation of game consoles, this probably isn't the thing to convince you to upgrade.

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