Rock Band 4 review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Performance Designed Products
Developer Harmonix Music Systems
Release Date Oct 6, 2015

Rock Band 4 has a unique focus for a franchise that's been running this long: It's less of a sequel, and more of a migration.

Through license negotiations, backward compatibility tweaks and a handful of smart feature cuts, Rock Band 4 has made it so you don't have to "start over" on your current-gen console, a possibility that probably would have sunk the series. That mission statement might not seem especially ambitious, but to pull that off, to actually bring eight years' worth of Rock Band across console generations — that's a pretty remarkable feat.

Rock Band 4's transition isn't exactly seamless either. Harmonix hasn't stuck the landing with regards to some technical aspects, and some of the feature cuts feel random and meaningless. The result is something that lacks the kitchen sink approach of its predecessor, but there's something refreshing about its preservationist tendencies.

Bands are back to basics: just a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist and one to three vocalists

Harmonix has talked about bringing Rock Band 4 back to the series' roots, dropping some of the less-used, more extemporaneous parts of 2010's Rock Band 3. In reality, the game isn't much of a tonal shift for the franchise; it just puts more of a focus on making the experience of playing Rock Band with a roomful of people as friction-free a process as is possible. Bands are back to basics: just a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist and one to three vocalists.

Pro Guitars are gone, but the bigger absence is the lack of keyboard support, an instrument introduced in Rock Band 3. It also introduced a fracture to that game's setlist, as most legacy songs didn't include piano parts. Without keyboards, there's a much lower possibility of one player feeling left out on certain songs.

rock band 4 review screen 1

There may be fewer instruments to play in Rock Band 4, but there are more ways to use them, thanks to the game's focus on freestyle play. Guitars got the best treatment. Loads of songs, including existing DLC tracks, allow guitarists to make up their own solos by noodling across the high and low frets on the guitar controller. Freestyle vocals let capable singers improvise if they want to mix it up, so long as they stay on key. In practice, the sense of creation is invigorating.

There's a solid set of 65 on-disc songs to perform, with the tracklist skewing more toward modern hits than well-trod classics. It's a fun but thin collection — "Uptown Funk" is always a good time, and St. Vincent's "Birth in Reverse" absolutely kills. Most of your old DLC works in Rock Band 4, though getting your songs back is an imperfect process.

rock band 4 tall image 1b

There's no automatic importing of all the songs you purchased from previous Rock Band releases; you either have to go through the in-game music store or the marketplace of your respective platform, and hunt down the songs you've bought in years past. Mercifully, this is a one-time process, although a few song packs and other errant tracks haven't made the jump yet, for any number of reasons. There's also no timetable on when you'll be able to import disc-based tracks from old Rock Band games.

Still, there's a weird sense of security I get from knowing most of my chickens have come home to roost. With the promise from Harmonix that the game is a platform that will continue to evolve over the years, Rock Band 4 makes me earnestly excited to play plastic instruments in a way that a more traditional sequel probably wouldn't.

The quality of those new instruments is inconsistent; the new guitar feels a bit light and cheap, and I still prefer the click strum of a Guitar Hero axe, but the frets are snappy and accurate, making quick hammer-ons and pull-offs a breeze. As someone who's wrecked two Rock Band drum kits, the new drums actually feel sturdier, with thicker rubber heads on each pad that make the set a bit quieter, too. That said, the kick pedal is less flimsy, but takes more effort to depress, making bass drum prompts hard to hit in quick succession.

Bluetooth woes

The biggest frustration I had with Rock Band 4's new instruments only occurred with the PlayStation 4 version of the game. Those controllers sync over Bluetooth, which disconnected on my band a couple of times during our first night with the game, forcing us to manually rediscover the lost controller through the PS4 settings menu. The PS4 architecture doesn't play especially well with Rock Band; each controller must be assigned to a user profile on the system level — even the microphone, which the game won't recognize if it's not assigned to the singer's profile.

Manufacturer MadCatz has been pushing firmware updates out to the instruments since launch, attempting to improve things like kick pedal accuracy, but getting them onto your instruments is a Byzantine process requiring a Windows PC with Bluetooth functionality.

Fortunately, you can skip buying the new instruments (and their respective woes) if you've still got your older controllers. I tested a variety of wireless last-gen instruments — Guitar Hero 3 axes, Rock Band 2 drums, you name it — on the PS4 version of Rock Band 4 using the corresponding USB dongles. Using Xbox 360 instruments with the Xbox One version requires an adapter (which is sold separately for $25 and in a bundle with the game for $20), but the wireless Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero controllers I tested on Xbox One worked like a charm.

Not every instrument will work, though. Older wired instruments aren't recognized by Rock Band 4 — you should probably consult this compatibility chart before making any purchasing decisions.

Preparing to play Rock Band 4 can be a bigger hassle than playing it, but the game itself is smartly streamlined, with an appropriate game mode for each situation: one for short sessions, one for parties and, of course, the quintessential career mode.

The career mode allows you to decide the fate of your band by choosing different steps on your tour to stardom. It's not exactly a robust RPG experience, but I liked how it challenges you to decide what's most important to your band. Are you in it for the money, or the fans? The glamour, or the art? Each decision tailors your rewards, your setlists and the often humorous flavor text that pops up before each show.

rock band 4 review screen 3

There are some interesting implications to the Choose Your Own Adventure structure of Rock Band 4's career mode, but I didn't feel as much ownership over my band as I did in Rock Band 3. You're not treated to a cutscene every time your band moves up a tier of fame in the rock world. You can't make custom logos that get plastered on T-shirts, drum heads and buses. You can't assign your custom characters as backup members of the band. These may be small touches, but they'd go a long way to making me care more about my rise to rock stardom.

Rock Band 4's Party mode allows you to seamlessly move between songs using a new voting mechanic, avoiding the delay of returning to and scrolling through your music library. Each player chooses from a list of four or five options after completing a song, and the game picks the winner at random. Sometimes it doesn't explicitly show you the songs you're voting on, forcing you to choose between, say, an "'80s power ballad," a "2010 country single" and an "alt-rock song from 1996." It's fun, though the final decisions usually left my band's singer heartbroken.

But that democratic song-choosing feature apparently came at the expense of custom setlists, which were way better suited for when you actually knew the songs you wanted to play going into a session. It's one of a few cut features that don't seem like they were removed in the interest of streamlining; features like a song-by-song practice mode and online multiplayer are also regrettably absent.

Wrap Up:

Rock Band 4 lays a foundation for the new console generation

Rock Band 4 is stripped down to the essentials, but despite its leanness, it's pulled off something encouraging: It's made me want to play Rock Band again, even after the dozens of hours and countless parties I've spent with the series. It isn't Harmonix's boldest or biggest game. But Rock Band 4 lays a foundation for Harmonix to move forward.

Rock Band 4 was reviewed using retail band kits provided by Harmonix and Mad Catz, and also used a retail Xbox One copy purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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