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Rock Band 4's $30 expansion mixes This is Spinal Tap with VH1's Behind the Music

Plus a different kind of multiplayer mode

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Rock Band 4 debuted in October, and developer Harmonix spent more than six months after the launch adding features new and old to the game in free updates. Now, the studio and co-publisher Performance Designed Products are set to release Rock Band Rivals, which will be the game’s first paid expansion when it arrives this October.

Harmonix announced Rivals last month during E3, but didn’t provide any details on what the $29.99 expansion would contain. While convincing people to pony up for new features is a tall order, Harmonix may be up to the task. Like any good expansion, Rock Band Rivals is about giving players more of Rock Band 4, as well as a better Rock Band 4. The add-on contains two parts: a goofy new story-based career mode, and, in a first for the series, an asynchronous multiplayer offering that's both cooperative and competitive.

A quiet success

When Harmonix unveiled Rock Band 4 to the world in March 2015, the studio said it had two primary objectives for the project: to make the game a platform that would receive continual updates, and to bring the series back to basics, with a focus on playing with your friends in a room. It would be hard to say that Harmonix didn't achieve those goals — Rock Band 4 arrived in October as a stripped-down game that delivered on the core of the Rock Band experience, and the studio released free content updates on a roughly monthly basis from December through June.

So far, Harmonix’s updates to Rock Band 4 have generally consisted of adding back in elements from previous games, such as the June update’s Practice Mode, or bringing in new features geared toward the hardcore player base, like last December’s introduction of Brutal Mode. The company has also been adding support for importing songs from the previous Rock Band titles.

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Having said that, the general consensus around Rock Band 4 seems to be that it was a safe sequel — especially when compared to its direct competition, the starting-from-scratch experience that was Guitar Hero Live and its out-there Guitar Hero TV component. Bringing most of the Rock Band library’s 2,000-plus songs to a new console generation is undoubtedly an impressive feat, especially when you consider Rock Band 4’s high level of compatibility with old instrument controllers. But within the gaming community, the game didn’t seem to deliver the Rock Band renaissance that fans might have been hoping for.

Harmonix, for its part, doesn’t see it that way.

Rock Band 4’s sales numbers weren’t good enough to prevent the game’s original co-publisher, Mad Catz, from needing to implement a restructuring plan that involved layoffs of 37 percent of the company’s staff and the resignations of some top executives. (Harmonix has since signed with PDP, which is now co-publishing Rock Band 4 and producing new instrument controllers for the Rivals launch.)

But Daniel Sussman, product manager on Rock Band 4, told Polygon during a Rivals demo last week that the studio is "thrilled" with the game’s sales performance, which totals $100 million at retail so far (including purchases of the game and instruments, but excluding downloadable songs). As far as DLC sales go, Sussman added that Rock Band 4 has the highest attach rate of any game in the history of the franchise, meaning that Rock Band 4 players are buying more Rock Band songs on average than ever before.

Those two facts, said Sussman, proved to Harmonix that the audience and appetite exist for big new modes in Rock Band 4.

Friends and rivals

Harmonix announced earlier this year that it is adding synchronous online multiplayer — a feature that had been part of the series since its inception — to Rock Band 4 as part of a free update that’s scheduled to launch in December. Half of Rock Band Rivals is also dedicated to online multiplayer, but of a different kind.

"Rivals [Mode] is sort of the counterpart to the online play, and kind of speaks to our ambition to expand outside of the living room," said Sussman.

The expansion’s titular mode is an asynchronous multiplayer offering — in other words, you don’t play at the same time with or against other people. Instead, you team up with as many as nine other friends to form groups called crews. Your crew competes against other crews that are designated as "rivals" in themed challenges that change every week. The individual progress that each crew member makes contributes to the group’s success (or failure) in the challenges.

"Rivals Mode is the thing that has been missing from Rock Band since forever"

Asked for further details, Sussman declined to offer specifics; Harmonix said in a press release that it will focus on Rivals Mode at PAX West in September. But Sussman did say that "in a lot of ways, Rivals Mode is, like, the thing that has been missing from Rock Band since forever."

The bulk of the demo concerned the other half of Rock Band Rivals: an appropriately ridiculous story mode called Rockudrama.

For those about to rock...

Rock Band 4 already has a career mode, like its predecessors did. In fact, the game’s career setup is most similar to the Tour mode in Rock Band 2. It’s a solid offering, letting you make decisions that will shape your band’s path from small hometown shows to stadium-filling stardom.

Like the rest of Rock Band 4, the career mode is a relatively no-frills experience; there’s nothing as high-touch as the band history cutscenes from Rock Band 3. Harmonix is looking to bring back some of that flair with Rockudrama in Rock Band Rivals.

"I also really wanted to trot out something brand-new, but still give people that narrative structure that they could play," said Sussman, adding that Harmonix received "a lot of very positive feedback" on Rock Band 4’s campaign.

Rock Band Rivals screenshots

Rockudrama is meant to be played with friends in the same room, just like Rock Band 4 itself; the Rivals expansion will debut about two months before online multiplayer, and a Harmonix representative told Polygon that when that feature arrives, it won’t be compatible with Rockudrama. It’s at least possible to play the mode solo, though.

The premise of Rockudrama is a documentary that tells the story of your band. Part This is Spinal Tap, part VH1’s Behind the Music — hell, the program itself is called Beneath the Tuneage — the mode combines Rock Band gameplay and live-action footage of interviews with people presented as rock critics, fellow musicians, die-hard fans and more. As you can see in the trailer at the top of this article, Rockudrama is just as silly and over-the-top as you would want this kind of thing to be, and what’s more, your performances will affect the outcome of the story.

"There is a fair amount of, like, reactivity in the story, and different things that will impact the ending, one of which is your skill and level of performance," said Sussman. For instance, it’s possible to play poorly enough that you "lose," in which case, your band’s episode of Behind the Tuneage — and the mode — will end.

We saw some more positive examples in action. After Sussman and his cohorts played a song during their band’s first gig — for an audience of one person — the documentary’s narrator commented on their stick skills: "Hurling beats at the crowd like an enraged orangutan, the talented drummer was definitely not monkeying around."

That voice-over will change depending on who played well and who didn’t, Sussman explained. It’s the kind of personalized touch that should help give players a sense of ownership over their career, and it seems like it’ll bring out the competitive aspects of your bandmates’ personalities — just like the documentary itself.

Rock Band Rivals band screenshot Harmonix/PDP

How to get it

In addition to the footage associated with Rockudrama, the mode will introduce a number of new venues to Rock Band 4. However, the Rivals expansion won’t bring any new songs to the game unless you pre-order it; pre-order customers will receive the following 10 tracks:

  • Bring Me The Horizon - "Happy Song"
  • Capital Cities - "Safe and Sound"
  • Eagle-Eye Cherry - "Save Tonight"
  • The Neighbourhood - "Sweater Weather"
  • Of Monsters And Men - "Little Talks"
  • Pharrell Williams - "Happy"
  • Semisonic - "Closing Time"
  • Sia - "Chandelier"
  • Skillet - "Feel Invincible"
  • Weezer - "King of the World"

Folks who pre-order from Amazon will get two additional songs, Maroon 5’s "One More Night" and Matchbox Twenty’s "3AM."

Rock Band Rivals will be available digitally for $29.99 as an add-on for Rock Band 4 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Players looking to jump into the game with the launch of this expansion will be able to buy a digital bundle of Rock Band 4 and Rivals for $59.99. The game and the expansion will be available in a package with PDP’s new Fender Jaguar guitar controller for $89.99. And for those who need the full-band experience, Harmonix and PDP will be selling a set that includes Rock Band 4, Rivals, a Fender Jaguar, a drum set and a microphone for $199.99 — $50 cheaper than the band-in-a-box set that Rock Band 4 launched with.

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