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Guitar solos call the tune for Rock Band 4

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Here's what's interesting about Rock Band 4's guitar solo mode as a game design conundrum.

On the one hand, this game is designed to make everyone feel like they are a competent musician, a rock star, even if they are bad at the game. On the other hand, Rock Band 4 is a game that seeks to create an environment of challenge, where good players feel rewarded.

The Freestyle Guitar Solo mode kicks in when songs reach that moment when the lead guitarist traditionally lets rip and goes kinda nuts. It's there to give players freedom to roam around the notes a little, to express themselves with a far less constrained environment than the rhythm genre's usual framework of "you need to hit this exact beat at this exact time and then move onto the next one."

It's part of Rock Band 4's stated design, to give players more freedom to do the things they want to do, to show off a little.

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Rock Band 4's guitar solo offers players some looser visual cues and converts the resultant sounds into something that feels right. It takes a mainstay of the rock fantasy and reshapes it into gameplay. This is something that Harmonix has been doing, one way or another, for over a decade.

"In this world of Rock Band that we fabricate, there are no wrong notes," said Product Manager Daniel Sussman in an interview with Polygon. "We always try to make you feel like you are a superstar musician. We are trying to always have you sit in that fantasy.

"It's not about having an audience boo you or the music sound bad or the notes be wrong notes. It's about finding ways to communicate what you're doing that is unexpected. In this particular module, when we're talking about the guitar solos and the freestyle guitar piece, it always sounds good. It's impossible to play wrong notes."

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At a recent press event for Rock Band 4, various members of the media tried to get to grips with the new system, ranging along the plastic guitar's array of upper and lower frets according to cues that suggest the player perform in a certain style. On-screen patterns and glyphs suggest that the player try a finger-tapping style, or hold a note and tilt, or play a long note.

It offers a break from the stringency of the game's scrolling cues that allows players to strut and perform. The cues allow for many different ways to approach playing single notes. You can bend the note, alter tone and engage feedback, while using buttons at the top of the neck for low notes and buttons on the bottom of the neck for higher notes.

Holding down multiple fret buttons and strumming yields different licks. Up to four buttons can be held at once, offering different sound combos. Speed of strum also changes the sound.

"It's a really new, interesting bit of gameplay that fits really nicely into the world of Rock Band," said Sussman. "It allows the guitar player to pick their head up, look around, show-boat and get crazy.

"There's always been a karaoke aspect to this kind of game. It is performative at its core. This feature leans very nicely into that, where a player can put the guitar behind their head and start busting out all the moves. That's very exciting. It gives them the space that they need to perform."

Although guitar solos will never sound bad — they are always in key — players are scored according to how well the solo adheres to the game's suggestions. Players who don't care about score can just rock out and do as they wish. Those who enjoy traditional beatmatch gameplay can avoid Freestyle entirely, if they wish.

"The difference between scoring and not scoring is really whether or not you are paying attention to our suggestions," he said. "It's not about what notes you play, but what style you want to play in. Do you want to play fast or slow? Do you want to play noisy? Do you want to go finger-tapping and do all the crazy stuff you can do in the world of solo guitar?"

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Although drums and vocals have also been given extra levels of freedom, Sussman said that the guitar solo feature is core to Rock Band 4. "The moment of becoming was when we had a prototype that was just this feature," he explained. "We saw the response in the people who played with it. It was automatically this smile generator."

Although it's been five years since the last Rock Band release, Sussman said the hiatus isn't so much a damning indictment of the state of music games, as proof of their sustainability. "We have a very dedicated core of people who have never stopped playing Rock Band 3," he said.

"The idea that this category is dead is actually false. There are other games doing quite well in the music space, whether they're dance games or other guitar games or whatever. In fact, Rock Band 3 continues. We're selling DLC. People play the game. It's not a dead category at all. Music is a vibrant and critical part of human culture. It's a big deal."

There are new guitars and drums being made by Mad Catz (no keyboard) but you can use your old Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 wireless contraptions on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions.

Exported songs from those old games can also be uploaded. Your downloaded songs will work through console families, so PlayStation 3 content will work on PS4, and the same with the Microsoft consoles. The game is not being released on PC.

Some new song announced at E3 include Benjamin Booker's "Violent Shiver," Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars and "Uptown Funk," Queens of the Stone Age's "My God Is The Sun" and Scandal's "The Warrior."

Rock Band 4 is due to be released on Oct. 6.