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'Rock Band Blitz' brings peripheral-free rhythm gaming to XBLA and PSN this summer

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Hey, you got Rock Band in my Frequency and/or Amplitude!

Gallery Photo: Rock Band Blitz screenshots
Gallery Photo: Rock Band Blitz screenshots

Harmonix amplitudes the frequency (?) with this new downloadable installment to the Rock Band franchise, Rock Band Blitz, coming to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in 2012.

Harmonix's next game is a mix of old and new. Years before the Boston-based studio made its name with Guitar Hero, and made it again with Rock Band; years before being left behind with Activision's Red Octane acquisition, being acquired by MTV, and being spun off again; Harmonix was already known as a rhythm game studio.

2001's Frequency and its 2003 sequel Amplitude were rhythm games you played with a controller; there were no dance pads and Harmonix hadn't yet discovered the allure of plastic peripherals. So it shouldn't be surprising that the studio is returning to those origins with its Rock Band franchise (and it could be said it already has to some degree with co-developed Rock Band Unplugged on PSP).

Rock Band Blitz is a downloadable title coming to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network this summer and, like its namesake, you're exploding colored gems down a runway in time with popular tunes. The most notable difference with Blitz is that you're doing it sans peripheral.

"We thought we would bring that old-school mentality of playing a beat-match rhythm game on a controller to the Rock Band era and create a Rock Band game which used those old mechanics," Matthew Nordhaus, project director on Rock Band Blitz, told Vox Games last month.

"There were a couple features about Blitz that just wouldn't satisfactorily map to the plastic instruments so we decided to go with just a controller," Nordhaus said, explaining the lack of a plastic peripheral option for Rock Band veterans.

But playing with a controller isn't the only major change from Rock Band. While Harmonix may have created one of gaming's most iconic multiplayer experiences with Rock Band, Rock Band Blitz is decidedly single-player, with asynchronous multiplayer in the form of leaderboards.

"We actually made a decision in the beginning to focus on the asynchronous multiplayer aspects of this, of playing against your friends but not playing at the same time," Nordhaus said. "One of the reasons was that Rock Band 3 still has a vibrant community that plays a lot and we see this as an addition to the Rock Band platform and another way, a different way of experiencing your games rather than a direct competitor with Rock Band 3."

Like Rock Band 3, Blitz has the entire Rock Band catalog - including the massive Rock Band Network - available to it. Unlike previous Rock Band games, there is no licensing charge to unlock the tracks from Blitz to play in Rock Band 3. There is one catch, however. "You can play them only in Rock Band 3 because they actually are created as Rock Band 3 format songs," Nordhaus said, pointing out things like the inclusion of "pro instrument" support that isolates the RB3 tracks.

In order to make all those songs compatible with the completely different gameplay of Blitz, the engineers at Harmonix created an algorithm they came to know as "Blitz-ificiation." That systemic process happens on song loads, remapping the original five-note gameplay to Blitz's two notes. When asked if that approach created any complications, like tracks that weren't fun or too difficult, Nordhaus said, "Fortunately so far we've been able to fix all of those by just tweaking the algorithm. So we don't expect that there will be any manual changes to any of the songs when we ship the game."

So if Blitz isn't like Rock Band, is it another skin on the classic Frequency gameplay? Not exactly. Notably, Blitz uses just two gems on each runway instead of three. "We went through a lot of prototyping, many different ways of beat matching with a controller," Nordhaus said. "That included three gems; that included some ideas of shifting the stick back and forth while you smashed gems, almost copying what you do with a guitar controller on the joypad controller.

"There were two reasons we settled on two: one was that the modern controller is better suited to two instead of three, as you mentioned with Frequency and Amplitude. But I think a more fundamental reason is that the choice was to let you focus a measure or two down the track as you play through and let you strategize about what your'e doing to do. And we found that if we took a little mental load off the beat matching and made it just a little bit easier to comprehend, you had the mental space to think about the strategy of what you're going to do to maximize your score."

And so Harmonix returns to its roots to extend its flagship franchise into the console downloadable space, and revisit the peripheral beat matching of its past in a world tired of plastic guitars. It remains to be seen if Blitz will find an audience beyond the core eager for another Amplitude but, at the very least, it's an incredible way to recycle all those Rock Band tracks you've been meaning to get back to.