It’s hard to comment on this game without explaining the situation at launch. To buy Rock Band 4 on the Xbox One you had four options. The first was to buy it online, digitally. Without a Rock Band 4 guitar (not sold separately) or the legacy adapter (not sold separately) it is useless. The second was to buy the pack with the legacy adapter. We still haven’t seen one of these in real life and there were various rumours that it had been delayed because it was so rare. This lets you use older instruments with the game, and we would say is probably the best way to get into the game at the moment (if you can find it). The third is the one we went for, the bundle with the guitar. This is £110 which is ludicrously expensive for a single game, and since it doesn’t come with an adapter and you can’t buy guitars separately, means you can’t play any multiplayer. At all. The final way is to buy the £220 ‘Band in a Box’ bundle that comes with the guitar, microphone, and the drumkit (and no legacy adapter or second guitar so you still can’t make up a full band with it). This means currently to play as a full band with new instruments, you need to buy both the guitar bundle and the ‘Band in a Box’ bundle, coming in at £330, for one game. Harmonix have stated that instruments will be sold separately in 2016 and we imagine it’s a production issue at the moment, but if you’ve got any wishes to play local multiplayer (which we couldn’t test for this review) then make sure you pick up the legacy adapter bundle and some old instruments, it’s the only one that makes sense at the moment.
The guitar itself is solid and avoids many of the problems of the old peripherals, but it’s not got anything exciting or new about it. There’s a sensor for automatic calibration (although we had lots of trouble getting that to work right and ended up using manual calibration for the sound instead) and there’s a second set of buttons higher up on the neck that can be useful for quick sections and are necessary in the new solo mode. Unlike older Rock Band guitars the strum bar doesn’t squeak and seems to have quite a lot more strength but besides that it’s essentially the same guitar you’ve probably bought two or three times before. It’s disappointing not to see a huge increase in quality given the cost involved (for comparison the new Guitar Hero bundle has a guitar and the game for £80 and can be found for pre-order as low as £60).
The game itself it’s where things start to go a little better for Harmonix. First off, this is essentially the same game in many ways as previous entries, but that’s not a negative. The format worked well with a campaign mode made up of a story about going on tour filled in with different kinds of sets with steadily increasing difficulty and some fun twists (play a set just using songs from the 60s etc). There’s also the mandatory quick play modes for high-score chasing and some local multiplayer we haven’t been able to test. Unfortunately there is currently no online multiplayer at all, but apparently this is something that will be added in over the coming months.
Rock Band 4’s greatest asset and its one trump card over Guitar Hero is that your entire Rock Band music library will eventually carry over from previous platforms within the same console family. Currently it’s a little hit and miss with loads of songs either not appearing or not registering that you already have them but that’s a massive bonus for anyone who’s been buying Rock Band DLC for the last decade. On the Xbox there’s currently no way to easily sort to songs you already own (although I imagine that will change once they get more of the export options running), instead you have to manually go to them and find them. We were able to go on there and download a bunch of songs that we bought originally because we liked them so much, so it’s great to get your own playlists into the game. Even better, your DLC is fully integrated into the campaign, so the more songs you own, the better that campaign will be.
The track list on the disc consists of around 50 songs from a variety of different genres and eras. Of course this is massively subjective, but it’s a very mixed bag with some songs that are great fun to play (Suspicious Minds by Elvis being a surprise favourite here) along with such weird choices from bands that would otherwise make sense. ‘Fever’ is an ok song, but the guitar part is really dull, why not pick literally anything else that the Black Keys have done ever? We imagine there’s a whole bunch of licensing issues stopping Harmonix from crafting their ultimate playlist, and it’s hard to deny that the previous games in the series have already taken most of the obvious choices. We’re really hoping sometime soon you’ll be able to buy the track lists from previous games without needing a legacy console to go back and export them.
In terms of gameplay the one new features are the custom solos. At certain points within songs (even legacy DLC songs like ‘My Iron Lung’ by Radiohead features them) the track will change to simply give you a simple instruction like hold a note, strum at a certain speed, do some tapping, or using the whammy bar. During these sections you can play whichever notes you want and they are transposed into a scale and guitar tone that fits with the song. Using the pickup selector on the guitar you can choose the effects that your guitar is using and you can craft some pretty impressive little solos with very little effort and zero musical knowhow. If you hold down one button it’s a note, strum up and it’s a bend, hold a combination of notes and you’ll play a different lick for each combination. There’s a lot of variation and quite a lot of control within them, you can make solos sound the way you want and this is a real achievement. Of course if you’d rather play the real music from the song you can just turn the feature off in the menus or even use the d-pad mid-song to select something.
Other than that, this is the same ROck Band. Visually it’s seemingly identical with low detail stages and character models rocking out in surprisingly convincing ways that fit with each song. One nice touch is that during character creation, you choose whether to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ rather than ‘male’ or ‘female’. Not only is this a nod in the right direction towards more progressive character creators but it makes single characters singing both male and female parts make a lot more sense as most of the characters end up looking a little androgynous.
If you’re looking to keep playing Rock Band on the new generation, this is a fine entry in the series. We’re not impressed with the cost, or the poor launch, or the lack of online multiplayer. We wish they’d included the legacy adapter in every bundle or made it available for cheap to everyone, but most of these things will be rectified over the coming months. If you own a lot of Rock Band DLC, the fact they’ve made it all compatible with this is an absolute godsend and could be the main thing that gives it an edge over Guitar Hero. Check back next weekend for our review of Guitar Hero Live to find out!