Rock Band 4 hands-on preview – It’s Rock Band, innit

Rock Band 4 logoIt’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

The infinite food scenario is the most commonly used example: if you were stuck on a desert island and could only eat your favourite food for the rest of your life, you’d still probably be sick of it after about a month. Even if it was Nando’s.

This was the fate that befell the ‘plastic guitar’ sub-genre of rhythm action games spearheaded by Harmonix, who created Guitar Hero and then – in an odd twist of fate – went on to create its rival Rock Band after being purchased by MTV.

During the late noughties Guitar Hero and Rock Band were the kings of social gaming. Though both played similarly, each also brought something slightly different to the table.

But which was best? YOU DECIDE. Actually, I'll decide: Rock Band was well better than the first Guitar Hero
But which was best? YOU DECIDE. Actually, I’ll decide: Rock Band was well better than the first Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero was the flashy one that made its way into popular culture, appearing on the likes of Ellen and having the piss ripped out of it on South Park. The Super Mario Bros or Tetris of its time, non-gamers knew it by name: tell a friend at the pub that you played Guitar Hero with your mates and they knew what you were talking about.

Meanwhile, Rock Band fans happily played what they considered was actually the better game: the one that didn’t grab all the headlines but offered the better experience, the PES to Guitar Hero‘s FIFA, if you will (which is ironic, considering EA published it).

As in our desert island scenario, however, it soon became too much. Activision, never one to shy away from milking a franchise until there’s vinegary dust puffing out of its teats, went on to release an insane 16 Guitar Hero games and spin-offs in only five years.

The public grew sick of keeping up with the countless Guitar Hero releases and revolted, with the sixth and final main game – Guitar Hero: Warriors Of Rock – only selling a third of what Guitar Hero III did.

In fairness, it had gotten a little silly by the end
In fairness, it had gotten a little silly by the end

The genre had died due to over-exposure and Rock Band was dragged down with it. Mind you, it wasn’t exactly innocent of cashing in either, what with spin-off games based on The Beatles and Green Day, and a needlessly large DLC library of nearly 4200 songs.

“Why are you telling me all this, Chris?” you’re probably asking me. “I know all this shite.”

Because, dear reader, believe it or not, it’s actually been half a decade since the last Rock Band or Guitar Hero game.

Rock Band 4
Wooo, it’s Rock Band 4! Click the screens to make them bigger, mind

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, however, and in recent times numerous gamers have been jonesing to get the old fake instruments out of storage, get the fake band back together and head out on the fake road again.

And so, five years after the death of one of gaming’s greatest rivalries, it’s back again, with Activision trying something a little different with Guitar Hero Live, ditching the traditional five coloured buttons and offering a completely new guitar (i.e. a new source of income) and FMV-style graphics instead of the polygonal stuff we’re used to.

Harmonix, meanwhile, is playing it safe with Rock Band 4. Sticking with the same instruments (full backwards compatibility with previous peripherals is planned) and retaining the traditional look and feel, it’s a much safer offering but one that’s already proved to work in the past.

I went hands-on with Rock Band 4 at a press event today to see what’s new and, perhaps crucially, what isn’t. The first time I saw it in action my response was simple: “Well, it’s Rock Band, innit?”.

It’s hard not to be a little underwhelmed by what initially appears to be little more than a slight graphical upgrade: though it’s important to note it’s still at pre-alpha stage and as such all the visual bells and whistles are still to be added.

It’s the same basic game too, with the familiar four-person band prancing around on stage with gusto (keyboards have wisely been ditched this time). Look at it from across a room and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Rock Band 3.

In fairness, everything is still very early, with today’s event designed more to get the press talking about the game and hyping people up before more details – the juicier details – are shown at E3. Which I’ve just helped with. Sorry.

It could be argued, given it’s pre-alpha, that it wasn’t ready to be shown yet. The frame rate is pish at best. The vocals often went out of sync. The alleged best Guitar Hero player in the world (according to Guinness at least) was present and making an pig’s dick of some simple solos because of the unstable code.


It feels as if the February rumours of a new Guitar Hero game forced Harmonix’s hand early, making them announce Rock Band 4 pre-E3 (and pre-Guitar Hero Live) in order to stop all the attention being pointed at Activision’s game. Indeed, as project lead Daniel Sussman told me, the rest of the team at Harmonix Boston is working day and night to get a good E3 build ready.

More is to come. The new instruments, designed by MadCatz (who are co-publishing the game with Harmonix: bye bye, EA) were M.I.A., but will be ready by E3. The much-teased single player mode, which has been described as a sort of RPG, was completely absent and – you guessed it – likely to be at E3.

Instead, then, what we had was people on stage playing Rock Band 3 instruments to wonky pre-alpha code.

pgallery5_15_07And you know something? That was good enough for me. I still play Rock Band 3 on a regular basis, and to know that a fourth one exists and to witness it with my own eyes was enough to satisfy me.

Yes, there are new drum fill bits designed to reduce latency or some such pish. And there are other guitar-based mechanics still to be revealed (guess when). But the thing to take away from this is that, yes, it’s Rock Band innit.

And while “it’s Rock Band innit” may be considered by some to be something of a criticism, to me it’s the ultimate praise I can bestow upon it at this point.

It’ll use your Rock Band instruments (and your Guitar Hero ones). It’ll play your Rock Band songs, and you won’t need to re-buy them (practically every song with very few exceptions will eventually be ported over to PS4 and Xbox One, Sussman confirmed to me). It’ll have the Rock Band highway, and it’ll have the Rock Band feel.

It’s Rock Band, innit. And thank God that’s all it is.

Wooo wooo, intervyoooo

Here’s a 10-minute interview I had with Daniel Sussman, the project head for Rock Band 4.

This guy is not only Mr Rock Band, he’s also Mr Guitar Hero. He was the producer of the first ever Guitar Hero and the project lead for Guitar Hero II, then when Harmonix switched to Rock Band he became director of hardware development on Rock Band, Rock Band 2 and The Beatles: Rock Band, then project director on Rock Band 3.

He knows his onions, basically, and it’s a great little interview.

Disclaimer: This preview was made possible by attending a Rock Band 4 press event in London this morning, to which I was invited. I paid for my own travel there (because I live in London anyway) and didn’t eat any of the free food on offer there.

Don’t get me wrong, I was going to but then I was called over to interview Daniel Sussman. Otherwise I would have tucked in.

Because if you do your job right a free bacon sandwich doesn’t fucking make you corrupt.

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