Rock Band PS4. Rock Band 4, for those who had been enamoured with the plastic instrument craze, was like a comfy pair of trousers you’ve not worn for a while; fitting like you remembered even if they weren’t in style anymore. Developer Harmonix certainly tried to revitalize and rework certain aspects, but all the sequins and lights in the world weren’t going to make this particular pair of leg-casings feel truly as fresh and relevant as it once did.
With the expansion, Rock Band 4: Rivals, Harmonix has taken its biggest swing at a palpable change to the formula. Some work better than others; in fact, one mode in particular is just head and shoulders above anything else in the package.
In 2016, it’s safe to say I’ve played through a fair few gaming stories. Some explosive, some touching, some gut-wrenching, and some that just ended with a simpering whimper. Then there’s Rock Band 4: Rivals and its ‘Rockudrama’ story mode, easily the best attempt at a story mode in a rhythm game since a beanie-wearing pup started breaking it down on the mic twenty years ago. It’s also often as silly and surreal as Parappa, but in a more reality-based way. It’s stupid, tongue-in-cheek, and gleefully filled to the hilt with cheesy goodness.
You get talking heads (who I can assume are mostly Harmonix employees, which is impressive as all hell if so) detailing the life and times story of your fake band (which can be just you on your own or up to three more pals can join in on the legend). Fun is poked at the old music channel staple of ‘Behind the Music’ documentaries throughout, with daft things blown out of proportion for comic effect as your band travels from high-school nobodies to stadium-rocking behemoths and quite probably back again with some amusingly skewered takes on established band story cliches (reaching a zenith with the ‘band tragedy’ scene, which is a superbly absurd moment of brilliance). I had immense amounts of fun with it, and thanks to a few gameplay touches, it has a level of challenge and replayability that makes it more than a one-trick pony.
Firstly, in a game-wide addition to Rock Band 4, you now gain xp (usually for your profile, but also for your band in this mode) which, yes you’ve guessed it, increases your level and unlocks new fancy instruments, clothing and the like. A fairly rote addition really, but hey, it does give a bit of extra depth and incentive to the whole game, so it does its job well enough that it isn’t quite the quibble it could have been.
Second up for the Rockumentary is the points and wager system. Each show gives you a select number of songs, with more and more points awarded for stars earned and difficulty tiers. Play consistently well and you’ll progress through the chapters and continue the story of your band. But should you want to have a career with a few flourishes, or are just desperately in need of a points boost, you can gamble on how many stars you’ll get for a show, with riskier predictions garnering more points. On top of that you’ll get offered random playlists to further boost your score. It works well as a way of ensuring progression, but taking enough risks and coming out victorious can land you a ‘premium’ finish to chapters. It’s best left as a mystery what that is exactly, mainly because it’s not especially as interesting to read about as it is to play.
The Rockudrama isn’t the full extent of the expansion of course. There is also the titular Rivals to factor in, a mode that brings a battle of the bands to online play.
Rivals mode encourages you to grab some friends to form a crew of up to ten people, and take on other players in a war for band/crew supremacy. It’s a more personal take on competitive co-op and challenges that draws in the entirety of what you do in Rock Band, but by having your friends and family right there with you, it provides a nice compromise between the more modern online play and a classic same room experience. You can do almost anything in Rock Band 4 amongst your crew in order to accumulate points, from specific song challenges, to racking up high scores as normal. It keeps a fresh consistency of stealthy busywork, and incentivises even the most trivial of things you end up doing.
Rivals also brings a host of tweaks and improvements to the base game, fine-tuning the game in ways that definitely improve the overall experience. More accessible menus, UI tweaks, and generally more responsive instrument inputs are chief among them.
The redesigned Rivals version of the Fender guitar mercifully moves some buttons about to prevent the previous issues with knocking yourself out of a song with a nudge of the PS button, and it also feels satisfyingly clackier on the keys. It also has a foldable fret for easier storage, a most welcome change for the space-conscious. Drums also get a rework, and respond better to differing strength of strikes, and drum pads are generally a bit quieter when struck. It’s a shame the support poles aren’t a bit more resilient. They feel worryingly loose even when secured, but in fairness, it has yet to pose any real problems. The microphone is less improved, and that’s fine as it was pretty reliable to begin with. If anything is better about it I’d say it’s probably a slight increase in responsiveness when using it for percussion segments.
It was a smart move for Harmonix to focus on building up the base game for its first major expansion, rather than worry about new songs. The result is a better Rock Band 4, one that keeps rewarding continued play beyond personal pride/fun. The Rockudrama mode is the cheesy icing on the cake though, a reminder that being incredibly daft fun is what videogames do best.