Okay Harmonix, with all this hype I’m hearing about Rock Band 4, we need to talk. Way back when I first started this relationship with Rock Band, I was all in. You had everything a former musician like myself needed from a social music game - songs from my favorite bands, a challenging yet satisfying beatmatch system, my choice of instrument, even the choice to play rhythm or lead, all while immersing me in a crowd of cheering fans. I could have an instant band with my least musical of friends; I was head over heels for you.
After a few years, however, something wasn’t quite right. I guess the comfort of this relationship just made us complacent. I mean, there was nothing wrong with you, and you did give me new songs and skins. Of course your DLC was just as fun as it always was; it just wasn’t enough. I wanted to sing and play how I wanted to sing and play! As accommodating as you were, you were just holding me back with that beat matching system which could never be as dynamic as a real vocal line or guitar solo. And as much as my friends tried, whenever they hit a drum solo their lack of rhythm slowed the band down and threw us all off. How were we supposed to keep a combo going like that? I guess here is where I should confess that I’ve been cheating on you with YouTube Karaoke songs. I couldn’t help myself; the lack of musical freedom left me wanting more. By Rock Band 3, I knew my worst fears had come true; I had fallen out of love with you. Don’t get me wrong, you’d done a lot — it’s not you, it’s me.
Then, you announced Rock Band 4. I was curious about what new songs you would add, but quickly reminded myself about past experiences. It would be an unfair expectation to expect you to change in a way that would fulfil all my needs. Concerned friends encouraged me to give you another shot, but I brushed them off. Was a few new songs and skins worth reliving the heartache?
I approached your Product Manager, Eric Pope with trepidation and braced myself for more of the same news. Nothing, however, could prepare me for what he was about to say.
He started off by telling me about the just announced Freestyle Guitar solo. “With this new feature,” he began, “when you come to a solo section you play your own notes. You play your own guitar solo.” I was completely taken aback. This news was too good to be true. And still, he went on to say, “Harmonix has been working on this system for about ten years. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle. We’ve done a lot of things with Rock Band but we’ve never been able to pull off the player expression/creativity bit. An now we have. So this puts the power in your hands to craft solos. It’s not like a little toy where you can just flail away—you can do that; you can flail away and it sounds good because we make sure it’s in the key of the song—but it actually has a lot of depth to it. The more you play and the more you start understanding how the system works, you can start stringing along riffs and licks and sustain notes, finger tapping — you can do all these things. The more you play it, you can actually create your own intention in the solo that comes out. We’re really excited about it. It just adds that final element into Rock Band that we’ve always kind of wanted for it. Just the expression part is big.”
Fine, Harmonix. Eric was right, this is a big change. But that still wasn’t enough for me. I’m a singer, darn it! What about my needs?
“We’ve added vocal expression mode now too,” Eric continued. “In the past, you always had to follow the melody line. Now if you’re a good singer and you can sing in the right key, you can sing whatever you want, as long as it’s in the right key. We’ll score you for it. So you’re not going to penalized for not following that melody line. It’s a feature for the people who like to play vocals and wanted more out of it. So that’s just another way we can let you make the song your own thing.”
This is too much, Harmonix. You really do care! I can sing however I want? I can actually live my rockstar fantasy? I must be dreaming. But what about my less musically-inclined drummer friends? Are you going to leave our band to drown in a sea of rhythmically-challenged bandmates?
“We’ve also got a new drum fill system that’s more dynamic and sounds better than ever,” added Eric, saving the day. “It’s not just an empty track where you simply bang away on the drums. Now they’re authored and you’re always going to get a different drum fill. We pulled them from a pool of authored drum fills so you’re always going to be in time and sound good.
“All those features are just a little piece.”
Slow down, Eric! My fragile heart can only handle so much!
“We also have this new mode called Show Mode. It’s basically our party mode. It eliminates the need to go back to the song list — you know, the point where you and your friends bicker for ten minutes about the song you’re going to play next? It’s meant to flow seamlessly from song to song. So when you finish a song, you as a band get to vote on what the next set of songs are. It pre-populates a few choices from your song list. For example, it will ask you if you want to play something metal, or something from the 90’s, or something that’s classic rock. Everyone will get to vote, and it sort of leads to some emergent-like social interactions in the room where you can team up on someone one and vote against what they want. It’s really fun. And it keeps you in the show experience.”
By this point, my head is spinning. Why the sudden change in direction, Harmonix? Eric explained:
“It’s how we’re thinking of Rock Band 4. In other Rock Bands the focus was on playing a song. Playing a show now is now the big idea in Rock Band 4. You can play a show as long as you want. And if you play well enough, you can get encores. We have a much more reactive crowd system this time. They’ll react differently depending on how you’re doing. If you do well enough they’ll request encores — they’ll actually shout out song names that they want you to play. sometimes they’ll just be fan requests. You have the option to play those. We tie that all to a new scoring system called Stage Presence. We obviously still have the stars and the points, but the stage presence system allows us to reward you for all these different show, band dynamics and social choices that are made during game play. So it’s an additional layer of player rewards for doing different things that are not just tied to a number.”
Completely overwhelmed with what Eric told me, I felt it was time to put your money where your mouth is, Harmonix. As I stepped up on stage and took up the controller to select my song (and with 11 new songs that include Elvis for the first time in a music game and your usual squeal-inducing fare ranging the gamut of genre and decade, there was a lot to choose from), there was still a tinge of skepticism tingling at the back of my head. It had been a long, long time since we’ve last been with each other. Okay, there was that one drunken night in February, but we know what that was, don’t we? I selected my song, grabbed the microphone and took a deep breath and tested my freedom. What happened next was glorious. I could sing the notes I wanted to sing. I truly felt as if I made the song my own. And the Rock Band 4 crowd went wild. I was involved in the performance, not a voyeur struggling to break from the confines of beats I needed to match. It left me truly satisfied.
I didn’t think it was possible, Harmonix, but Rock Band 4 has more than won me back. You can be absolutely sure that I’ll be counting down the days until October 6, 2015. My PS4 and Xbox One will be ready for the day you hit store shelves.