Rock Band 4 Review (XONE)

Rock Band 4 screen
Rock Band 4 screen. Harmonix

Oh Rock Band, how I've missed you!  Even though I've actually learned to play a real guitar in the five years between Rock Band 3 and 4, I still regularly come back to these plastic instrument games because they're just so darn fun to play, especially with friends.  There is just something about everyone coming together to make music, fake instruments or not, that is crazy enjoyable and Rock Band 4 is just as great at that as previous entries.

It doesn't really do anything new or special, though, and really is the same game it has ever been, just on new platforms, which can make it hard to justify plunking down the cash for the same experience you already have.  Rock Band 4 isn't just a game, however.  It is a platform that is going to evolve and change and improve.  The RB4 we play today isn't going to be the same RB4 we play in 6-months, and that makes me feel better about investing in it today.  Rock Band 4 might not be the new rock revolution (no, not that one) some might have hoped for, but we're still glad Rock Band is back.

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Harmonix / Mad Catz
  • Developer: Harmonix
  • ESRB Rating: “T" for Teen
  • Genre: Music / Rhythm
  • Pros:  Great gameplay as always; voting on setlists; your old instruments work; your DLC transfers over; awesome to play with a group
  • Cons:  On-disc track list is sub-par; freestyle solos are kinda lame; missing features from RB3; not a lot of big changes / improvements

    Features & Modes

    Rock Band is a plastic instrument music / rhythm game where you use plastic guitars and drums, along with microphones, to play along with notes that scroll along your TV screen.  You aren't making "real" music, just playing Simon Says on toys, but it is still incredibly fun and surprisingly satisfying to play along with all of your favorite songs.

      And it is particularly fun to play with your friends and family in a full band sprawled all across your living room. 

    All of this is intact in Rock Band 4, but it is missing some of the features from Rock Band 3.  Removing the Pro Guitar feature, that used a guitar controller with 100+ buttons to simulate a real guitar in order to teach you how to really play, makes sense since Ubisoft's RockSmith series more than has that covered and is a better learning tool anyway.  Taking out the keyboard from Rock Band 3 makes less sense, however, especially since your old instruments are compatible here (more on that below).  For better or worse, Rock Band 4 is back to being a straight up guitar, bass, drums, vocals game.

    Because of those removed features, the modes list seems a little light at first glance, but all the stuff you actually wanted to play is still here.  It's hard to complain that the pro guitar teaching tools and keyboard trainer and whatever are gone since a big reason why they're gone is that no one used them.  People did use the quick play and career modes and those, of course, are present and accounted for.  The career mode isn't anything groundbreaking since you make a band and play live shows from their early dive bar days all the way up to selling out stadiums (just like you did in every other "band" game) but the occasional choices you get to make are sort of interesting.

      Sure, they're mostly cut and dried "Do you want to be a sellout and make money or be cool and fan-friendly but poor?", but getting to make the choices is appreciated.  All of the songs are unlocked from the start, though, so you don't even need to play the career / story mode at all if you don't want to. 

    A new feature I like is that during career or quick play everyone in your real life band gets to vote on what songs you play.  You can just select the songs from a list if you want, but the game will also present a number or choices and everyone just presses a button (or hits a drum pad, etc.) to choose what they want.

      These choices aren't always "X song", sometimes they'll just be vague options like a song from the 70's or a song with a woman vocalist, and the game will randomly choose a song that meets those criteria.  This is a lot cooler than just selecting songs from a list and makes things flow a lot better from song to song than before.

    Gameplay

    While the core note matching gameplay is the same as ever, there are some subtle changes.  Vocalists have more freedom to improvise - as long as they stay in key - and harmonies are back and even added to some of your older songs.  Drummers also have a new style of drum fills.  Guitar got a bit beefier change, and since I'm a guitar player at heart, I'll go more in-depth here. 

    Now guitar players can play freestyle solos which replace the carefully laid out note charts during solos with a more freeform noodling where you can press any buttons and play along with set rhythms the game tells you to.  You are also asked to move from the low frets down to the high frets on the guitar (as long as you have a Rock Band guitar, anyway).  The idea is that this gives guitar players more freedom to improvise and experiment during solos since you can play what you want and ... blah blah blah. 

    Honestly, I'm not a fan.  Freestyle solos can sound really bad or pretty good, depending on what buttons you're hitting, but they don't ever sound like the real solo from the real song, and I don't like that.  I also find it pretty disorienting to have to move all the way up and down the neck so much (this is why I play rhythm, not lead!) and it throws me off when you go back to playing normal notes.  It isn't that I greatly prefer the old note-vomity strings of unrealistic and impossible endless hammer-ons that a lot of the authored solos in these games tend to be, but there has to be some compromise between that and the "screw it, play whatever you want" freestyle solos in Rock Band 4.  Casual fans may like the freestyle solos since they are absolutely 100000% easier than the authored solos, but as a guitar player who actually wants to play the real solos, I'm grateful to have the option to turn off the freestyle solos and go back to the old way.

    Track List

    You can't talk about a new music / rhythm game without addressing the on-disc soundtrack, and this is another area where Rock Band 4 is somewhat disappointing.  We actually received a review kit two weeks before release, but weren't all that motivated to play it because the track list is just really, really sub par.  Music tastes are subjective, of course, so you may find more track on-disc you like than we did, but for us this is easily the weakest track list of any Rock Band game yet.  See the full track list here.

    Once we were able to access the DLC store, however, we started really getting into the game since we could play songs we actually liked.  Almost all of your DLC that you purchased on Xbox 360 will transfer over to Xbox One, though you have to manually sort through the in-game store to find the tracks you already own, which can take a while.  DLC songs have also been updated to allow for freestyle guitar solos and harmonies and another new features, which is pretty cool.  It has to be noted that disc exports from RB1, RB2, Green Day, LEGO Rock Band, etc. don't work quite yet, but they will eventually.  Single tracks you purchased individually are ready to go right now, though.  Rock Band 3 can't be exported, but Harmonix says they are working on it so it may be available in the future.  Beatles Rock Band, unfortunately, can't be exported at all, so you'll have to keep your X360 around to play songs from The Beatles.  New DLC songs will be added to the game at regular (but perhaps not every week like before) intervals.

    Hardware

    The new hardware that comes with Rock Band 4 is similarly "new", but still pretty much the same.  The guitars and drums are a little sturdier and solidly built, maybe, but they're still the same as ever.  I do have to say that I'm not really a fan of the previous Rock Band guitars, but for some reason the RB4 Stratocaster feels a lot better to me.  The strum bar is still squishy and doesn't "click", but the fret buttons do have a weirdly satisfying little tactile click that I really like.  I normally greatly prefer the Guitar Hero 5-button guitars, but the RB4 Strat is definitely staying in the rotation.

    Speaking of those older instruments, almost all of your Xbox 360 instruments will work with Rock Band 4 on Xbox One, provided you have the legacy controller adapter.  Why do you need an extra adapter on Xbox but not PS4?  Because complicated reasons, that's why!  We weren't able to test the legacy adapter with our older instruments for review, but we'll update this article in the future with any good or bad we come across.

    Do You Need Rock Band 4?

    That brings me to a key point in this review, however, and that is the fact that if using your old instruments and playing your old DLC songs you already own is a such a huge selling point for Rock Band 4, what is the point of buying RB4 when you can play all of that stuff already in RB3?   That really is something you need to ask yourself.  I know it is exciting to have a new game to play on your new generation of system, but if the main appeal is that you can keep playing your old stuff, you probably don't need the new game.  You're essentially paying a $60 (or $80 with the legacy adapter) premium just for the convenience of moving your music to a new system. 

    With that said, and while it is a very valid point, Rock Band 4 isn't "just" the game that is shipping in October 2015.  Harmonix doesn't plan on releasing any other new Rock Band games this generation - RB4 is going to be it - and instead intends to keep adding new features and modes and content to it via updates (at least some, maybe even most, of which will be free) over the coming months and years.  This softens the blow quite a bit.  Even if you aren't super impressed with Rock Band 4 currently, it should only get better as things are added.  You can buy it now and it will get better.  Or you can wait six months and buy it then and enjoy those better features in place from the start.  Harmonix is committed to Rock Band 4 for the long term, which means you'll be satisfied with a purchase even if you feel the initial offering is a letdown. 

    Graphics & Sound

    Presentation in Rock Band 4 is pretty much consistent with how everything looked and work in previous games, just now bumped up to 1080p and 60FPS.  In-game characters still don't have guitar straps, for whatever reason.  And you can't make a band full of custom characters to play with during career.  Custom characters only appear onstage when a real human is controlling them, which is weird.  So if you're playing by yourself, only your character will be a cool custom character.  Everyone else will be pre-made jobbers. 

    The game runs like a dream, though, and I didn't have any issues with lag.  I was a little worried after how poorly RockSmith 2014 performed on Xbox One (bad lag that made it hard to sync things properly) but Rock Band 4 syncs up beautifully.  The RB4 guitar has built-in lag calibration that worked perfectly right from the start so I was up and playing with no complaints in a couple of minutes.  I did have to manually re-calibrate later to use headphones instead of TV audio, but that went smoothly the first time as well. 

    Audio quality is fantastic, as you'd expect from a game like this.  I do wish there were more options to set the audio mix levels, however, as I'd like to isolate the guitars a bit more.  Instead you can only adjust the volume of the whole band, sound effects, and crowd noise.  Gimme more options.

    Bottom Line

    All in all, though, when everything is said and done and the hand-wringing about the game not being "new new" enough, Rock Band 4 is still a solid entry in the series and we couldn't be happier to have it back.  It sounds great and plays great and looks better than ever, and all of the songs and plastic instruments you've already invested a ton of money in still work.  It will also continue to evolve as time goes by thanks to free updates.  I don't know that it is something you should necessarily feel compelled to run out and buy right now, because it doesn't really offer a different experience than what you're used to, but I do feel like that long-term it will be a game no music / rhythm fan should miss.  Whether you get it now or wait for an update or two, Rock Band 4 will definitely be worth a purchase.    

    Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.