Archive for September, 2012


Review: Rock Band Blitz

September 16, 2012

Image from Harmonix, on whose site there are links to buy the game.

Summary: Harmonix independently publishes a digital download music game, ditches the instrument party for a solo controller setup, and reinvigorates Rock Band for the lean social age.

• I’m quite happy that Harmonix finally put out a Rock Band game that allowed the use of a controller. After I hit a plateau in Rock Band 3, it became less fun to pull instruments out of my living room closet. Blitz’s exclusive reliance on the controller makes it much more accessible to casual players.
• Despite its simple concept, the game gives you a lot to manage. You have to hit enough notes on 4-5 instruments, switch between them enough times so that the point disparity between them isn’t too great, watch for white notes (to build your overdrive meter for launching power-ups) and purple notes (to trigger other power-ups), and push your accuracy meter to enter Blitz mode (where the game speed seemingly doubles but you get more points for every note you hit.) I enjoyed the complexity.
• Part of the appeal of each new Rock Band game is its song list. For $15, you get 25 songs right out the (virtual) box. Before the game dropped I was looking forward to some of the songs, notably Tears For Fears’ “Shout,” Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.” I thought those were fun to play, but I also had some surprisingly good times with Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” and Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away,’ both songs I had never heard of before this game. Heck, after playing through Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” I no longer think of them as horrible clunkers. For a $15 digital title, there’s a decent mix of material right from the get-go.
• On top of that, any song that you have on your console’s hard drive gets integrated into Blitz’s gameplay system. If you were regularly buying DLC and/or exported the setlists of the other Rock Band games into Rock Band 3, then you’ll have a lot of fresh levels to play and leaderboards to climb. It’s a great nod to players who invested a lot of time and money into past games, as everything old is new again.
• Free export! When I bought other Rock Band games in the past, export was always an extra $5-$10 on top of the cost of the game. Even if you aren’t feeling the gameplay, Blitz is a mega-cheap track pack at $.60 a song. Enjoy duets of “One Week,” people.
• You can’t fail out! While there is an incentive to play the game well and not just wail on the buttons (though on the guitar solo parts I might as well have been), you can still do ok by mashing when buffered by the right power-ups (gotta love that shockwave!)

• Remember what I said about the game’s use of the standard controller making it more accessible to casual players? This is counterbalanced by the sheer speed and number of notes coming at you as you play. Each song’s charting in Blitz is based on its expert mode charting in regular Rock Band so if you’re unfamiliar with a song or your hand-eye coordination is a little slow, it can be easy to get discouraged. Toss in all the different stuff you have to be aware of while playing (see my second point in the Ups section) and things can get pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re not in the right mindset for this kind of thing.
• There’s nothing really connecting the levels of gameplay. There is no band onstage, no cutscenes between levels, and no changes in what the highway scenery looks like while playing the game. I liked Rock Band 3’s use of story in its Tour Mode as a means to get me emotionally invested in my band of avatars. Similarly, the acquiring of character customization options through completing goals kept me coming back after I had heard all the songs in the game. The game looks the same each time you play it and there are no human faces on which you can project yourself while you play. It feels a little cold.
• Instead, there’s a big focus on social networking with challenging friends and strangers to “Score Wars” and Facebook integration. While leaderboard rankings were present in Rock Band 3, they weren’t the big prize for playing well (see previous point.) I’ll admit that it was neat to see my run on Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” placed in that song’s top 10 (by the time you read this it’s probably ranked #310 or lower), but leaderboard rankings are fleeting and so is the satisfaction I get from placing on them. I also don’t buy into the Facebook integration thing because I’m not sure I want to share that part of me with distant relatives or work colleagues. I recognize that this may be a big thing for some people, but it isn’t for me.
• Sadly, there is no way to play Rock Band 3 songs in Blitz at this time. Frankly, this isn’t that big a deal to me. Kickass as that game’s tracklist was, I did get a little tired of hearing the same songs as I was trying to complete many of the game’s goals. I’d rather have Blitz’s more open-ended goal system that encourages playing of lots of different songs.
Blitz has a lot more value if you already have a bunch of songs on your console’s hard drive. That might be a little discouraging to newcomers who plow through the base 25 songs in a weekend and then want to do something new but might not want to pony up $2 a song.

Conclusion: As I type this the game has been out for almost a month and I still feel the urge to go back to it. It’s a testament to the game design prowess of Harmonix that they can make a game that’s cold and a little cynical and overcome those shortcomings through deceptively complex gameplay, solid musicality, casual-friendly level structure, and a soundtrack that’s fun at the start. Beyond that, I’m just happy this game exists and Harmonix hasn’t totally focused their energies into Dance Central. I’ll be honest, before this title launched I hadn’t played a Rock Band game since 2011, which would have come as a shock to me circa when I launched this site. Then again, the way I felt about Rock Band in 2010 was the same way I felt about Dance Dance Revolution in 2003 – that it would be around forever and that I would love it forever. Nothing lasts forever, and while both series are still alive (though DDR is questionable) my enthusiasm for both series has waned considerably in the wake of other titles and interests. It’s a little unsettling to consider this in an “ashes to ashes” sense. In the meantime I’m glad that there’s a new way to connect with Rock Band and enjoy this fabulous series for a little bit longer. Blitz on!


State of the Auditorium

September 9, 2012

Image from IceNineJon via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Hi. It’s been awhile. Since the curtain fell on the last season of American Idol a few changes have happened in my life. I got a new job, which necessitated a move to the new location of the position. So Kathy and I packed our bags and moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Akron, Ohio. Honestly I am happy to be back in the Midwest. For the first 20+ years of my life I lived in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. While I had good experiences in Alabama, Colorado, and Maryland, they just weren’t as much of a match for me. Coming to Ohio feels like I’m coming back to my roots.

Although I am happy have a job and earn income in this age of uncertainty, my job change has increased my work responsibilities to a level that I feel less motivated to write as my “extra-curricular activity.” This is important because we’re coming up on the season premiere of The Voice.

I’ve recapped the past two seasons of The Voice on this blog and I’m just not feeling it this season. Don’t get me wrong, the show has had moments of awesomeness and it’s still a better program than Idol. Last season I was moved to tears after a battle round performance – that’s some kickass singing. I found at least a few contestants to be pretty likeable. And unlike the past season of Idol, I feel like the most talented contestant actually won the show. On the other hand, the show has also had its problems. While it doesn’t have quite the same retro-fetishistic sentimentality as Idol does, its ratio of clunkers to hits is getting closer to Idol’s. Also, while I like the music of most of the coaches (latest example: scoring “Moves Like Jagger” was a coup for Rock Band Blitz, as it’s one of the more challenging and fun songs in the game) as TV personalities I find them to be quite grating. I’m not sure I can take another season of Adam Levine’s douche-y machismo, Blake Shelton’s ham-fisted “eagle-shaped tears” musical conservatism, Christina Aguilera’s tired posturing, and Cee-Lo Green’s combo package of borderline sexual harassment and terrible taste in music. Not to mention it feels wrong when all too often the three male judges are ganging up on the one female judge; especially when she has valid points. Finally, Carson Daly is only entertaining as a host when his wooden façade cracks and we see his frustration with the contestants, coaches, guest performers, and program in general.

Basically, there comes a point in every season where recapping the show isn’t fun or cathartic for me. It starts to feel like a second job. For me, that moment seems like it’s coming sooner rather than later and it’s a bad sign. While I’m proud of what I have written these past few years and I’m pleased that people have read (and hopefully enjoyed) my posts, in truth the writing process doesn’t come easily to me. One reason why I shifted the focus of this site from reviewing songs and albums to recapping musical competition reality shows is that the pace of the TV season and the ephemeral nature of the medium forced me to stick to a schedule and meet deadlines. However, that has also meant pushing myself to come up with something to say about every performance on every episode and a lot of times the words aren’t there for me and I get frustrated.

I want to keep this site going with new posts because writing is the one hobby for me that produces a tangible output. I’m pleased with the results but I find the journey frustrating to the point where I’ve found myself going to bed angry. If I’m going to make this site work for me I will need to change the format of how I write recaps and possibly what I write about entirely. Still, I hope to make this work. You probably won’t see any posts from me this week, but you should see something from me soon.