Posts Tagged ‘Harmonix’

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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.

Ups
• 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!)

Downs
• 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!

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Review: Rock Band 3

December 31, 2010

Buy it from Amazon

2010 was a great year for music games, at least in terms of the sheer number of choices available to fans of the genre. We saw the release of Dance Central, Def Jam Rapstar, DJ Hero 2, Just Dance 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the latest versions of Dance Dance Revolution. For me, there was only one game that mattered: Rock Band 3. The latest Rock Band game made huge improvements to the series with the incorporation of multiple vocal lines from the Beatles and Green Day games, addition of keyboards (finally!) and establishment of pro modes so I’m reminded how much I couldn’t cut it as a real musician. The steady accumulation of downloadable content (henceforth abbreviated as dlc) and content exported from the other RB games has allowed Kathy and me to build up a pretty sizable library. Looking at my song list I feel like a karaoke DJ.

Even with tons of dlc, the main game’s song lineup is refreshingly diverse. Highlights for me include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I also have a new appreciation for both Dio and Smash Mouth. Props to Harmonix for including Spanish and German-language songs. While Juanes is not my cup of tea, I realize that the dude is incredibly popular and it is nice to see a music game publisher recognize the diversity of its audience.

Game progression has improved, allowing for more choice and less repetitive grinding. No longer will players have to play a “random difficult drum song,” knowing that it will be “Spoon Man,” “Pinball Wizard,” or “Chop Suey” (if you put a lot of time into Rock Band 2’s World Tour mode, you know what I mean). Goal Progression can be done in Quickplay, Tour Mode, or Career Progression, where players can view their goal lists and directly attack challenges in the game.

One of the features of the Rock Band franchise that has gone underrated in the opportunity to create a band of custom avatars. What changes from the main previous games in the series is the increased emphasis on story. Taking cues from Lego Rock Band, the game inserts your avatars into cutscenes depicting their formation and growth as you complete challenges. You’ll see them get shortchanged at their first gig, play a festival on the West Coast, and arrive in Japan to screaming throngs of fans. It’s really cool to see this motley crew (get it?) that you made acting outside of the main stage as more fully formed characters.

As for the character creator itself, it is just as fabulous as it was in Rock Band 2. There are more customization options for characters’ faces and bodies (almost enough to rival a Sims game). As for outfits, there are not a ton of changes from the previous go-rounds. The money system of acquiring outfits from the previous games has been replaced with an unlock system. Players earn articles of clothing by completing certain goals. This replaces the old tour mode grind and forces players to learn the Rock Band 3 songs, since many of the clothing-related goals are still tied to the core game. I’m resigned to not acquiring some of the items since they are tied to pro mode goals and as I’ve written before, I’m just not going to get that good.

This brings us to some of the disappointments in an otherwise stellar title. First, the game has many bugs. Before it got patched, loading screens would freeze, forcing hard resets. Some characters move weirdly or fade into their clothes in unnatural ways. One time I was playing a two-song setlist and after the first song I got kicked out of the game and sent to my PS3’s main menu. Luckily, my progress was saved. The game’s bugs aren’t deal breakers and the game is 98% playable, but the periodic bugs can be annoying.

Second, multiplayer is difficult for the wrong reasons. Playing a road challenge in the game’s tour mode requires communication among your band to get full completions and unlock more items. In road challenges, players are tasked to not only play songs well, but also fulfill conditions such as sustaining the enhanced-score overdrive, going into overdrive a certain number of times, or hitting a certain number of notes with each player taking turns to hit that number. The problems occur when one player gets designated in a difficult section and they just can’t hit that sequence, or timing overdrive is crucial but vocals and drums have limited control over when they can go into overdrive. Either way, there’s trouble.

Regarding dlc, I would like to see more content beyond music. While you can pay for Doors and Who T-Shirts for your avatars, I have a feeling those items were on the disc and you’re just paying to unlock them. I’d like to see new ensembles come out as often as songs. For more on this, Lisa Foiles has a neat article on Kotaku advocating for more crossover between fashion and gaming. As for the music content, offerings have been solid, but pretty conservative. Can we get something that was recorded in the past ten years? Nonetheless, I hope the Bee Gees dlc may be a sign of things to come.

The game includes a very deep tutorial mode to get players into playing the pro modes which simulate real instrumentation. It’s cool that you can learn to play scales and chords on keyboard and guitar, but the tutorials could be more user-friendly. In Rock Band 2, instrument tutorials included text, illustrations of someone properly playing the instrument, video demonstrations, and a play-through. In Rock Band 3, the only demo video you get is a quick intro to how the pro guitar interface works. The keyboard tutorial is text and playthrough-only, and the text directions for finger placement fail to communicate how a piano is supposed to be properly played. I may complete the tutorial lessons eventually, but I doubt I’ll really learn to play keyboards. Developer Harmonix assumes a level of musicality in their audience that may not always be there. This tutorial system would have been improved through an instruction system that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Overall, the real value of the game comes from the sheer number of things to do and the opportunities to personalize the experience. The technical problems don’t break the game and can be fixed with future patches. Rock Band 3 is a fantastic experience with tons of music, customization, replay value, and just good times rocking out. It’s my game of the year!