This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Rock Band 4.
Yeah, Rock Band, remember that? It was that thing where you pretend to play pretend instruments to an audience with such ridiculously eclectic tastes that you could put Avenged Sevenfold and 3 Non-Blondes on the same setlist and they'll go equally berserk for both. Rhythm games, it seems, are attempting a comeback after the last generation, when it suffered a more painful, drawn-out end than the average Metallica song. What fucked it up, I wonder? Maybe the fantasy was broken for players when they finally realized that a real rock band roams about the stage looking cool, kicking wannabe stage-divers in the bollocks. They don't stand fixedly in place staring at a monitor unless Keith Richards has flatlined again.
Personally, I think they fucked it up when they added downloadable songs; any passing chimp could have told the rhythm game producers that they were selling songlists first and new visuals and gameplay mechanics so distant to second their light takes eleven minutes to reach the earth. When Me and the Rowdy Boys were trying to decide which of the twelve Rock Band and Guitar Hero discs to put in, it was the promise of "Free Bird" or Ozzy Osbourne that drove the argument, not which ones had nicer hats. So the moment you could download whatever songs you wanted, all future installments became redundant. But now a new car battery has been attached to the jump leads, 'cause someone in the canteen at Console Towers said, "Hey, I just noticed the new console generation doesn't have guitar games yet; surely our hideously bloody-minded aversion to backwards-compatibility could yield more than a few pennies in that area," and then Rock Band and Guitar Hero locked eyes for a moment before simultaneously bolting for the door.
Not that I want to be churlish about it; I mean, I wasn't happy when guitar games died, 'cause it meant I had to reduce my list of things I'm good at back down to two, and happily, after picking up Rock Band 4, I can state that the muscle memory's lost none of the old magic, after I made my fingertips number than an altar boy's ringpiece the morning after the scandal finally died down. For the record, I went with the PS4 version on the assumption it wouldn't make too much of a difference, little realizing they'd placed the fucking share button right under the fret bar, so I accidentally quintupled the number of times I've ever pressed that fucking thing. I wouldn't want to press the share button if I were imprisoned in an oubliette and the little clicking sound it made was my only source of entertainment, least of all when I'm in the middle of a fancy solo. It's like abruptly pausing "Stairway to Heaven" for five seconds because Robert Plant wants to take a selfie.
So let's talk songlists, since we've established they're the lifeblood of this concept. As is invariably always the case, it's about ten percent firm, meaty songs we like and ninety percent filler; if it were a pork pie, you could make about twelve of them from a single trotter. But you could always populate the list with your favorite downloadable songs. The gameplay model has come a long way since Guitar Hero's unlocking five specific songs at a time; now for the campaign mode, the game somewhat procedurally generates setlists from all the available songs. Fair enough, but if you haven't downloaded any additional songs 'cause you're old-fashioned and think that just because you paid 250 bucks for the game in a shop means you've finished paying for the fucking thing, then you're going to find yourself repeating the same songs a fuck of a lot; it's like putting together a greatest-hits showcase for Dexys Midnight Runners.
But simply being the same Rock Band again but on the new console generation the world eventually got tricked into blithely accepting like a victim of domestic abuse would never be enough in this novelty-obsessed world, so let's devote close attention to Rock Band 4's unique selling point: the freestyle solos, AKA "Pow diddle-ow widdle-a widdle-a widdle-a weee!" How they work is that when a guitar solo inevitably comes up in a song, you're invited to make up your own, within certain guidelines. Press the fret buttons however you like, but if there's a big solid bar, you play one sustained note; if it's a wide pattern of lines, you strum two to the beat; if there are narrow lines, you strum four to the beat; if it turns orange, switch to the other fret buttons; if it all goes wobbly, lift up the neck; if you see see a little picture of a horse, stick the neck up your arse and fart on the whammy bar. Rock Band is supposed to be played socially with a total of about 27 units of alcohol distributed among the participants. This seems like a lot of rules to throw at anyone under those circumstances. Ain't no one got time to wait for the guitarist to go through the training manual for a light aircraft.
Oh, I know full well that you don't have to follow the directions and can just spend the whole freestyle solo rubbing the button end of the controller against a cat's arse, but forgive me for taking a bit of a condescending now as I explain to Harmonix what a video game is. We're here because we want to get a sense of achievement from overcoming a challenge, not to get congratulated for fannying about for three minutes. So of course I tried for the highest score -- 'cause otherwise what's the point? -- and found the solo system to be really temperamental. Whether or not you get to keep your points multiplier as you switch from different flavors of button-mashing seems to depend entirely on the game's bipolar whims, and trying to get back on the notes after the solo ends was always a fucking car crash, 'cause my fingers were all displaced and I couldn't take a moment to look at where to put them, 'cause you have to stare fixedly at the incoming notes like you're watching a David Cameron speech and are trying to spot a single sign of human emotion.
But the concept of freestyle solos is flawed on the fundamental level, because as I said earlier, these games are about the songs; we want to indulge the pathetic white-boy air-guitar fantasy of playing along to songs that we like, not to most of a song we like plus one minute of random caterwauling loosely connected to the finger movements of the confused drunk on lead lump of plastic. The original song's solo carries the band's unique sound and personality; the freestyle solo doesn't sound remotely like it's being played on the same instruments, or even in the same room. It's like you're trying to listen to the radio, but your guitarist roommate keeps having seizures and falling down the stairs.
Still, the basic songlist isn't exactly a plethora of air-guitar classics, is it? And at least a freestyle solo might break up the monotony when you're doing a 2000s indie rock song and have been up-and-downing the same chord for thirty seconds like a burn victim trying to wank some sensation back into his cock. But I feel that Rock Band might have bought into its own bullshit that the plastic guitar in any way resembles an actual musical instrument with which can express oneself creatively. If I wanted you to help me express creativity, Rock Band, I'd urinate my name onto your tits!
- Goodnight everybody: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I like how the setlist tries to surprise you sometimes by coyly hinting "a song by Scorpions" when there's only one sodding song by Scorpions in the danging game
- Buy Undertale instead