PAX East was this past weekend, and before the event started, we were invited to Harmonix to get some hands on time with Rock Band Blitz before it was unleashed to the gaming masses on the floors of PAX East. At the Harmonix booth at PAX East, there were six Rock Band Blitz kiosks set up for passionate fans and apprehensive skeptics to try playing a song in a beta build of the game. In our preview, we’ll talk about the gameplay, and give our first up close and personal impression with the game.
As we have said many times since the game was announced here, on social media, and elsewhere, Rock Band Blitz is not meant to be a sequel to Rock Band. It is a spinoff title in the same manner as Rock Band: Unplugged. And it is not indicative of where the franchise is heading. As several people initially thought, this game is more of a spiritual successor to Harmonix-developed Rock Band predecessors Amplitude and Frequency. But while these thoughts are not far off, there are enough significant changes from these two titles to both simultaneously excite and challenge old school beatmatch players and Rock Band players alike.
Some of you may be thinking “OK, but why not a direct sequel to those games?” First of all, those games were exclusive to the Playstation2, and are Sony owned IPs, so if a sequel to those games is coming, it’s Sony’s call. Harmonix doesn’t have much of a say on that. “OK, then why is it a Rock Band title?” If the title was outside of the Rock Band franchise, licensing restrictions wouldn’t have allowed for use of the entire Rock Band catalog in the game, so instead of create a brand new IP, they leveraged an existing one for a spin-off title to maximize in game content.
While the version we played is not final, and gameplay aspects are subject to change prior to release, but the game has actually been in development for quite some time. Originally in development prior to Harmonix separation from Viacom, the project was mothballed for a short time before being resurrected last year and significantly overhauled by several folks. The PAX East panel “Evolution of Beatmatch Gameplay” talked about the long road of development for the title, which had several iterations.
As for the game itself, the current beta build of Rock Band Blitz gameplay first asks you to choose a song from the 25 in-game songs or from your previously purchased Rock Band DLC library. Once selected, the player is prompted to pick one of 16 unlockable power-ups, which help the player maximize his score. While only a few of these power-ups are available at the start of the game, players can permanently unlock power-ups by earning “Cred” through song playthroughs, and purchase single song usage of the unlocked power-ups by spending “Coins,” which are also earned through successful completion of song playthroughs.
Before the song starts, you’ll notice a familiar note highway across the screen laid out in a green, red, yellow, blue, orange pattern. In Rock Band Blitz, each colored note highway corresponds to one of the five standard instruments available in Rock Band (green is drums, red is bass, yellow is guitar, blue is vocals, and orange is keys). If the song you are playing does not have a corresponding instrument, the particular highway will be empty. Using the standard instrument Rock Band charts, two lane note charts are generated for each instrument using an algorithm developed specifically for this game. Unlike similar predecessors, two lane note charts were decided upon based on the complexity of additional gameplay features we will explain below, as well as several other factors including surprisingly ergonomic strain on current generation input devices.
The game has only one difficulty, and is based on expert difficulty. Video was shown of how the algorithm would populate the Rock Band Blitz charts using the other difficulties, and because of the two gem lanes for each instrument, the game’s pace was too slow, the difficulty was too easy, and it just looked “odd.” If you’re not the world’s best player, or like to torture yourself with ridiculously difficult songs, it’s good to know that there is no way to “fail out” of a song in Rock Band Blitz.
At its core, Rock Band Blitz is a beatmatch title where you have to hit as many notes as possible, but this is a massive understatement. Unlike Rock Band: Unplugged, where you can complete all the charts thrown at you (if you don’t miss anything), Rock Band Blitz throws every note chart at you that has an instrument playing in the song. Part of the strategy is for you to figure out which note track to play to maximize your score. This is why you may have seen me describe this title as an exercise in efficient and effective “plate spinning.” The exception to this is when an instrument solo is initiated, which is unique to each song, where only the instrument with the solo is playable. If there are two instrument solos at once, the current algorithm will select one of the charts for you to play.
Then we add in multipliers. Just like Rock Band, multipliers increase based upon successful gameplay, but in this title, breaking a streak won’t reset them, and each instrument has their own multiplier. This comes in to play as the multiplier window, or the difference between the instrument with the highest current multiplier and the lowest current multiplier, is only THREE. For example, no matter how hard you work increasing your drums, bass, vocals, and keys multipliers, if your guitar chart has been untouched (assuming it has a note chart), those instruments won’t go above 4x. Again, there’s a lot of “plate spinning” in this game.
Once you pass one of several checkpoints, your multiplier level cap is increased to three spots above where your lowest instrument multiplier is currently resting. For example, your drums, bass, vocals, and keys multipliers are all at 4x, but your guitar is only at 2x. Once you pass the checkpoint, your level cap is increased by one, as your lowest multiplier is now 2x (instead of 1x), and you can raise your other four instrument charts to 5x.
While breaking a note streak won’t reset your multiplier like in standard Rock Band games, it’s still important. If you don’t break your streak on whichever charts you are flying around on, you fill up the BLITZ meter at the top, which helps to maximize your score.
Power-ups are selected prior to each song. The build I tried had two different flavors, but it looks like there may be a total of three in the final version. One class appear on purple gems across the note charts during the song and are deployed when they are properly hit. The other style of power-ups are accumulated using the familiar white overdrive notes and deployed at the player’s discretion. On the beta we played, we selected Pinball, which fires a ball bouncing further down the note highway and racking up points as it knocks out gems, as well as Bottle Rocket, which lets us fire a rocket further down the note highway, destroying gems and earning you points, as well.
Harmonix has not designed the game with a real-time multiplayer aspect, they will be including comprehensive leaderboards that will show you your friends scores, and will give you in-game messages on how your friends are doing, what songs they’ve beat you at, and more.
Is your head spinning yet? As much as you never really wanted to take your eyes off the note charts in Rock Band, there’s a lot more going on in this game, and basically you’re going to say goodbye to blinking. It’s a lot to take in while reading a preview of the title, but it becomes more intuitive as you play it. The interesting thing I noticed relatively quickly about the gameplay is that strategies developed for one song may not work well for another.
Even if you think you’ve got the hang of it already (and just because you’ve played Amplitude and Frequency, don’t assume this is the case), you’re going to want to try out the tutorial, which features a pretty epic original Harmonix track (assuming they keep it in through to the final build).
Here’s a previously posted full song gameplay preview which may help tie together everything explained above:
If you’ve stuck around to the end of this preview, and have seen some of the videos that have made their way into the wild, there is no doubt that this is a much different game than Rock Band 3. Unlike direct sequels to the core titles in the franchise, I definitely don’t expect everyone to love this game. However, it appears that Harmonix is aware of that, and has designed Rock Band Blitz to instantly export, free of charge, all new-t0-the-franchise 25 anticipated on-disc songs directly into Rock Band 3.
To the skeptics: give the game a shot. If you don’t like it, even if the game maxes out the XBLA pricing of $19.99, you’ve still got an incredible value at a giant 25-song track pack. If you’re anything like several of the people I talked to that were initially hesitant about the title at PAX East, you may be presently surprised and actually embrace this game pretty quickly once you’ve played it for a few minutes!