When the game was officially unveiled on G4, along with it’s unexpected gameplay, the game wasn’t received as positively as expected, if the YouTube announcement trailer ”thumbs up/down” metric is to be believed. And now that I’ve given this game some serious hands on time, I have to admit that there are definitely going to be some die hard Rock Band fans out there disappointed that this is not Rock Band 4. But despite all the expectations of what this “was supposed to be,” once you get your hands on this game, which includes a competitive social gameplay mechanic not seen before in a Harmonix game, you’ll understand why it’s virtually impossible to put this game down.
I first heard about Rock Band Blitz in early March due to an accidental tweet from @JohnVignocchi during GDC in early March of this year. Outside of the one or two people who saw his tweet before it was deleted moments later, Rock Band Blitz remained a secret until just before its announcement prior to PAX East this year. There was no additional context around the game, but based on the name alone, it appeared that Harmonix was attempting to take the franchise in a new and unanticipated direction.
To be honest, succeeding the title of a video game with the word “Blitz” doesn’t exactly instill me with a whole lot of confidence. Outside of a game called “Rock Band Revolution,” this is as predictable a title one could come up with if tasked with naming a Rock Band spinoff title. For those familiar with Harmonix and their previous titles, the gameplay demos instantly conjure images of their previous beatmatch titles Frequency and Amplitude, and even Harmonix acknowledges that Rock Band Blitz is somewhat of a spiritual successor to these games.
So why wasn’t this a direct sequel to Amplitude? Well, there are a few issues. First was that the Frequency and Amplitude IPs are owned by Sony, making a direct sequel to these titles virtually impossible on any console outside of Sony’s immediate grasp. The second is that the strength in a title like this, much like the Rock Band franchise proper, is the content catalog. Leveraging the Rock Band IP would allow this spinoff title to share the 3,800+ song library currently available in the Rock Band DLC catalog.
As for the game itself, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that this is significant derivation from Rock Band. At the core, both games are beatmatch titles, but the gameplay functionality between these two games has some fundamental differences. Gone are the bulky plastic instruments that used to take up full aisles of store shelves and are becoming continually difficult to find online. Some of the more passionate fans have gone so far as to say that without the instrument peripherals, this is not a Rock Band game. I don’t think this is an entirely unfair observation, as this is not a game that emphasizes cooperative gameplay, as only one person can play at a time. The trade-off is that you won’t (thankfully?) have to lug all your bulky instruments to a friends house to play this, either. Others have made a more reasonable observation and compared Rock Band Blitz to the PSP title Rock Band: Unplugged, however despite some graphical similarities, this is a significant departure even from that game as well.
In Rock Band: Unplugged, if you were good enough, you could play every single note the game threw at you across four different instruments. In Rock Band Blitz, note charts for all instruments are distilled down into two lanes, but are all scrolling towards you as they are performed in the song. If an instrument is playing in the song, it will appear as an active note chart (with the exception of solos, which do function similarly to Unplugged, as the other lanes do disappear for a short time).
Beatmatch skill was arguably the most important skill in previous Rock Band titles, but in Rock Band Blitz, your ability to multitask supersedes your ability to perfect a note chart. To put it simply, there is no way to FC songs in Rock Band Blitz. Your ability to decide which track to play is the main driver of massive scores, and is the most important measure of success in this game. Harmonix recognizes this, and builds in an excellent competitive social aspect around this (which we explain in further depth below).
Much like Rock Band 3, the first time you play the game, the game will have to “discover downloaded content.” I have roughly 850 songs, and it took just under seven minutes to load these, so if you have a lot of songs, start the game up about ten minutes prior to playing it so this process doesn’t hamper your enthusiasm. After that, the game will ask if you would like to export the songs for play in Rock Band 3, and as we’ve noted in the past, this process is FREE.
The main menu presents you with several options, but selecting PLAY will bring up the RECOMMENDED tab, which defaults to the Tutorial mode. It is very brief, features a fitting song for the gameplay, and will introduce you to what you need to know to play the game. As noted above, all instrument lanes are present, but each one has been distilled down to two lanes. Some early criticism noted that predecessors Frequency and Amplitude had three lanes, and this was a “dumbed down” version of that. After you play through a song, you will realize just how uninformed this statement is. Frequency and Amplitude lacked the three different types of Power-Ups in the game that exponentially increase the point potential for each song. In other words, the previous titles had a lot less to concentrate on than Rock Band Blitz.
Similar to all previous Harmonix beatmatch titles, as you complete instrument tracks, your multiplier is increased for that instrument, but unlike previous Rock Band titles where it is reset once your streak has been broken, your multiplier increase in Rock Band Blitz cannot go down. At any time, you are allowed to switch tracks to increase that respective instrument’s multiplier as well. Each song has occasional checkpoints, and until you reach each one, you cannot increase your multiplier more than 3x where you started. And to make it more difficult, your highest instrument multiplier cannot be higher than 3x your lowest instrument multiplier, so while you may be racking up some serious points on a guitar track, if you’re neglecting the vocals and you hit a checkpoint, you’ve probably wasted more potential points because your guitar multiplier isn’t allowed to grow.
Upon completion of the first Tutorial, there is an Advanced Tutorial that talks about the different kinds of Power-Ups. You are first shown Overdrive Power-Ups, which intuitively work just like Overdrive in Rock Band. By correctly playing the glowing white notes, you accumulate energy for Overdrive deployment. And just like Rock Band, you get to choose when to deploy Overdrive Power-Ups. Before each song, you are given the opportunity to choose which of six unlockable Overdrive Power-Ups, if any, you would like to use. The second type of Power-Ups are Note Power-Ups, which appear randomly as glowing purple notes throughout each song. Just like Overdrive Power-Ups, you can select from one of six unlockable Note Power-Ups, if any, you want to use in each song. The final type of Power-Ups are Track Power-Ups. These are static Power-Ups that are active for the entire song and are typically instrument specific, and like the other two Power-Ups, you choose which ones you would like prior to playing a song.
Note streaks are still important, but are not a make-or-break situation in this title. If you play (by my count) 25 notes in a row, you will get a Blitz bonus, which also drops the player’s perspective lower towards the note highway, essentially increasing the speed of the notes. You are allowed to miss three notes before the Blitz bonus is broken and the perspective and speed returns to where you started.
On the right of the screen is a vertical path that shows your progress against friends who have previously played the song, so if you are trying to beat someone in Score Wars, or just trying to beat all your friends, this will come in handy. Personally, it psyches me out and I try not too look at it.
After each song, you will be given your final point and star score, and will be presented with a number of metrics, which include a breakdown between base points, Blitz Mode points, solo(s) points, finale points, and then points accumulated for each of the three Power-Ups you selected. My advice: pay special attention to these, as they will greatly refine your point accumulation strategy.
You will also be “paid” in coins and cred based upon your performance. Coins are redeemed when you select and use each of three Power-Ups in subsequent songs. The first time you play a song, your coin payout is doubled, so there is an incentive to buy more songs (very clever, Harmonix). Cred is rewarded based upon your accuracy of each note chart, and increasing your cred allows you to unlock Power-Ups as you progress in the game. While some of the more powerful Power-Ups required more cred to be unlocked, depending upon the song, some of the earlier Power-Ups may have better point potential, so keep an open mind on which Power-Ups you select. The last screen for each song is the leaderboard, which specifically shows your rank among your Xbox Live/PSN friends.
After you finish a song, the game returns you to the RECOMMENDED tab, and may potentially recommend you take on a friend in Score Wars. Other tabs that you can move between outside of RECOMMENDED are YOUR SONGS, which gives you a sortable option of the songs in your library, MUSIC STORE, which is what you exactly think it is, and finally MESSAGES, which shows the status of any Score Wars you initiated or where you have been challenged, as well as any other new important Rock Band Blitz information.
What about the look and feel of the game? The first impression instantly conjures up the aesthetic of other Rock Band titles. You will notice the “Rock Band car” from the intros of the previous core titles occasionally throughout songs. Familiar graphics and images from previous titles will show up on billboards and signs as you traverse the note highway through “Rock City.” There are even some inside jokes such as an establishment called “The Now Bar” and a movie marquee for “Eric Pope Hur 2.” However, while you may have had some “down time” to take in the environment in other Rock Band titles when your instrument track was quiet, you will have no such luxury in Rock Band Blitz, so most of the scenery will go by unnoticed.
As noted previous times above, the competitive social gameplay aspect is everywhere in this title. And it’s not just in the game, either. Harmonix rolled out their Rock Band Facebook dashboard app earlier this year, and with the release of Rock Band Blitz, the dashboard has been replaced with Rock Band World. This new Facebook app adds several more layers of interaction with Rock Band Blitz, but first you must link your account by entering your unique identifier from Rock Band Blitz’s Rock Band World Link option into the “Verify” link in the Rock Band World Facebook app. This will also let you see compete against your Facebook friends in Rock Band Blitz.
Rock Band World also introduces Goals, which are similar to the achievements in Rock Band 3, only this time you are rewarded with coins for successful completion of the permanent and limited-time Goals. Some can be completed by yourself on just a single song, while others can be completed with friends (or random people) through multiple songs, and there are sometimes Community goals, which requires the effort of the entire community to complete. First join a Goal, and once you have completed the requirements in Rock Band Blitz, you will be credit with the Coin reward in the game.
When not browsing goals, you can also use Rock Band World to initiate Score Wars with your friends by choosing the song, then choosing a song that both of you have. This is a VERY unexpected feature, and a convenient way to compare DLC between yourself and friends. One interesting thing we noted (thanks @BrianPShea), was that Score Wars cannot be initiated in the game, but only in the Facebook app. (UPDATE: You can initiate Score Wars, but only the song and person it recommends. If you want to choose either, it must be done via Rock Band World.) I’m not sure if XBLA/PSN titles can get updates, but I hope that they add this functionality into the game instead of only through the Facebook app. (UPDATE: Via @TheOverNord from Friday’s podcast: “We have the ability to tune the game after launch without a patch.” )
Rock Band World retains the ability to browse the Rock Band library of songs, as well as request new ones. If you find a song you like, you can buy it online (Xbox 360 only), or add to your cart that will appear in Rock Band Blitz for you to buy there. The My Profile tab contains an extremely impressive amount of metrics about your Rock Band Blitz and Rock Band 3 performances. A summary of your performance includes songs played, songs gold-starred, Blitz coin balance (Blitz only), Blitz cred (Blitz only), Score Wars record (Blitz only), career score, and total stars earned, goals completed percentage (RB3 only), fans (RB3 only), and best song performance. You can then see a breakdown of additional metrics for each and every song you’ve completed between the two games. For completionists, or stat geeks, this is a gold-mine of information.
So there you have it. Like I said above, not everybody is going to love this title. For those of you out there who only enjoy Rock Band for the cooperative, social, party game aspect of it, Rock Band Blitz may not appeal to you. The good thing is that Harmonix has recognized this and priced the game appropriately, so that even to staunch holdouts, it is an unbelievable value for 25 songs. Simply purchase it, export it to Rock Band 3, and you’ll never have to give it a second look. However, for people who like to have fun playing video games, this is pretty awesome game. Even for non-Rock Band fans, this game has a broad appeal, and is a pretty smart way for Harmonix to get a good bump in existing DLC purchases. And for those die-hard Rock Band fans who buy lots of DLC and/or play for the purpose of FCing the hardest songs, this game is a MUST BUY. With the Facebook app integration, the stats that you have access to will probably blow your mind. I will say that I’ve had the game for about a week, and almost each night since has ended with hours of thinking to myself “OK… just ONE more song, then I’m going to bed.”
Rock Band Blitz will arrive on the PlayStation Network tomorrow, and the Xbox Live Arcade on Wednesday for $14.99. If you’ve been lucky enough to score a code and have played it, feel free to drop your hands-on impressions in the comments below!
[BIG thanks to Harmonix for giving me a review copy and 20 codes for the giveaways!]