Rock Band 4 is more of the same. And that's absolutely fine.
Rather than looking to "innovate" for the sheer sake of it, Harmonix have taken an introspective look back at the series in order to work out and double down on what made Rock Band so enduring: the band itself. The fantasy of you and your friends becoming Rock Gods in the comfort of your own living room, whether on vocals, guitar or drums. The result is a game that feels and plays like its forebears, only with a suite of new features and tweaks designed to sell you that fantasy wholesale.
Having played Rock Band 4 at a recent preview event, I can attest to the fact that Rock Band still rocks... and that staying close to its roots allows for an astonishing amount of backwards compatibility.
To be clear, I'm a huge fan of music games and Rock Band in particular. I played the first three games religiously with my housemates at the time, forming an online band that cannot be named here due to the fact that it was an immature (and successful) attempt to beat the profanity filter. As such, I slipped back into Rock Band 4 as if I never left.
In terms of gameplay, the preview build Harmonix loosed us on remains largely unchanged. The scrolling lanes are unchanged whether you're hammering on or shrieking at the top of your lungs. You'll earn unison bonuses and collect Overdrive to rock out at the perfect moment. It's empowering and technical if somewhat familiar stuff, but taking this approach allows Rock Band 4 to support all previously-released DLC, which you can import so long as you're playing in the same console family. PS3 to PS4, Xbox 360 to Xbox One. I took to the stage three times, embarrassed myself thoroughly and loved every minute of it. That's the joy of music games: the more you get involved, the more fun you'll have.
The new setlist promises to be absolutely enormous, containing a large amount of new music and European tracks as well as some classics that missed the net the last time around. Fleetwood Mac's You Make Loving Fun rubs shoulders with The Killers, Spin Doctors, The Who and Tenacious D, just for starters. All the hundreds of DLC tracks will be ready to download at launch, too.
Don't mistake refinement for recycling, though. Rock Band 4 has been tweaked and modified in a number of important ways.
First off, there's a new focus on self expression in order to make players feel as if they're musicians rather than... well, players. New freestyle vocal sections will allow singers to improvise and make up their own fills so long as they stay broadly in key. Drummers are presented with dynamic fills, generated intelligently to fit their skill level and any latency, inserted into songs on the fly. We saw little of this new feature in the very early code, but it sounds very promising.
Though Harmonix and Mad Catz refused to share details on the campaign structure regardless of how hard I pushed them, they also explained that creating your own "shows" will play a major role in the campaign and multiplayer. You can now choose a location and a setlist, which you can then vote on without exiting back to the menu. If there's a free moment in the vocals or drums, for example, you'll be able to quickly vote on the next track and crack straight on. Sometimes you'll be presented with a question such as "would you like a song from the 70s," "would you like a song with a female vocalist" or "would you like a song by The Who" for variety, while the audience will cry out for request and encores too.
Yes, expect "Free Bird!" heckling.
The new peripherals sound fantastic. The guitar has been thoroughly rebuilt from the ground up, designed to feel solid without any flex, boasting a greater degree of accuracy both in terms of inputs and tilting. The buttons have been newly machined to depress without plastic clack. There's even a built-in photo sensor that can automatically calibrate the delay to match your television. Drums are similarly tough and durable, immune to dimpling after heavy use, while the microphone is apparently one of the biggest improvements of the lot. Thanks to an upgrade to 16-bit sound, reduced distortion and massively increased volume, it should be the weapon of choice for dedicated virtual vocalists, myself included.
However, many of you will have noticed my odd turn of phrase. The new peripherals "sound fantastic," not "feel fantastic." This is because the peripherals were held up by UK customs and were unable to make the preview event, meaning that I had to play Rock Band 4 using Rock Band 3 kit.
Which, in and of itself, is really rather excellent.
As explained in an interview excerpt earlier today -- Rock Band 4: everything you need to know about backwards compatibility -- Harmonix have put a huge amount of work into making sure that our existing peripherals are supported. Rock Band or Guitar Hero wireless guitars will be instantly compatible with the PS4 version via Bluetooth, syncing natively without any extra steps or hardware. The Xbox One version will require you to pick up a Legacy Adaptor, which plugs into the USB socket. Mad Catz are even attempting to work on a solution for Guitar Hero Live and early wired peripherals, but there's still no firm news on that front yet.
Still, it proves the strength of Harmonix' partnership with Mad Catz, who are publishing the game as well as creating the peripherals. This symbiotic relationship has no middle man and allows both sides to cut through the usual red tape and work together much closer than before. It's a partnership that, if the fun I had with a basic preview build on last-gen peripherals is anything to go by, is set to pay off in spades when Rock Band 4 releases later this year on PS4 and Xbox One.