There was a time long ago, before Rock Band and Dance Central, even before Guitar Hero, when rookie developer Harmonix came out of the gate swinging with FreQuency; a unique and interesting foray into the largely niche rhythm genre. That was 2001. Now it’s 2012, and Harmonix has released Rock Band Blitz, a downloadable game in the style of their earliest work. Is there a place in today’s video game climate for this return to rhythm’s roots?
The short answer is yes. This is a tried and true formula that remains, if you’ll allow me to spout a bit of a cliché, easy to learn and difficult to master. I should be clear, this is a Rock Band game in name only. You’ll find no plastic instruments here. The whole game is played with a single Xbox or Playstation controller.
There are five tracks: one for drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and keyboard. For each track, there are only two notes you need to worry about. On the default setting, pressing any direction on the d-pad hits the left note, and pressing the A (or, presumably for PSN owners, X) button hits the right. It sounds awkward, but after a couple songs, you’ll be in the swing of things.
In the tutorial for the game, it is stressed that Rock Band Blitz is not a game about hitting every note. Rather, it’s about upping your multipliers for each track. Essentially, each song starts with each track at a 1x multiplier. By playing a single track well, you’ll eventually cross a threshold that ups your multiplier for that single track. If you can manage to increase every track by three multiplier degrees, then you hit the “level cap.” That level cap will remain until you cross a checkpoint, at which point the cap increases by another three.
The tricky part, then, is making sure every track is at the level cap before the checkpoint. When the game decides how much to increase the level cap (and, by extension, give the player the opportunity to score more points), it pulls from your lowest multiplier. Let’s say that, at the beginning of the song, I have gotten four of the tracks to the level cap, the 4x multiplier. The fifth track I have left at 1x. If I cross the checkpoint, the level cap will not be raised at all. If I get the fifth up to 2x, it will be raised by one, and so on.
One of my problems with Rock Band Blitz is its multiplier system. It’s convoluted to a degree that makes it hard to pitch without sounding like you’re reading a word problem from an Algebra 1 textbook (see paragraph above). It feels like a very desperate attempt to come up with some distinguishing factor from FreQuency, and when the rest of the game plays so similarly, I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked it better if I was clearing tracks, rather than constantly shuffling between them. This isn’t to say Blitz‘s current gameplay isn’t a ton of a fun, because it really is. This is a format I love dearly, and even slight changes for the worse don’t put me off.
There’re also power-ups, like an AI band-mate you can deploy to play a track for you for a limited amount of time, or a pinball that bounces around the screen, collection points for every note it hits. These power-ups are absolutely instrumental in getting five stars in a song. I’m not positive you could even come close without them. This means that the game before unlocking all the power-ups is something of a warm-up session, which works better than it has any right to.
You can also challenge people on your friends list to a “Score War.” This is a relatively simple means of battling over a single song for the highest score over a three-day period. You can have multiple running at any time, and if you have competitive friends, it can be a hopelessly addicting way of one-upping them. Score Wars can also be managed through the “Rock Band World” app on Facebook. When you link your account to the app, you can participate in Harmonix-created goals for coins to spend on power-ups, and any Facebook friends who have also linked show up in the game, even if you aren’t friends with them on Xbox Live. It all works, but it feels needless. There’s no good reason that I couldn’t just access these goals in game, and having to log on to Facebook while playing is more trouble than its worth.
The reason I hesitate to recommend Rock Band Blitz is not because of its gameplay, or even because of its puzzling Facebook connectivity: it’s because of the way it handles DLC. In the press leading up to release, the ability to play all of your Rock Band downloadable content in Blitz was marketed as a bonus. The fact of the matter is this: if you don’t have any DLC, and don’t want to buy any, you shouldn’t play this game.
There are 25 songs that come with Blitz, and while I obviously can’t tell you whether or not you’ll like the track listing, I can tell you that I finished playing all of them in a little over two hours. It feels a little like this game is a shell. Just a new wrapper for all of your existing content. But charging fifteen dollars for a shell is a bit devious, as is the game’s insistence upon you visiting the music store and buying new tracks. In the previous Rock Band games, there were more songs, more options, and more modes. In Blitz, you have one option, one mode, and no multiplayer apart from leaderboards.
Some people may find this to be a fair trade for the reduced price. I don’t especially. It pains me to say it, but Rock Band Blitz is a genuinely great return to Harmonix’s past that will only give as much as you’re willing to put in. And for some people, that will be a deal-breaker.