Harmonix’s Rock Band 4 is to Rock Band 3 as the Rolling Stones are to music today: inevitable, classic, and tried and true—and tired. Fans know exactly what they’re getting with this newest iteration, because it’s more or less exactly what they’ve gotten before. The plastic instruments feel identical to the old ones (new bass, same as the old bass), and if there’s a higher resolution or smoother frame rate, it’s unnoticeable, as graphics have never been the core of this series. Rock Band 4 banks on nostalgia, but of gameplay and not the songs and artists making up the frustrating, imbalanced track list.
Even for those players who successfully manage to import their robust libraries from previous generations (ignoring the music that’s been lost from Rock Band 3 and The Beatles: Rock Band), the Rock Band 4 experience is little more than an expensive new coat of paint. And for those stuck playing through only the on-disc collection of 65 hits, here’s a little heartbreaking math: The final tour requires roughly 450 stars, and because players can gain, at most, only five stars per song played in each city’s various set challenges, at least 25 songs have to be replayed just to complete the main campaign. But because the career mode offers different paths depending on whether players favor fame or fortune (or style), those who want to see it all will have to replay a lot of content, or shell out money to bulk up their library.
The game also suffers from technical issues and bizarre developmental choices. The instruments are all wireless, and connect through Bluetooth. Solo play is uncomplicated, but putting a living-room band together with your friends requires a lot of initial signing in, and these extra connections can cause the Bluetooth signal to drop in the middle of a song. Additionally, players can no longer “favorite” their songs mid-career, which makes it hard to track down the best karaoke or shred-filled songs in the middle of a party. Also absent is any sort of online competitive or cooperative mode—which would make sense if not for the aforementioned issues with couch co-op.
This isn’t meant to be dismissive of Rock Band 4, but sometimes less is just less. Rock Band 3 was admittedly bloated, what with the keytar and the “pro” versions for it and the guitar, but removing those in order to focus on adding Freestyle Guitar Solos—no matter how polished or entertaining—is needlessly punitive. Moreover, the fact that charts for pro drums still exist (though the cymbals aren’t included with the band-in-a-box bundle) or that three-part harmonies have been carried over for those with USB splitters and spare microphones, demonstrates that Harmonix isn’t making aesthetic choices so much as financial ones. (In band parlance, this is what’s called “selling out.”)
Rock Band 4 is still a blast to play, but that’s only because Rock Band 3 is still a blast to play. The new songs are, as always, charted to perfection, and Harmonix’s music-loving curatorial decisions—while leaning a little too heavily on the 21st century—are often inspired, using classics like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and radio favorites like Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” and Imagine Dragons’ “I Bet My Life” to remind players of Scandal’s “The Warrior,” Spin Doctors’ “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” or even Little Big Town’s “Little White Church.” But while that might be high praise for a mere expansion or track pack, it’s just another example of how Rock Band 4 falls short of its next-generation expectations. The headline shouldn’t be that the game is less passive and more eclectic than your custom Spotify station.
Unfortunately, the few new features aren’t really worth writing about. The Freestyle sections are interesting for a few hours, but are a transparent effort to dumb-down some of the original solos, and players in it for the challenge will quickly toggle this mode off. Meanwhile, the Tour mode feels like a poor echo of The Beatles: Rock Band, only now with branching paths. But these choices are largely meaningless, and often disconcerting, given that the lead singer of my band Hellvetica ended up dressed in a David Bowie-like half-dress/half-suit while rasping through Soul Remnants’s “Dead Black (Heart of Ice)” while I—on lead guitar—would later prance about in a spandex unitard while playing the difficult solos of Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part 1.”
Rock Band 4 is filled with good humor and the best of intentions, but so, as they say, is the road to hell. How else to explain the way that singers get the shaft on this edition? Not for nothing is there an achievement called “I Told You I Hated This One,” which is earned as a singer by failing a song you voted against. Newbies also get thwarted, as tutorial and practice modes were among the many features from previous titles to be stripped out for this modern, streamlined next-generation edition. All of this emphasizes the glum truth about Rock Band 4: It’s a game for veterans only, and said veterans might as well just stick with their copy of Rock Band 3.