Harmonix Music Systems may have started with the best of intentions, introducing America to a harmless, plastic instrument-dependent fad with Guitar Hero, but it wasn’t long before they were forcing parents to shell out for what seemed like a new peripheral every Christmas: drums, microphones, keyboards, and so-called “professional” cymbal add-ons. The mania cumulated with Rock Band 3, which, by introducing actual guitars, seemed to outgrow its humble and entertaining video-game roots. To that end, Harmonix has devolved, returning to the rhythmic roots of their first two games, Frequency and Amplitude, in the hopes of luring the more casual gamers back to their franchise and, more importantly, to their thousands of costly, downloadable songs.
Commercially, then, Rock Band Blitz should be a success. For those who simply want to extend their Rock Band 3 experience, the game comes with a license for 25 new songs—including Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” Fun’s “We Are Young,” and Queen’s “Death on Two Legs.” As for the game itself, it’s not bad, particularly as a solo experience. Up to five tracks (drums, bass, guitar, vocals, keyboard), each with two notes (left and right), scroll down the screen; rather than focusing on one of the parts, however, your goal is to swap between all of the lanes, hitting enough notes in each to level up the score multiplier for that track. Do so quickly enough and you’ll increase the maximum multiplier (I’ve gotten it as high as 30x); the only penalty for hitting wrong notes is that it resets a second, overall multiplier (your Blitz meter).
And yet, there’s something sinister about Rock Band Blitz, and it’s more than the overt mafioso-like feel of its “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in” attitude. The Rock Band games, which generally chart the rise of a band, have never been acclaimed for their story, but Rock Band Blitz doesn’t even offer that. There are no characters (and, accordingly, no customizing), and there’s no traveling from location to location: Every level takes place on a dimly lit street as you drive forward through the song toward your venue, which is apparently a club called Finish. Stripped of its polish and accessories, it’s blatant that the game wants nothing more than to find ways to guide you to its online store. It’s telling that the first screen never shows your existing library; instead, you’re given an iTunes-like row of album-cover “recommendations” for songs to play—many of which you’ll have to first buy. Even some of the game’s achievements require DLC: One asks you to play 300 unique songs, another asks you to play one song from each era, beginning with the ’50s.
There’s even an in-game form of currency: Blitz Coins, earned after every song—depending on your score. While that’s not new to the franchise (in previous titles, money buys instruments and outfits), the use of these coins is. After selecting each song, you have the option of purchasing up to three arcade-style Power Ups: one for the familiar overdrive (collecting white notes), one for gimmicky mini-games dealing with the individual notes (hitting a pinball back and forth between lanes), and one for boosting the scores from individual lanes (e.g. Super Drums). Every time you play a song you’ll need to shell out the coins again, and it’s worth noting that you cannot five-star a song, let alone gold-star it, without spamming these abilities. Sans instruments, the skill behind Rock Band Blitz has more to do with finding the right combinations for each song than the actual carpal tunnel-inducing tapping or lane-swapping, and this meat-and-potatoes gameplay shouldn’t come at a cost to the player.
But the greatest strike against Rock Band Blitz is its insistence that you link your game to Facebook, which makes the whole thing feel as if it’s been co-opted by Zynga. Rock Band World, the App version of the old Rock Band Network, posts various challenges—play a certain genre of song, play a medley of songs—and rewards you and up to four of your friends with Blitz Coins if you complete the task before it expires. (You can also challenge your friends to beat your high score on a specific song.) These mini-quests are fun and encourage you to explore your library (especially “scavenger hunts,” which only hint at the songs they want you to play), but the fact that you can only access them through Facebook (not in-game, as you could in Rock Band 3) makes the pursuit of these achievements not only time-consuming, but sort of depressing. At least Harmonix had the good sense to leave the Leaderboards within the game’s interface, since beating everyone else’s high score is the singular goal of this ultimately common rhythm game.