Harmonix didn’t invent the rhythm game, but they did more to popularize it than anyone. Guitar Hero and Rock Band weren’t necessarily “better” than the beat-matching games that came before them, but giving players plastic instruments to handle made a huge impact in the way those games were experienced. Holding that guitar, kicking that drum pedal—it’s easy to feel like a rock star playing these games. For many, that feeling was addictive, and that addiction quickly led to overexposure. Now, five years removed from its previous installment, Rock Band is back to prove that feeling never goes away.
Rock Band 4 is almost just more Rock Band. The game hasn’t changed in any fundamental ways: Players still tap multicolored buttons or drumheads to the beat of eclectic rock tunes. This isn’t a revival that’s trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it’s giving you a good reason to believe that this particular wheel is your wheel, granting players more opportunities for agency and creative freedom in their personal rock star experience.
The biggest addition in this regard is the new freestyle guitar solos. These are open-ended segments of songs that allow players to strum however they want with loose prompts on screen acting as suggestions for how wannabe Carlos Santanas might choose to shred. The game ensures that anything played in these sections will be in-key and on-beat, so even an untrained toddler could tap a few buttons and come up with something that doesn’t sound awful. These moments of improvisation may not always sound better than the original song, but they still sound relatively great and are an exhilarating way of helping the player take ownership over their performance , especially when it’s a song they’ve already played dozens of times.
Vocalists can now stray from the exact notes of the original song. As long as they stay in key, singers continue to score just as many points as they would with note-for-note accuracy. It’s perfect for people who love “Somebody Told Me” but don’t like the way Brandon Flowers sings it. An improved, expanded career mode allows players to craft their band’s mythology by making decisions before each tour, like whether you’ll crash on fans’ couches or hire image consultants. This doesn’t lead to a sprawling rock ’n’ roll narrative, but it does just enough for your band’s career arc to make it feel like your choices made an impact, moreso than just playing through setlist after setlist with menus in-between as you would in previous iterations.
Equally important to the Rock Band experience is what has been taken away. Unlike Rock Band 3, this year’s model has no interest in teaching players how to play real instruments, so “pro” instruments are out. Bands now play exclusively at concert venues, doing away with the “music video” backdrops of past games. Body types have been whittled down to exactly two options—“masculine” and “feminine”—ensuring that every character on stage shares the exact same height, weight, and muscle tone. Bands no longer have logos, probably because the lack of an online mode means nobody would ever see those logos anyway.
All of these features might be added in later—after all, Harmonix wants Rock Band 4 to be a platform that will expand from its current form and last for a whole hardware generation—but the fact that these largely cosmetic elements were not a priority at the game’s launch says a lot about the philosophy of today’s Rock Band. The focus is on the living-room-experience over the on-screen-experience. My favorite addition, for example, is how the lightbar on the PlayStation 4’s DualShock controller matches the stage lighting on screen, so that a dimly lit living room will glow with the same blues, pinks, and golds as the light around your rock star personas. Does this improve the game in any way? Absolutely not. Does it affect the way I feel when I play the game? More than I’d ever thought it would.
Perhaps the most important new feature is the “Show” mode. This endless-party set up allows bandmates to drop in and drop out whenever they want, change difficulties on the fly, and vote on their next tune from a list of auto-populated options between songs, all without ever popping out to a menu or load screen. Instead of agreeing on a setlist in advance, players can just tap a button to say “I want to play Imagine Dragons,” or “I want to play a song with a female vocalist,” and the majority of voters get their song of choice in about 10 seconds. In a group setting, this means everyone can keep talking to their friends or snacking without having to interrupt with “What do we play next?” The party keeps going and the band keeps playing for as long as they feel like it.
In bringing back one of the most popular game series in recent memory, Harmonix needed to reevaluate why people fell in love with Rock Band to begin with. The thing that made those games stand out, the true killer feature, was the way they made players feel. Without an ounce of real musical talent required, Rock Band helped people feel like real-life superstars in the comfort of their own homes. Rock Band 4 takes that feeling and makes it personal. It’s no longer just about being a rock star but finding the rock star in you.