Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review - Rock Band Blitz

The rhythm gaming genre has come a long way, hasn’t it? From the early days of pressing buttons like in Parappa the Rapper, to the days of plastic instruments in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, all the way up to the most recent craze of actually, physically dancing to the music like in Just Dance and Dance Central, the rhythm/music genre is a constantly changing beast. Yet still, there’s always been one company constantly pushing that genre forward and trying to top themselves each and every time a new game is released and that company is Harmonix. 

Harmonix singled-handedly changed the entire genre several times over with each new release. Not only did they introduce the world to Guitar Hero, but they took that idea one step forward with the Rock Band games and changed the dancing sub-genre with Dance Central for use with the X-Box 360’s Kinect. Harmonix knows their music games and they want you to know it. But, with their latest release, it seems Harmonix isn’t as concerned with pushing the genre forward as it is with bringing it back to basics. Enter their newest addition to their library of music gaming epics; Rock Band Blitz. 

What is Rock Band Blitz? Well, it’s a downloadable title available for the X-Box 360 and PS3 that harkens back to Harmonix’s early days with games like Amplitude and Frequency, or even more recently, any of the handheld Rock Band games. It takes the basic idea of the Rock Band games but simplifies it to both a single player experience and a plastic instrument-less experience.

This is what "Pumped Up Kicks" looks like when it visits the city.

The idea is simple; each song has the five instrument tracks you know from Rock Band (sometimes less if the song calls for it), but puts them all on one plane that’s constantly moving forward. Using the controller, the player has to switch back and forth between the five tracks and hit notes in order to build up a score. Instead of the usual five notes per track like in every other Rock Band game, Blitz only has two per track, which are assigned to the D-Pad and the X/A button. As the notes scroll along the track, your objective is to max out each of their multipliers by hitting the right amount of notes in each track. The multiplier is always set at a certain cap until you get all of the tracks on the same level of multiplier and pass a checkpoint, which increases the cap. 

Rock Band Blitz is all about scoring as many points as possible and to do that, there’s a surprising amount of strategy involved. Because all of the instruments are playing at the same time, it’s impossible to hit every note in the song so your objective is to figure out which pattern you need to follow in order to get the highest score. If you manage to hit the multiplier cap well before a checkpoint, it might be better to keep playing on the guitar track instead of switching to drums or maybe you should be focusing on both lyrics and keys equally. Playing all five instruments at once really adds a sense of replayabilty to the title that isn’t quite shared with the other Rock Band games. In every other game, once you learn how to get 100% of the notes on Expert, it pretty much just comes down to knowing when to use your overdrive to earn more points. Here, you have to play around with each song and figure out which path you should take to get the most points and which tracks you need to focus on to top your previous score. 

An example of one of the game's many "Overdrives."
On top of having to play around with the five different tracks to figure out what is best to get the best score, there’s also a number of Overdrive power-ups you can unlock to increase your score even more. Some of them are very basic, increasing the points earned by playing a certain instrument or hitting all the flashing notes for a larger combo but then there are more intricate power-ups that require timing to get the highest possible score, such as the Bandmate Overdrive, which puts one of the tracks in control of a CPU for a short number of time. Since you can only use three different types of power-ups throughout each song, there’s even more strategy involved when trying to decide which power-ups are right for which song. Thankfully, even though the power-ups do have to be unlocked, just playing through the 25 included tracks and replaying your favorites a few times should be enough to unlock all of them. 

Because of all of the variables involved with getting a high score, this game actually comes off as a far less casual rhythm game than any of the other Rock Band games. The Rock Band games have leaderboards and points, sure, but they’re more about pretending to be rockin’ out in a band with some buddies. This game completely forgoes the plastic instruments and instead makes it an arcade-style high score fest where you’re constantly trying to one-up your previous score or find new ways to move up the online leaderboard. And since the game has no difficulty settings, your fingers are definitely going to be moving faster than they would on those plastic instruments, regardless of how “hardcore” you are. Though the game does cater to the “casual” in a more minor way by not allowing you to actually fail out of a song because, as I mentioned, it’s all about points.

Despite the game having a more “hardcore” feel to it’s gameplay, the actual setlist feels like it’s aimed at a more casual market. The Rock Band games have never been shy about including as many genres of rock as possible to appeal to all types of music lovers, but here there’s a lot more pop-rock tracks than in almost any other Rock Band game. Artist like Barenaked Ladies, fun., Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson are a far cry away from the usual Slayer and Metallica you tend to run into in other Rock Band games. Even the tracks by some of the more metal/emo bands included in the game like Avenged Sevenfold, My Chemical Romance and Quiet Riot are tamer than their usual fare. The variety is still relatively strong here but it’s not going to be for everybody and a lot of Rock Band fans are likely to be turned off by abundance of pop tracks.

Luckily for those people, Rock Band Blitz is compatible with every single downloadable track in the Rock Band Store, that’s over 3,000 tracks all ready to go right now. Plus, all 25 tracks included with Rock Band Blitz can be transferred over to Rock Band 3 if you end up missing your plastic instruments but really want to keep playing “A Little Less Sixteen Candles” by Fall Out Boy.

And if you really don't like any of the tracks, you can always just download some Jonathan Coulton instead.

Graphically, the game looks nice but isn’t really pushing any boundaries. The Rock Band games normally feature a very nice atmosphere with the band on stage rocking out with a huge crowd and flashing lights, but because of the smaller nature of this game, instead, there is no band, just a track of notes riding down a really long street (which I assume is Electric Avenue.) As you go down the street, lights flash and buildings, cars and trees bounce up and down to the music, it’s pretty appealing but still not as fun to watch as any of the other Rock Band games.

The game does have an occasional hiccup here or there in terms of framerate. Sometimes when there’s a lot of notes on screen or some of the more advanced Overdrives being activated, the game does slowdown but only for a few seconds. Each time I personally ran into this, it never hindered my performance in the overall game. Also, because of the game needing to be connected the Rock Band servers, if your internet blacks out or the connection just drops, the score doesn’t save and you don’t get any of the coins or “Blitz Cred” you earn, which is used to buy unlockables. It’s a pretty minor complaint but it’s very lame to get a high score and then not have it save just because your internet decided to drop for a split second.

Rock Band Blitz is not going to be a game for everyone. The rhythm game genre is very niche as it is and this game somehow manages to be even more niche. If you’re one of those people who really like getting high scores and finding new ways to increase your score each time you play, then this game might just be your new favorite rhythm game, that’s assuming you like the music you have to listen to as you play. If you’d much rather pretend to be in a band and keep playing those plastic instruments, then you might want to stay away. It’s a game that can be as hardcore as you want it to be and for my money, I’m perfectly okay with that, as long as “One Week” is blaring while I fumble over each checkpoint.

Matt thought this game was...

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