It was a cruel turn of events that saw Rock Band 3 clamber up onto the throne the moment its music-rhythm kingdom came crumbling down around it. Harmonix’ opus was a delightful thing but it was left to mope by the wayside as the genre, as envisioned by western developers at least, fizzled out as quickly as it had surged in popularity. Guitar Hero was axed by Activision. Harmonix were sold for a dollar. It all looked a bit glum for a genre that defied the industry’s infatuation with guns, gore and grey.
Two years on and Harmonix are back with Rock Band Blitz; a racing/strategy game masquerading as a music-rhythm title; one that resembles the developer’s earlier works more than the game it shares its name with.
Blitz is a score-attack game and it borrows more than a handful of tricks from the wonderful Rock Band: Unplugged. Like the PSP game, you’re in control of all five instruments at once – switching between the different lanes on-screen in a constant effort to be in the right place at the right time. Each lane has two notes (left and right). You play with either the bumpers or the analogue sticks, flicking or pressing along as the notes tumble down the screen. It all works extremely well.
Until you get the hang of it, though, Blitz feels wrong. Italics class wrong. Missing notes isn’t frowned upon, it’s encouraged and even weathered old Rock Band vets with a long history of broken instruments and angry neighbors will struggle to notch more than four stars per song at first. Guitar Hero and Rock Band spent six years beating home the concept of perfection, but you need to toss that idea out the window early on if you’ve any hope of basking in the warm light of leaderboard glory here. Hitting all the notes in Blitz isn’t nearly enough.
Instead, Blitz is more concerned with multipliers. In Rock Band, the physical connection between you and the instrument and the constant sense of betterment proved most rewarding (not to mention the fabulous social aspect). Here, it’s bragging rights that’ll keep you playing long after you’ve memorised every terrible word to Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger.
Each track is carved into checkpoints and each lane has its own multiplier. Hit enough notes in each lane and the multiplier for that lane increases. Play enough notes in all four lanes before each checkpoint and the multiplier cap increases by up to three times per checkpoint. Increasing multipliers across the board quickly is vital because the multiplier can stretch beyond x35.
If this all sounds unnecessarily complicated for a game that once so effortlessly gave life to the most primitive of childhood fantasies, that’s only because there’s quite a bit going on. Once you’re in the swing of things most of it becomes background noise. And if you’re not interested in high scores you can ignore everything said in the last two paragraphs and just tap-tap-tap away to the dulcet tones of Curt Smith.
The actual act of playing along, though, has never been simpler. In Blitz you can’t fail (ut the controller down and it becomes a party playlist with its own unique and bemusing equaliser). Instead, it’s a game of two halves; an enjoyable riff on the Rock Band formula for the less competitive while at the same time an aggressive leaderboard-centric battleground for those of a more Darwinian mindset.
For the latter group, canny use of the rich roster of power ups marks the difference between coveted gold stars and plain-old five stars. Or worse, four. Overdrive is tossed out the window (mostly) and in its place arrives a series of madcap power ups that range from the outrageously useful to the outright useless.
Take the Pinball Power. Hit a pink note and out from the foot of the screen comes a humongous pinball, ricocheting down the lanes. You dart between the lanes scooping up points wherever possible, but mostly just trying to keep the damn thing from falling off the bottom of the screen. It’s a perfectionist’s nightmare – you’ll miss more notes than you’ll hit galavanting about after it – but for the less nimble player it represents a major points boost.
On the other hand are powers like Jackpot, which triples your score for a brief time so long as you don’t miss a note. Miss a single note and you’re rewarded with nothing, but deploy it at just the right time (slap bang in the middle of a solo usually works out) and you can notch 60,000 points in one rapacious move.
The power ups carve a smart divide between those that demand little thought and those that necessitate surgical precision and they help afford Blitz a strategic trim Rock Band proper never had to this extent.
As for the soundtrack, Blitz follows faithfully in the wake of Rock Band 3; 25 songs cutting a decent cross-section through contemporary hits and classics via just about every genre. Standouts include Cult of Personality, Pumped Up Kicks, Spoonman and We Are Young. Non-standouts include P!nk’s Raise Your Glass and Maroon 5’s inexcusably dire Moves Like Jagger. Good grief.
It’s excellent value, especially when you consider you can export all 25 songs over to the Rock Band platform and all previous Rock Band songs and DLC (core Rock Band 3 tracks aside), also work in Blitz. There’s a potential library of 4000 songs available to play from day one.
So what doesn’t work? Not much, in truth. Blitz is a game that, at heart, is all about the high-score chase. Everything here is geared towards the ubiquitous leaderboards. The problem is that without enough of the game’s currency (coins) you can’t buy power-ups. Without power ups you can’t tussle for leaderboard places and without that Blitz isn’t nearly as much fun.
You’re funneled into playing songs without any power ups to earn enough coins to play them again with the power ups, and hope to God that you don’t screw up because if you restart you have to buy them all again. Coins are a ploy to cajole players into buying DLC; an odd slice of bastardry for a developer like Harmonix, one heralding from the same think tank that gave birth to microtransactions and ‘energy’.
But this is otherwise another top game from the developer behind music-rhythm’s finest hour and while it lacks the lasting appeal of Rock Band proper, even without the physical connection between you and the instruments it still feels wonderful to play.