Rock Band: Unplugged proved with gusto that despite the success of both Guitar Hero and Rock Band in the living room, you didn’t need plastic instruments to do music-rhythm well. Reloaded then has the unenviable task of proving that not only do you not need plastic instruments to do music-rhythm well, you don’t need buttons either.
It certainly looks the part, with menus lifted straight out of Rock Band 2. There’s no option to customise your character or band but the stage and default characters are present with all the animations and flashy lights that make up the backdrop to the otherwise plain note charts. Spend more than a second gazing at the animations and you’ll probably break down in fits of giggles (guitar strumming hands are fantastic), but the chances are you’ll play through without ever paying heed to the energetic avatars prancing about in the background.
Reloaded offers support for drums, guitar, bass and vocals but unlike Unplugged you’re only ever tasked with playing one of them.
Drums are the only natural fit and even they feel a bit uncanny. With just four pads positioned at the foot of the screen (you’re forced to play “landscape”) and a lack of kick drum there’s little consistency between drums and sounds but any more pads would crowd the screen and any smaller and the pads would only be suitable for those with girly pencil fingers.
Guitar and bass play identically to drums but instead of pads you’re given 4 plectrums to tap in a vaguely rhythmic way.
As for vocals, you’re free to play in that style as well, drumming out the vocal pattern but that isn’t especially involving and you might as well be playing the drums because there’s no credence paid to pitch or tone and you’ll spend half the song waiting for something to do. Alternatively you can sing into the device (or even attach a microphone) but you’re going to look like a bit of a twat powering through Megadeth’s Peace Sells on the bus.
The core mechanics work on the device but they’re never as fluid or reliable as they are married to buttons or an actual plastic instrument. It’s easy to lose track of the position of your hands with nothing but the on screen icons to guide you and played landscape there’s only tiny gaps between individual notes making some of the more blistering drum fills and guitar solos infuriating to decipher at breakneck speed.
These are minor grips, easy enough to get the better of if you’re willing to dedicate some time to Reloaded but there are three significant flaws conspiring to haul it down into the muck that you’d have to be a special kind of patient to brush aside.
Firstly overdrive – the series’ renowned score enhancer. To activate it you have to tilt the device but not by a menial amount, a mere shake isn’t enough. No, the developer wants to ensure you’re sure about overdrive, stopping just short of asking for a signed contract. So to get it to work you have to tilt the device like you’re shaking a giant cock off an etch-a-sketch because mummy’s coming to see what you’ve been doing all morning.
It’s damn near impossible to follow a rapidly moving note chart when you can’t see the screen and, unless you’re sitting with your head directly over the device, which is uncomfortable, overdrive simply doesn’t work.
On top of that each time you inadvertently hit the wrong note the game screams at you like you’ve inserted your finger somewhere it doesn’t belong. It’s bad enough that this noise exists but to blurt it out louder than the actual music is inexplicable. It’s a hangover feature from the Guitar Hero days and really detracts from the music. Have the common courtesy not to rub my failings in my face please.
Elsewhere the inclusion of an extensive World Tour mode is reasonably impressive. Much like in Rock Band 2, you start out at the bottom of the musical food chain frequenting pubs and 2-bit venues gradually building up a fanbase before cavorting up the ranks and embarking on your own world tour. That’s fine but there are only 15 or so songs here and the endless repeating of tracks was a setback in Rock Band 2 – a game that boasted a library of nearly 100 songs with an additional 1500 available to download.
In Reloaded the World Tour is meaninglessly protracted and because it doesn’t have the library of songs to fall back on forces you to play those you wouldn’t bother with otherwise (ie. Evanescence). You can download more songs through the store (at 59p a pop) but there’s only a couple of dozen there.
The entire library of music can be accessed from the Quick Play menu from the get go rendering the World Tour defunct, but the diminutive compilation of tunes means Reloaded isn’t going to be chewing a hole in your free time, not unless leaderboards and gold stars are your ticket.
So while Reloaded does manage to prove that you don’t need instruments or buttons for a decent music-rhythm game, it also proves that having one or the other definitely helps.