Reviews

Rock Band Blitz

September 19, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

Since it shook the rhythm action genre in late 2007, Rock Band has become the epitome of the genre. Far from remaining the new breed nipping at the heels of the already-aged Guitar Hero series, it quickly matured into about the most fun you could have with a plastic guitar. Its song store is absolutely overflowing with thousands of tunes of all genres, opening up the game to all tastes and preferences. Despite Activision’s cruel axing of the entire series in 2011, developer Harmonix carried on regardless, continuing to support past games and develop new ones.

One look at the online statistics and song downloads for Rock Band 3 tells us we don’t need another full release quite yet. Good job Harmonix recognise that and have instead blessed us with Rock Band Blitz. Billed as a more arcade-oriented, score-juggling version of the style we know and love, Blitz takes its cue from one of the companies old releases, Amplitude. A fresh idea back then, it was never really emulated and remains a gem of the PS2 era. Can Harmonix rekindle the love many people had for that game and keep its trademark Rock Band joy?

Mr. Music Man
As per usual, the game comes with a bunch of pre-loaded songs for you to have a go at. Blitz offers an odd but eclectic mix of metal, rock, pop and indie that will please those who like a range of music. While classics like Living Colour’s ‘Cult of Personality’ and Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ feel at home in the Rock Band format, tracks by Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 seem to have been added to keep the fringe-rockers happy.

For a game with ‘rock’ in the title there’s an annoying amount of soft pop included, as well as some bizarre song choices for certain artists. Forgoing all of their meteoric hits, ‘Always’ is Blink 182′s contribution. Pathetic emo ballad ‘Sing’ is the best they could do for My Chemical Romance, despite them having more than a few heavy tunes.

Some of the included tracks are just plain shit; a miserable art-rock dirge by Foster the People and the current anthem for the irritating hipster brigade, ‘We Are Young’ by painfully shit bed-wetters Fun. Rock Band games have always had varied track lists to cater for all tastes but there’s always been quality. I have a feeling many fans will be disappointed when they see Queen listed as an artist, only to discover they have to play the whacky opus ‘Death on Two Legs’. I know I was.

Thankfully you can also play all of your purchased Rock Band tracks, which opens up the game immensely. This feature allowed me to rock Bad Religion, Lamb of God and System of a Down despite the fact the tracks weren’t included in the game. Any tracks you buy in Blitz are also compatible with Rock Band 3, so you don’t have to buy them twice. You’re certainly going to need to fork out for a few as well, because it only took me an afternoon to blast through the included songs and that was with no great hurry.

With no variable difficulty or different instruments to try, the only reason to revisit a track is to beat your score. This may be enough of a pull for some, but I suspect too little an end reward for many. There isn’t really a proper campaign mode on offer either. It’s all about getting the highest score and enjoying yourself, which is fine, but a little storyline wouldn’t have hurt. Good thing the gameplay is solid enough to keep you coming back for the fun-factor alone then…

One man band
The basic premise of Rock Band Blitz is unusual, unless you’ve played Amplitude. As I suspect many of you won’t have even heard of it, I’ll explain. Essentially Blitz moves away from trying to make you feel like a real rock star and focuses on the fun. First off, you use a controller. Secondly, you play every instrument in the song almost simultaneously.

No expensive plastic crap required!

Each instrument is dedicated a track, almost identical to the scrolling fretboards we’re all used to seeing in the retail games. This time, however, there’s only two note spaces per track. As the song scrolls along you have to hit the notes in time as they come bolting towards you and the more you hit the better your score. So far, so Rock Band.

The innovation comes in how you play them all at once. Switching tracks at any time allows you to pick up another instrument and carry on playing. So you can start on the drums, then switch to bass and again to guitar in the space of a single verse. As you hit notes successfully the level of that instrument increases. The idea is to juggle the tracks so you reach a high level with all of them; at the next checkpoint the top level becomes the basic level, allowing you to go higher and higher the better you do.

Power-ups come in three flavours and are pretty clever. Overdrive power-ups are built up by hitting white notes and are activated with a press of X. This system will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played Rock Band. Note power-ups affect certain notes on the board whilst track power-ups influence the tracks themselves. There are six Overdrive and Track types and four Note types to choose from, and you pick which ones you want to equip before you begin a song. These are steadily unlocked with ‘Blitz Cred’ as you play and cost Coins to use each time.

Both Cred and Coins are earned through playing well, although my corporate-senses started tingling as soon as I saw the counters at the top of the screen. It absolutely reeks of those Facebook games that force you to use buyable coins to activate power-ups and advantages. While there appears to be no way of buying Coins and Harmonix are unlikely to implement one, I’m still sharpening my knife in anticipation.

On the brighter side, the power-ups are all brilliant. Bandmate lets you designate a track for an AI ‘bandmate’ to play while you concentrate on the others; perfect for those tricky sections you always fuck up on. Blast Notes turn random notes into bombs that decimate the notes around, making a clean switch much easier. Synchrony adds little arrows to the tracks which, if followed, grant bonus points and are the smoothest way to switch when the time is right. Picking the right combination of power-ups for you is important and it’s fun trying out new sets.

If it sounds a bit complicated that’s because it’s surprisingly hard to describe. At first it’s bafflingly hard. Even as a seasoned Amplitude veteran I found myself breaking a sweat as I feverishly tried to juggle the tracks of Sorrow by Bad Religion. Almost none of your Rock Band skill is applicable except any ability to keep time, which is paramount. As there’s only two notes to hit at any one time it becomes a game of timing and knowing when to switch tracks.

Yet just like it’s big brother, Blitz morphs into an immensely enjoyable romp once you get the hang of it. You’ll be flicking between tracks and picking up instruments at your favourite parts in no time. It’s amazing how they’ve managed to retain that warm, fuzzy feeling we get from rhythm action games when you’re essentially just hitting two buttons. Or triggers. Or bumpers.

If I have to level one criticism at Blitz it’s the bloody controls. Despite there being four different set-ups, none of them feel natural. The default is fucking awful, asking you to use the Left Stick for the left note and the A button for the right. Whoever thought that up needs shooting. One uses all shoulder buttons. Another uses two face buttons for the notes, which you’d think would be good, until you have to press them both at the same time, forcing you to play with a sort of crab-grip usually reserved for games of Street Fighter. The only style I found usable was the ‘Freakish’ one, which uses the triggers to hit the notes and the Left Stick to switch tracks. For all I know you might find one of the other set-ups works for you, but in my opinion none of them are perfect.

Thankfully, general navigation is a breeze. Everything is simple and straightforward, although they’ve omitted the ability to make a setlist for some reason. Pick a song and a set of power-ups and you’re playing within seconds. After the song you get a fireworks display and a snappy rundown of how well you did in a classic Rock Band percentage, as well as your position on your Friends and Global leaderboards. It’s fresh and nice to look at, and most importantly does it’s job.

Hitchin’ a ride
Graphically Rock Band Blitz shines. The familiar tracks are there complete with the classic oblong notes, sparkling in bright rainbow colours as they hurtle towards you at alarming speeds. Power-ups and special notes turn the track into an explosive display and that feeling of nailing a run or managing a perfect switch is well implemented.

A trip in more ways than one...

Instead of the traditional stage backdrop, Blitz puts you on a journey to the finish line, racing and winding through a vibrant, shining cityscape. Although it’s a little disappointing that this is the ONLY backdrop in the game, it suits the style perfectly and really adds to the frantic tension.

Bring the noise!
Obviously Rock Band Blitz has official recordings of all the tracks for you to play, so they sound just like you remember them. The game does have an annoying habit of turning everything but the track you’re actually playing right down, which can make it tricky to keep time. The effect of this differs from track to track and never hurts the experience too much, but an option to adjust the effect would’ve been nice.

As for the other sounds, they’re all here. The clunks and clicks when you miss notes, the whoosh as you activate your Overdrive, plus new ones for the new power-ups and the end-level finale.

I’m so ronery…
The lack of a proper multiplayer here is baffling. I could think of at least three ways Blitz would be awesome to play with friends. Divvying up the tracks between two or more players and seeing who can do the best. A head-to-head battle to determine the ultimate Blitz king. A sabotage style game where one player plays the song and the other can deploy fiendish handicaps based on how well their friend is doing. It seems Harmonix decided against all this in favour of a leaderboard and challenge system. Yawn.

Basically your score for each track on your Friends leaderboard can be challenged by anyone on your friends list who also has the game. As for how this system works, I have no idea. Despite following the on-screen instructions I couldn’t seem to challenge anyone. I suspect they have to have recorded a score for the song as well, meaning the system works on the leaderboard and not on who owns the game. Far from a way to entice your friends into playing the game against you, instead it seems to simply be a way of essentially saying ‘Nah, nah, I beat your score!’.

Another thing to note is the utter reliance on Xbox Live. Obviously you’ll have to own the service to get the game in the first place, and Harmonix has taken that to mean you’ll be connected to the internet 100% of the time. Attempt to play offline and not only will all your scores be unavailable but bizarrely you won’t be able to use power-ups either. I’m guessing this means that scores, Blitz Cred and Coins are stored exclusively online, which pretty much makes the game unplayable for those without a regular internet connection. For a game with no multiplayer it’s a bit rich to be asked to be online all the time.

Do you love me?
Far from the daft little Arcade game it may appear to be, Rock Band Blitz is instead a fantastic addition to the family. Removing the technicalities of playing a replica instrument and replacing it with track-juggling was a risky move that’s paid off completely. Within minutes you’re rocking out again and all the good feeling you get from the retail games comes flooding back. Getting the right control system for you is key and they all give your fingers and hands a new kind of workout. Playing songs you’re an expert at on Rock Band 3 feels strange at first, but it doesn’t take long for you to become just as hooked on Blitz as you are/were on any of the other Rock Band games.

While its flaws are myriad and will likely decide whether Blitz is for you, the core game is there and when used alongside the Rock Band Music Score the potential for joyous arcade fun is massive. It’s such a shame Harmonix opted to omit a multiplayer component as the Blitz format would suit a party situation just as well, if not better, than the traditional Rock Band experience.

The main issue with Rock Band has always been time. No matter how simple the song, picking up a plastic guitar and playing it still takes hours of practice for many people and the need to retain dignity can be a barrier to fun. Rock Band Blitz manages to transplant that Rock Band feeling we all know and love into an easy to learn, difficult to master Arcade title with aplomb. For a new way to play your old songs, there’s nothing better. Download the trial and give it a blast, or should that be blitz? Gah, my jokes are getting worse…

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