It’s been tough for Harmonix since the great plastic instrument crash of twenty-ten. Despite the superb Rock Band 3, demand for clacking guitars and Fisher Price drum kits dried up and first week sales of the flagship title did not even break five-figures. It was a far cry from their billion-dollar Guitar Hero days when the sound of friends and families clicking along to Kiss filled living rooms across the land. The craze disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived and not even a keytar could prevent it. Not long after, Harmonix and Viacom parted company and it looked an uncertain future.
They have, however, put out the consistent and well received Dance Central for Kinect. Although this may have scratched a musical itch for the developers, it was a departure from the games that made their name and you could always tell that something else was brewing. That something was Rock Band Blitz.
Blending their more recent gameplay stylings with the track swapping and score chasing of their earlier work, Amplitude and Frequency, it carries on the Rock Band brand without the need for half-sized guitars.
For those, like myself, who possibly overdosed on Rock Band in recent years, what is presented is something that’s very familiar but utterly confusing. On screen are up to five highways – the streams of colourful buttons that represent notes and indicate when you should press buttons – one for each of the instruments in your band. Drums, bass, lead guitar, vocals and keyboard each have their place, and in a different era this would mean there were five people playing along together. In Blitz, however, you play everything yourself; you are the ultimate one-man band.
As the notes rattle towards you, there’s only two buttons to worry about as you tap out the rhythm in time to the song; left or right is all there is. Layered on top of that is the ability to swap tracks. If the drums have grown a little slow or the singer’s nipped to the back of the stage to grab a drink, a tap on the triggers will switch focus to a more involving instrument. Similarly, if the guitar solo’s getting a little too hot for your fingers, flick over to the bass to ensure your combo remains unbroken. With each run of notes your multipliers tick up and you feed your Blitz meter. When that fills the camera drops low, the sense of speed picks up and points are positively hurled at you like knickers at a Tom Jones gig for as long as you can keep the chain going.
It’s all about the high score. There’s no longer the ability to fail mid-song when you reach the twiddly bit and your sense of rhythm collapses under the pressure of syncopated off-beats, your only penalty is that you will score nothing. That, strangely, is a feature I’ve often wished for in the main Rock Band career.
Initial forays will be mini adventures as you get used to the new format, experimenting, and wrapping your head around the focus on scoring. There’s always been points, but not like this, as the keen designers drag you left and right with the introduction of a gated multiplier. Each track must be built up evenly, spreading your focus across each instrument to gain the maximum benefit. Neglect the keyboards and even if you’ve topped out the other highways until they glow like Blackpool seafront you won’t see the caps increased as you pass through various checkpoints scattered throughout the songs.
It introduces a level of strategy I’ve never encountered before in music games. It’s easy enough to play through a song but to master and balance each instrument to know that you’ve played enough notes to unlock higher and higher multipliers needs you to truly know that song. Knowing when the vocals fades out can be the difference between a high score and a wasted run. At this point it goes past the point of simply playing along, as you flit back and forth between the highways, it’s a manic display of finger dexterity.
And it’s compelling. Leaderboards are rampant throughout and the constant comparison to friends is an undeniable draw to giving that song just one more go. And then one more. Maybe third time lucky. A situation only made worse by Harmonix’s Score War feature where you slap your online friends round the face with a digital white glove and call them to duel with you, giving you both three days to set the highest score. There’s in-game currency to win but being called out and showed up is a high incentive to eke out every point from a song.
Adding a further twist are the power-ups that can be equipped before every try. Star Power no longer fuels increased multipliers, it launches bottle rockets, sets off explosions, or calls to your aid a virtual bandmate. With three different types of power-ups, all possibly heavily affecting the way you approach play, it furthers experimentation with each one unlocked. Already around the office tips and tricks are being passed about as new techniques and combinations lead to higher and higher scores.
No matter what has changed, below it all is still Rock Band. The gems still glow as they did before as they glide down the highway, and either side that rock city motif scrolls by with the odd recognisable character briefly flitting into view. It’s a reassuring constant, especially as it imports all your previous Rock Band content. The track list built into Blitz is incredibly solid, with a range from Lady Gaga to Foo Fighters, but the instant expansion gave it a lease of life I find very rarely in score attack games.
For those of you who miss a traditional Rock Band experience, this will go some way to alleviating that pain. It may be reimagined but it shows all the design genius and subtlety that made Harmonix’s name. Where Blitz has its focus however is entirely on competition. Anyone who is alone amongst their friends in downloading this will enjoy it but see very little of its incredible depth. Bobbing your head and floating your way through a song is one thing but when pressed by the knowledge that that bastard Ben has just knocked More Than a Feeling out of the park, that smile will be replaced with gritty determination as you flick tracks like a man possessed.
That high score? She will be me mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.