There is nothing more weirdly beautiful than playing metal guitar solos over a Cake song.
Okay, let me back up. I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between games and toys. Speaking very broadly, games have objectives: get from point A to point B, rack up the highest score, punch the really big bad guy until he falls down or explodes. Toys, meanwhile, are more free-form in nature — an outlet with some arbitrary boundaries through which you can ascribe your own meaning.
Rock Band 4 lives in both worlds. As a game, it's the Rock Band you remember from years past, for better and for worse. As a toy, however, Rock Band 4 has created something that's at once imperfect and exciting: a guitar virtuoso simulator with some semblance of creative freedom.
For those who missed out on the Rock Band and Guitar Hero craze, let me just say you're also probably too young to have experienced Animaniacs or Legends of the Hidden Temple. You should get on that, too. Anyway, I digress. A brief history lesson: In 2005, Harmonix released the wildly successful Guitar Hero in partnership with hardware maker RedOctane and publisher Activision. After the equally successful Guitar Hero II, Activision bought RedOctane and the Guitar Hero IP, while MTV picked up Harmonix, who then created a new rhythm franchise, Rock Band. Five years, 30-plus titles, and millions of plastic guitar / drum / DJ controllers later, the rhythm genre seemed to fade out of the public eye just as fast as it had emerged. But like any good VH1 Behind the Music story, the genre is making a comeback, with both a new Rock Band and a new Guitar Hero coming out this month.
Rock Band 4 more or less keeps to the long-standing rhythm game formula: You, the wannabe rock star, play along to popular songs using a guitar-shaped controller, holding down some combination of five large buttons on the guitar's neck and plucking as those corresponding "notes" appear in rhythm. Succeed and the virtual crowd cheers; fail and the guitar portion of your favorite song is replaced by some clunky blips and choral jeering. The same applies for bass, drums, and vocals, all of which make up the full Rock Band experience.
The big change in Rock Band 4 is the introduction of freestyle guitar solos. In lieu of playing a song's actual guitar solo, you're now able to "improvise" your own. In these sections, depending on what combination of buttons you're holding down and how fast / often you're strumming, the game will procedurally generate an impressive-sounding guitar riff matching the key and general style of the song. So instead of a long string of predefined button presses to fly through, Rock Band 4 will offer suggestions of what to do, from strumming fast button combinations at the top of the neck to bending one note near the top and letting it drone on. (The old-school stream of buttons is also available if you want.) You can also switch between a few effects, such as an echo or "wah," via the "pickup selector" on the guitar controller.
At its best, these freestyle solos release that biological opiate we associate with creative accomplishment. We achieve rock nirvana. At its worst, you sound like a passable cover band on a bad night.
There's a consistency to the sound your freestyles produce, and the game does a great job of matching intention with a relevant guitar lick that matches the song (only certain songs for me, such as Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Loving Fun," sounded off). There is a learning curve, however: While the individual riffs sound good, it's going to take some practice before you figure out the best patterns to string together — in that sense, it's kind of like practicing an actual instrument. Pulling off the "right" combination (insomuch that it sounds good to the ear) can be weirdly fulfilling.
And then there's endless solo mode, which takes the freestyle system and lets you play whatever you want over any song in the library. This is the most stupidly fun part of Rock Band 4. Some songs, like Judas Priest's "Halls of Valhalla," work perfectly because they're built for fast metal solos. Others, like The Outfield's "Your Love" and the aforementioned Cake song, work despite the clash in style. I'm almost ashamed to admit how much time I spent in this section; if I didn't have to unlock tracks in other modes, I might not have done anything else.
Endless solo mode is the most stupidly fun part of Rock Band 4
The rest of Rock Band 4 has changed very little. There's still a "world tour" mode that lets you create a stylized rock-star avatar and unlock songs as you perform across a variety of international venues. The refinements it does introduce are very welcome — especially when it comes to streamlining the song selection and voting process in multiplayer, which speeds things up and helps mitigate the whole arguing-what-to-play-next part. Drum "fills" are more improvisational in nature, vocalists can get credit for experimenting so long as they stay in key, but overall, it feels very much like the Rock Band of old.
Like past titles, the soundtrack is a diverse combination of pop / rock / country songs. The track listing is really a matter of personal taste — for me, it was just fine — but you also have the franchise's entire back catalog to work with. Better still, if you have any purchased tracks tied to your Xbox Live / PlayStation Network account, most of those will carry over to Rock Band 4 for free and be playable. You can also reportedly re-download tracks exported from Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band, and Green Day: Rock Band — no such luck at the moment for Rock Band 3 or the coveted Beatles Rock Band, however. That also means that if you bought into the Rock Band ecosystem on Xbox 360, you really should only consider the Xbox One version (likewise for PlayStation 3 and 4 users). And if you somehow still have your plastic instruments from yesteryear, there's a chance those will work with Rock Band 4: wired and wireless for PS4, wireless only (via a separate adapter) for Xbox One.
I was never big on the guitar parts of Rock Band. Something always felt off about wading into an uncanny valley of plastic instrumentation — "strumming chords" by holding two buttons and tapping along to the beat. But Rock Band 4, and specifically the new freestyle mode, blurs that line by providing just enough sense of accomplishment and creative input. I'm still not sure I want to venture back into the rhythm game genre wholesale — the endless temptation to purchase new DLC, the plastic drum set stored behind the couch or next to the TV — but for now, I'm really enjoying playing inappropriately fast solos over The Cure.
Rock Band 4 is available now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.