PAX Prime 2015: The Virtual Return of Rock and Roll

Music video games usually take 1 of 2 forms: either they have an original premise with innovative presentation such as Sentris, or they offer an analogue of playing real instruments. Harmonix has been the best studio at creating the latter and they’re poised to bring the dormant music band games genre back with Rock Band 4 later this year.

The focus is clearly back on the core music playing experience with a main stage in the heart of their PAX Prime 2015 booth and a side stage with the same instrument setup but less of the lighting and presentation frills (a much faster choice for time conscious attendees, as I found out). The guitar feels similar to the last generation of hardware with improvements such as a slight reduction in weight, smoother whammy bar and a more responsive tilt sensor when triggering an overdrive. There’s a new freestyle guitar solo mode which seemed unhappy with my choice of strums and what appeared to be a count-in opener on select songs for drummers, equipped with a setup that held up well to the powerful hits and pedal pumps as we jammed out in front of energized bystanders.

The vocal experience tracks a little more accurately and popped up a notification during my demo runs to inform our singer that they didn’t have to match the exact pitch on higher difficulties, a subtle tweak that makes tougher songs to sing more palatable for amateur crooners. The keytar doesn’t look like it made the transition from the previous core game, but support could be revealed in the future (Elton John classics wouldn’t be the same without it).

The Rock Band experience is still as I remember it from living room jams with friends, online sessions through the career mode or privately jamming out through solo career modes on the Green Day and Beatles titles. I hadn’t played the game in over a year but it immediately felt familiar and welcoming to throw the strap over my shoulder, settle my fingers and play through a couple of the new tracks.

Without access to the Rock Band Network or other parts of the game beyond the single song playing experience, I can’t tell yet if Rock Band 4 is simply a current generation port of their established playing experience or something more. Based on the partisan PAX crowd, gamers will be receptive to the return of music games and the novelty of artificial instruments with real enthusiasm for performing our favourite songs.

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