Back when Harmonix first came up with the idea for Guitar Hero, its plastic guitars felt like the rhythm-action genre had finally found its logical conclusion, while the evolution to Rock Band only cemented the idea by putting every conceivable rock instrument in the hands of the player. Amplitude and Frequency, as much as we loved them, were a thing of the past. Or so it seemed. With Rock Band Blitz, Harmonix has thrown away the plastic instruments, returning to an Amplitude style of gameplay that, crucially, draws upon your existing Rock Band song catalogue for a gargantuan pool of music from the moment you start the game.
For Rock Band purists, the removal of instruments might seem like a step backwards at first and, in fact, the game is certainly much easier to play than its bigger brother. But there is something undeniably satisfying about the joypad-only control scheme. Note charts use only two buttons, one on the left of the controller and another on the right, so tapping out a rhythm with two thumbs feels as natural as table drumming to a favourite tune. Tone-deaf tune-murderers who traditionally shy away from the mic will also be relieved that vocals now play out with button presses, so you can play to the singer’s rhythm rather than trying to hit the notes. Perfect for those of us who can’t help dancing to the lyrics.
Once you’re in the swing of things, you’ll be zipping flawlessly along the note tracks in no time, though it does take a while to get out of the typical Rock Band mindset of ‘perfecting’ a track. Yet neither does it really play like Amplitude either. While the latter game was about constructing a song by effectively plate-spinning track sections, Blitz plays the entire song no matter what, and it’s your job to play along, with successful notes boosting the volume of the track, and there’s no fail state. The real game, then, isn’t about completing a song but is about scoring as many points as possible.
Each note track has its own score multiplier that is levelled up by hitting a certain number of notes in a section, but there’s also an overall level cap on the multipliers. So if you get to a checkpoint in the song and one of your tracks is on a low multiplier, the overall level cap will only increase by a minimal amount. Successful Blitz players therefore have to jump between tracks frequently to keep all of the multipliers topped up, which certainly goes against natural Rock Band instincts but does make sense after a while.
This being a leaderboard game, Rock Band Blitz is all about the pursuit of the high score, and there are a number of strategies for how to crack that on the basic level of simply learning a song’s nuances and knowing exactly when to concentrate on one note track over another, but then there are also power-ups to contend with. For each tune, players are able to equip up to three power-ups that introduce new subsets of rules to the game. Some are simple score multipliers while others are a little more extravagant, such as a pinball that wipes out any note it hits and can be kept in play by catching it at the bottom of the screen.
There’s no right or wrong way to choose a set of power-ups, though it largely comes down to your own playstyle as well as which combination seems best suited to each song, so there are tons of tactical approaches to every single tune, adding an almost endless replay factor, which Harmonix capitalises on exceptionally.
Using more than just the Xbox Live friends list and leaderboards, Harmonix has linked Rock Band Blitz with its Rock Band World Facebook app so that friends can easily send each other challenges or even engage in co-op missons set by Harmonix itself. Multiplayer is handled asynchronously, so score attack challenges can be tackled at your leisure and repeatedly within the given time limit.
The way Harmonix encourages community play – by placing an in-game currency charge on the use of power-ups and offering the biggest coin payouts to those who engage with other players – is sure to rile a few traditionalists, but there’s no denying that it does motivate players to connect with others more than they normally would and this, in turn, increases the enjoyment. If proof were ever needed that social gaming features can both exist without ripping off gamers and be used to enrich an experience then Rock Band Blitz is it.
When the motivating factor of the social functions collide with obsessive high-score chasing and the tactical possibilities of Harmonix’s game design, Rock Band Blitz really becomes something special: compulsive, rewarding and utterly enthralling. Just as the original Rock Band sapped hours of time away as players became lost in music, so too does Blitz, tapping into several primal parts of the brain at once. The combined result is dangerously addictive, and is more potent the more Rock Band songs you already have sitting on your hard drive. Such is the extent to which it breathes new life into your oldest tracks.
After a rocky couple of years for rhythm-action, in which Guitar Hero came to an end and Rock Band 3 failed to repeat the retail success of its predecessors, it’s fantastic to see Harmonix back on top with a game that reinvigorates the genre in new and interesting ways. But, more than that, it’s just great to have an extremely playable reason to return to some old favourite songs.