Four people are in a lounge, each manning one of Rock Band’s plastic peripherals. The drums perform a thundering fill, the bass ends on a trill, the guitar climbs a scale to a high note, and there’s a sustained wail on the vocals. In the spur of the moment the vocalist leaps onto the couch and knocks over a bottle. Rock ‘n’ Roll!
In moments like these ordinary people become rock gods. For many moments, rhythm games have allowed people to experience that which they would never otherwise have felt. No wonder the things were so popular. Of course, the bubble eventually burst, and the popularity of rhythm games began to wane. However, in Harmonix’s eyes there’s still a niche to be filled in the rhythm game pantheon. Rock Band and Guitar hero were cooperative games at heart. Such is the nature of music. Rock Band Blitz, on the other hand, is a competitive, single-player re-blend of the traditional rhythm game formula that’s all about high scores.
Rock Band Blitz is straight up baffling to begin with because it sets out to deconstruct everything I had learned about Rock Band up to this point. Each song throws all the instrument tracks at me, but because I’m playing on a controller, each track is simply comprised of two lanes. Breathtaking guitar solos and maddeningly complex drum beats, are broken down to just two inputs. The result, thanks to Harmonix’s experience with charting, is surprisingly accurate and engaging. It shouldn’t be possible to rock out while playing music via my controller, but Rock Band Blitz makes it so.
Blitz is a skilled-based game, but it’s one whose skill and mastery is almost entirely different from its predecessors in the series. Staged throughout songs are a number of checkpoints, and the goal is to ensure each separate track is leveled to the cap before the next checkpoint rolls around. If each one is, then each track can then be leveled a further three times. If even one lags behind when I pass that checkpoint, then my maximum multiplier for the next section won’t be as high. As I flip between tracks, getting a taste of each instrument in the mix, I have to ensure that I spend enough time leveling their multipliers. In tracks with no bass during the verse, for example, it makes the game one of musical prioritization, as much as it does a rhythm game that’s about hitting the notes in time to the music.
This is merely the first layer of Rock Band Blitz’s intense scoring meta-game. The balancing act between track multipliers and checkpoints can be tough enough, but there are also powerups to consider. There are three flavors: passive, ones dependent on collecting overdrive, and ones that activate upon hitting a randomized purple note. There are handfuls of each to experiment with, but I was happy to narrow my selection down to a certain trio that I found could net me the most points. These powerups (such as one that unleashes a pinball to bounce at oncoming notes, netting points for anything it touches) mean more to worry about. A competitive player, intent on climbing the leaderboard or dethroning a friend from the top spot, must snake their way throughout the chart, maxing out every multiplier, hitting every powerup passage, and deploying powers intelligently.
From where I’m sitting, plastic guitar slung across my shoulder and Rock Band drum sticks poking out of my back pocket, Rock Band Blitz is a perfect fusion of rhythm and skill-based competition, one that’s far more accessible and far less bothersome than vanilla Rock Band has ever been. However, I’m also sitting on hundreds and hundreds of downloadable songs imported from the Rock Band platform, all of which are included in my Blitz library. The game comes with twenty tracks that are representative of Rock Band’s long-standing astonishing variety, something for every player to enjoy regardless of personal musical taste. These songs will eventually lose their luster though, and a player’s long-term experience with the game will either depend on the amount of existing DLC he has for Rock Band, or on his willingness to buy more.
As Harmonix decided to re-appropriate Rock Band for a market that had begun to shun it, Blitz takes many cues from the social games of today. There is an engaging, possibly flawless score-based game here, but it’s tragically marred by its irritating social features. Blitz’s strongest allure is its intrinsically competitive nature, but social features are poorly integrated.
The most condensed, most competitive element of Blitz is its score wars, where you throw down a challenge to a friend, and are given a time frame in which to post the best score. To the victor goes that ultimate prize: bragging rights. Choosing a score war with any precision is a convoluted process, though. I’m made to log into facebook and utilize the tie-in Rock Band World app. Why there isn’t an option to challenge a friend to any given song in-game is simply baffling, unless Harmonix hopes to drum up more interest by making social networks a necessity to Blitz’s play. I largely decide to shrug, and pass over this element of Rock Band Blitz, choosing instead to stick to the in-game leaderboards. In modernizing the Rock Band platform with social features, an endeavor I suspect has something to do with selling DLC, Harmonix has fumbled a key element of Blitz where it could have otherwise been faultless.
Despite this, Blitz is just too successful as a straight-up game for me to dislike. Rock Band Blitz isn’t a bastardized, stripped-down version of Rock Band like I had half-expected (I’m looking at you, iOS versions) but an entirely different game, with a new focus. The old tenets of Rock Band’s play – master the inputs and pretend to play music – is replaced by a surprisingly adroit score-based game.
It’s to the game’s credit that each of these songs retain their sense of joy or sorrow, even when you’re tip-tapping along to them on a console controller, aiming solely for a higher score than your friend over there on the leaderboard. For anyone, those specifically with an existing catalog of tracks for the Rock Band platform, Rock Band Blitz is both a celebration of music and the spirit of competition. It’s just a shame that, where Blitz succeeds as a game, it fails in attempting to push its social elements to further monetize itself.