Rock Band Blitz
Although it may not seem like it, it hasn’t been a lifetime ago since instrument-based rhythm games were an all-consuming gaming hotness, with series stalwarts Rock Band and Guitar Hero leading the charge at every turn. At the time, banging away at a plastic drum kit while a friend bravely leaned into a drunken vocal take of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” was a novel experience which led handily into a brief window of kitsch mainstream appeal for the genre. But in the wake of its decline in popularity and with tacit understanding that innumerable sets of guitars and drum kits have since been left to loiter in living room corners the world over, Harmonix is now seeking to reinstate the rhythm game genre’s tenure with Rock Band Blitz: a smaller scale downloadable game which redirects the studio’s rhythm-based focus back onto the humble controller.
The underlying premise of Blitz is by no means new to the genre — in fact, the game works as a sort of re-working of previous Harmonix titles like Amplitude and Frequency on PlayStation 2 as well as the PSP’s Rock Band Unplugged. The common thread between Blitz and these rhythm games of old is the use of a standard controller to play along with the music. (For the record, you specifically cannot use any of those old abandoned instruments here.) Blitz lays out the chart notation for every instrument in a song along a typical scrolling highway, totalling up to five tracks to deal with — guitar, bass, drums, vocals and keyboards when appropriate — and lets you switch between each instrument on the fly. Whereas the main Rock Band games present you with a higher number of notes to play along to per instrument relative to your chosen difficulty setting, Blitz purposefully limits each instrument’s track to just two notes at any given time during a song and is kept to a single unalterable difficulty all the while.
This system replaces the necessity to stretch your fingers across the five-button fretboard of a specialised guitar controller to pull off a rip-roaring solo and opts to condense that action down instead. Hitting the right notes in time with each instrument’s chart is naturally still paramount, but the two-button method of control (d-pad and lower face button by default) works considerably well at re-formatting the tried-and-true Rock Band formula into more simplified yet still challenging and fun rhythmic patterns. By replacing the series’ familiar appropriation of real guitar chords or emulated drum parts, Blitz invites a more natural sense of rhythm with a preference for timing and mental readiness as a pre-requisite to success over accurate finger placement. Becoming accustomed to this two-button control method also comes to light much sooner than it does with Blitz’s more hands-on older siblings and does so in spite of years of service with hefty instruments as the focal point to the experience.
Although this may all sound redundant at first, the application of this design soon becomes apparent when placed into context with the way score accumulation works in Blitz. In fact, the game will often remind you that trying to hit every note in the chart is not a goal you should be striving for. Your main objective is to boost your overall score multiplyer by filling up the point ceiling for each instrument before you pass through each ever-approaching checkpoint gated at certain junctures in a song. An instrument’s multiplyer is increased with every successful note hit, so after you reach a checkpoint and a section of a song has passed, the lowest instrument multiplyer in your set will determine the increase of multiplyers possible for all instruments in the following section. So ideally, you want to get every instrument up to their highest possible multiplyer before a checkpoint comes in order to push your final score to as high an end as possible. Plus, if the beginning of a song doesn’t have any vocals, for instance, then the game doesn’t count it against the other instrument tracks when a checkpoint is reached. Blitz Mode, which speeds up the note highway and merits a separate score bonus for keeping in time without fault, is also an exciting little touch.
Undoubtedly, the key to scoring big points in Blitz relies on your use of power-ups. You don’t start with any, however, as they must be purchased after you’ve earned enough in-game Coins gathered by completing songs and earning Cred (effectively your level). The more your Cred increases, the more Coins you store up and power-ups you unlock. The game only really starts to come into its own when you’ve amassed a sizeable amount of Coins and are able to shop around to pick and choose your most desired set of power-ups before a song begins. That said, this gradual progression does grant you ample time to familiarise yourself with all the game’s systems and how they function with one another, even if it takes a little longer to reach that point than you might like.
There are three different categories of power-ups to select, each of which caters to both active and passive score bonuses. You don’t have to fill up every power-up slot if you don’t want to, but it’s foolish not to if you’ve got enough Coins to spare, or if you feel confident enough in your ability to wring the most from your chosen power-ups and score big points. One of the first available power-ups will double your multiplyer for as long Overdrive is active, which still works just as it always has in Rock Band. Other power-ups in the same category will clear out a random smattering of notes ahead of you, giving you some room to breathe and potentially closing the gap between the next instrument multiplyer. More passive power-ups trigger automatic point bonuses for a single chosen instrument for the entirety of a song. In this instance, it makes sense to pick an instrument with the highest difficulty rating to maximise the notes you want to be hitting anyway. Similar power-ups, like one that explodes other nearby notes upon being hit, are specially marked against the chain of regular ones, and there are others which play on a risk-reward mentality. Learning the benefits of power-ups mostly comes by sheer discovery and a willingness to dabble however, especially given how the game never explicitly makes a case for one power-up over another.
Rock Band Blitz also invests rather heavily in social hooks to get you invested in Score War bouts with friends and other online rivals. Beyond leaderboards and mid-song score comparisons with friends, Blitz requires you link your Facebook account with your gamertag in order to gain access to a more comprehensive outlook on your social ranking with the dedicated app found on the website itself. Not only this, but visiting the game’s Facebook app is also the only way to initiate one of several different in-game goals which reward you with more Coins upon completion. Having to resort to a computer to use these features is by no means ideal — jumping from one platform to another is an unwieldy thing to ask, even if doing so is generally problem-free. Not being able to play against others online also seems strangely negligent.
It’s an important bullet point to stress that getting the most from Blitz means having a fairly extensive library of songs to pull from. The game comes equipped with 25 licensed songs and showcases a decent variety of genres, including cuts from the storied (Elton John, Kool & The Gang) to the contemporary (Maroon 5, Foo Fighters) and everything in between (Quiet Riot, Tears for Fears). All of your previously purchased DLC will integrate seamlessly into Blitz’s free-form catalogue, and you can export (at a cost) almost every song from the original Rock Band, its sequel, Lego Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band. Unfortunately, songs from The Beatles: Rock Band and 2010’s Rock Band 3 (sheesh, that’s a lot of ‘Rock Band’) cannot be exported into Blitz due to what I imagine are licensing and technical issues respectively. It’s certainly a shame to see that content go to waste but between the swaths of music available in the online store and the compatible aforementioned games in the series, it’s not as if your soundtrack options are lacking should you have that content at your disposal.
The series’ call sign of sharp rhythm game fun is absolutely in full swing with Blitz, and wonky social hooks aside, the dependable Rock Band experience has been simplified in all the right ways. Its stripped-down approach recants the necessity of plastic contraptions to enjoy the series’ extensive and vast soundtrack; and assuming your catalogue is butch enough, Blitz has more than enough staying power to maintain a headline slot.
D+PAD reviewed Rock Band Blitz on the Xbox 360; game provided by Harmonix
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