In hindsight, it’s easy to see Rock Band 4 as the encore for the series – one last song before the franchise left the stadium. But rather than being the belter, the anthem that got everyone singing, it was like finishing with an album track. Sure, it was good to see the band coming back onto the stage, but, well, we were hoping for something a little more memorable.
Released five years after Rock Band 3 nearly wiped Harmonix and MadCatz off the map, and three years after any other packaged Rock Band product, Rock Band 4 always felt like a crazy proposition. The sales of Rock Band 3 were so incredibly low – 7,400 sold – that the magnitude of improvement had to be ridiculous. Plus, the market was barely ready for a single guitar-centric rhythm action game, yet Rock Band and Guitar Hero decided to make comebacks at almost exactly the same time (Guitar Hero returned with Guitar Hero Live, one month later). It was mutually assured destruction.
At least Rock Band 4 got its messaging right. Gone was Rock Band 3’s elitist messaging of ‘this is for the real musicians’, and in came the message of ‘party!’. Freestyle solos and freestyle vocals allowed you and your mates to scat or noodle like there was no tomorrow, and that was kind of fun. Songs leaned towards showmanship. There weren’t thousands of pounds (weight or £, your choice) of peripherals either, and the emphasis was on continuity. The plastic gathering dust in your loft would port over to Rock Band 4, and the tracks in your Rock Band Network library would too. The generosity in that statement got two-fingerhorns up from me – they could easily have eyed the cash and made a choice that flicked a finger to the consumer. I can only imagine the contract negotiations and royalties that got that move greenlit.
Rock Band 4 (as Guitar Hero Live would too) also did the very topical thing of creating a ‘live service’, borrowing from MMOs, Destiny and pretty much every triple-A game releasing at the time. This was going to be a single game that saw updates for years, with expansions to create more substantial moments (the Rock Band Rivals expansion released almost exactly a year later), in a vein similar to World of Warcraft. It was almost an apology, as Rock Band 4 wasn’t going to saturate the market with year-on-year iterations (take note, sports games): they were going to ask for one purchase, and let you choose how much you bolt onto it.
But something had been lost. I’ve been a lifelong Guitar Hero and Rock Band fan, but I remember Rock Band 4 coming out and feeling a slow-motion shrug.
Rock Band was already a live service to me – the Rock Band Network had been housing my songs for years, so I’d already treated it in the way they intended. Rock Band 4’s packaged songs felt limp, which was probably to be expected after so many years of mining them (Aerosmith! No, wait, it’s just Toys in the Attic. Foo Fighters! Eh, it’s just Feast and the Famine). Rock Band parties round a mate’s house also felt outdated – they were so 2008 – and we just didn’t have the desire to pop round and get all the kit out. It felt so new back in the days of the first Rock Band, and that enthusiasm was enough to get over the hump of constructing the drum-kit, say. Personally, peripherals were becoming the bane of my existence – toys to life were on the downward curve, and I had Skylanders and Infinity toys out the wazoo. A game had to have a VERY good reason to clog up my broom cupboard.
And yet. Rock Band 4 actually got a fair amount of play in this household. While it offered barely anything new (Freestyle was fine, but I couldn’t have cared less about the drummer being able to count in a song), and in fact stripped out a fair few things from Rock Band 3 (it didn’t launch with online play, for example), Rock Band 4 felt like something I needed back in my life. The main joy was a simple one: I wanted to update Rock Band to the Xbox One. I’d forgotten the tracks that I’d bought, and was giddy when I saw them again on the Network. And Rock Band 4 actually became the late night, wife-gone-to-bed, game of choice. While the party ecosystem among my friends wasn’t there to support it, as Harmonix probably wanted it to be, Rock Band 4 actually wormed a way into my home by being the mindless solo game of choice.
Perhaps Harmonix got it wrong when marketing Rock Band 4. Perhaps it could have had a successful life as the busker – the ‘Unplugged’ of the Rock Band franchise. Just the player and the instrument, rocking out together. I can imagine the career mode with this in mind – hopping off at Euston tube station and doodling out Save Tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry for the possibility of a couple of quid. I don’t know why, but I’d hit that.
We will likely never see another Rock Band, and that’s a shame. As the Xbox Series X rolls out, it’ll only push all the plastic peripherals further towards a charity store or boot fair. But with Rock Band 4, I’m glad that Harmonix and MadCatz lost all sense of reason and decided to have another go. They shouldn’t have, it was never going to succeed, but I was personally glad they did. It was a decent encore, and another reason to hop back into that long-lost catalogue of songs. I may hop back into it now.
Do you have fond memories of Rock Band 4? Pop them in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you.