Rock Band Blitz - Amplitude for a New Generation
For many of you, your first exposure to music games was Guitar Hero or Rock Band; games with plastic approximations of real instruments that attempted to give you the true feel of being a musician. But before Harmonix scored big with these two franchises, most music games had a much bigger level of abstraction, using a controller to approximate notes or rhythms. Apart from Konami's excellent Bemani series, Harmonix's early PS2 titles Frequency and Amplitude were some of the best, quirkiest titles in the music game landscape.
Amplitude was a relatively challenging game, requiring players to move between different instrument tracks (drums, vocals, guitar and so on) and play 3-note patterns for a short time period. After playing a short section perfectly, the game would begin to auto-play that track and require you to jump to a new one, hopefully without missing a note. The game's challenge was a result of relatively complicated 3-note patterns, the juggling of its various randomized powerups, and the complexity of switching between multiple tracks without missing notes; as tracks were cleared, it became increasingly difficult to jump over completed tracks to ones that need your attention.
Rock Band Blitz is an attempt by Harmonix to bring the joy of single-player, score-based arcade music games to a new generation while leveraging its robust catalog of licensed music. Do they succeed? The short answer is an exuberant yes, and as a veteran of music games, I am extremely pleased to see how many of Harmonix's design decisions have created something new and unique in music games.
Gameplay - 9.5/10
Let's jump into the most important aspect of any music game. As mentioned, Rock Band Blitz is a spiritual successor to Amplitude in many ways, but with some very important changes that were initially concerning for hardcore music game experts. The basic premise of the game is to play notes on one of 5 tracks that represent an instrument in the Rock Band series (guitar, bass, drums, vocals, or keyboards). Unlike Amplitude, the tracks never auto-complete even if played perfectly, which means you can play one track the entire song if you choose to ignore scoring. Each track is represented with only 2 notes, though the game can ask you to play both notes at the same time; this is a substantial step down in complexity from Amplitude, as there is a definite limit on how difficult two note tracks can be compared to three note tracks. And finally, you can never fail the song, regardless of poor performance. Limited track complexity and never failing? Where's the challenge?
The answer is that RBB is less about playing difficult sections of music perfectly, but more about strategy and quick decision making. Each song is sectioned off by checkpoints. Initially all tracks start at a 1x multiplier, and playing a certain number of notes will increase that multiplier by 1. In general, there is little penalty for missing a note other than requiring slightly longer to reach the next multiplier. The goal is to play all available tracks in the song up to their max multipliers (which, for the first section, is 4x) before the checkpoint. Once the checkpoint is reached, the max multipliers for all tracks are increased, but only by as much as your lowest multiplier. If you have three of the four tracks at 4x, but the remaining one at 2x, the max will only increase by one to 5x, drastically lowering your potential to score points. If you have all tracks maxed, the maximum multiplier will increase by three to 7x, and then by as many as three at each subsequent checkpoint.
Therefore, the challenge becomes one of juggling multiple tracks which you can switch between at any time. You will often have to make decisions on when and where you should focus on leveling up your low multiplier tracks, and you may be switching as often as once or twice per second between tracks. You will often have to painfully watch long sequences of notes go by on tracks you've leveled up (which can be worth tons of points) so that you can play a basic pattern on a track you've been neglecting, because the long term consequences of ignoring this track are much more devastating. This situation can be minimized by smart planning, however, such as the order of tracks you play, when and where you switch between them, and when and how to cut your losses on poorly leveled tracks. Song knowledge is rewarded, as you will know how to best level up a vocal track with scattered singing that players who haven't heard the song won't recognize until after it's too late. Playing tracks in a poor order may leave you with no notes to play when you need to level up a track, and a painfully low multiplier increase at the next checkpoint.
Coupled with all this is the powerup system. You can choose up to a maximum of 3 powerups for a song, one from each of 3 categories. RBB does contain the familiar white notes which represent "star power" or "overdrive meter", concepts familiar to Guitar Hero or Rock Band veterans. Playing these notes will fill a meter, and pressing X will activate a powerup at your discretion, which will usually use the powerup until the meter fully drains. You can choose between doubling (or tripling!) your points for a limited time, automatically playing a track so that you can focus on others, or firing rockets at the track ahead to blow up a collection of notes. Scattered among the tracks are single purple notes, and playing these will activate a second powerup of your choice. Some of these are quite creative; one spawns a pinball that rolls over notes and scores points for you, bouncing off the sides of the stage, but if you let it slip past your target line at the bottom, it disappears. Others will burst notes around them for points, or will spawn rapidly expanding purple notes in front of them on various tracks, awarding you big points if you can catch and play all of them. The final powerup you can choose is sort of a permanent stat boost to a given track, which makes the points on this track worth slightly more than normal. Which track you pick is important for scoring; in songs with long guitar solos, guitar is the obvious choice. For other tracks, it may not be so obvious, and will likely affect which paths you take through the song.
The genius of Rock Band Blitz is in its lessening of a dexterity requirement and increase of tactical decision making. While there are still some serious dexterity requirements (don't be put off, music game vets, the game is still fun as a music game), you will probably find your low score was more related to poor decisions you made while playing. And there are a LOT of decisions to make. It is no exaggeration to say that every single second you play, you are forced to make a meaningful decision which will impact your score. In this sense, it is almost as much a puzzle game as it is a music game. You will often switch between completed tracks in order to hit purple notes and bank your overdrive meter, while constantly taking into consideration which tracks need to be leveled up. Powerups cause wildly different effects which have big impact on strategy; do you use Bandmate, which lets you level up tracks faster, or do you use Score Doubler or Jackpot and try to play them at opportune times? Is there good synergy between my overdrive powerup and my purple note powerup? When and on which tracks should these be used? Does this particular song's flow lend itself well to the powerups I've selected? And because the tracks are literally swimming in powerups, you need to do some creative track switching to ensure maximum coverage, or else you're giving points away. Your reward for playing a section of the song well and achieving max multipliers is a brief reprieve where you can milk your score using the track with the most notes, and then the checkpoint quickly resets the situation.
Even on easy, "boring" songs, there is an excitement in playing this game. You'll get an adrenaline rush when you level up your last track to max by the skin of your teeth, and often by the end of a 4 minute song, you'll feel mentally tired, thinking back to how many poor decisions you made, and eager to try again. The mix of strategic planning and musical dexterity is one that has never been seen in the genre before; despite its outward simplicity, there is very little that is simple about the decisions you will be forced to make on a second-by-second basis. And the fact that you can never fail means that casual players who aren't interested in chasing high scores (on their excellently implemented leaderboard system, I might add) can simply sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of hitting notes in rhythm to their favorite songs.
The only knock against its gameplay is a bit of a big one, unfortunately; it costs you in-game currency to use powerups. At the start of a song, the game will charge you coins to equip a powerup for that song. This means if you incorrectly equip powerups and start a song, or have a bad run, you've spent those coins. You gain coins by playing songs, and you gain a one-time bonus of double coins when you play a song you've never played before, which is clearly a technique to encourage you to buy more songs from the marketplace. If you equip powerups in all 3 slots and play songs you've played in the past, you will be spending coins slightly faster than you can earn them, which means you have to turn off your powerups and grind for coins every so often. This decision is pretty puzzling to me... if you're chasing high scores on the leaderboard, there is no option BUT to equip 3 powerups, and it means tinkering with a new powerup layout or starting a song "just to see what this powerup does" is actually expensive. There is also Facebook integration which gives you coins for helping with community goals, and gives you solo goals to achieve for more coins. The app is actually decently well built and I've been enjoying chasing goals, but if you don't have Facebook or don't want to sign up, this aspect of the game is lost.
Still, I refuse to let this one poor decision, likely made by management to try to increase DLC sales or spread the word through Facebook, impact my score too greatly for this game. The mix of puzzle and music elements is fantastically implemented, and the game is very fun and satisfying to play.
[EDIT - A week or so after the game came out, Harmonix decided to revamp the coin system a bit, based on fan feedback. Now you get more coins for doing Score Wars, more coins for passing songs with high grades, and each powerup costs you less to use. As such, they have basically eliminated the need for grinding, allowing you to use 3 powerups on any song and have it be much closer to self-sustaining than before. This is an excellent decision which lessens or removes many of the complaints I have about the coin system! Well done Harmonix!]
Graphics - 9/10
The graphics in the game are very Amplitude-esque; likely the game is built off the Amplitude engine in some capacity. The lanes are sharp and well-defined and exude lots of color. The notes are easy to see and never blend in to the background at all, and I haven't experienced any drop from the constant 60 fps framerate. The backgrounds are colorful, but not distracting. My only gripe with the graphics is, like Amplitude, the tracks will wind through the background like a country road, which occasionally means the track will bend upwards as if it's trying to climb a hill. This can distort the perspective of the notes sometimes, as well as give you considerably less of a viewing angle towards notes that are coming ahead (imagine if, randomly during your Rock Band song, you could only see one quarter of the note track for a few seconds). Fortunately this doesn't happen all that often and even when it does, you're likely to be mildly annoyed by it but still hit all the notes anyway. The interface is crisp and clean, amply displaying all the information you need, right where you need it.
Sound - 10/10
There's something about the Rock Band series; the sound really pops out of the speakers. I find the music in Guitar Hero to be a lot flatter in general. Rock Band Blitz is no exception, as the sound equalization is top notch. The song really jumps out at you when you play, and the current track you're playing will play more loudly than the rest of the song, giving you a very good sense that you're actually juggling multiple instruments when you switch lanes. It also gives you a really good opportunity to take a look at sections of your favorite Rock Band songs you've never noticed before, especially if you tend to play mainly one instrument. There have been several times I've played a cool bass part in a song and said "wow, I don't remember that part!" and coupled with the extra bass the game sends to my speakers when the bass track is highlighted, it really brings the song to life.
The game comes with 25 new songs. Like any music game, the quality of the track list is highly subjective, so I invite you to decide for yourself if the songs interest you. I personally enjoy several of the songs included with the game, and songs I may have not liked to play during regular Rock Band, I find they come to life a lot more due to the reasons I explain in the Gameplay section. The biggest boon for this game is that ALL songs in the Rock Band library (excluding the ones on the RB3 disc, sadly) work in this game with no extra cost. If you have accumulated several songs over the years, that instantly means your song list is filled with a plethora of songs you already like, and the automated process Harmonix built to convert a RB song into an RBB song works really well. Notes are placed where you expect, and tracks that are too fast or too complicated are simplified into something that feels good to play. You can also export all 25 RBB songs into Rock Band 3, for free!
One last random note; the menu music is surprisingly catchy. They seem to be simple little recordings done by the musicians at Harmonix, intended to emulate your "average" metal, pop, or rock song. I almost hope they release these songs as full titles as future DLC.
Lasting Appeal - 7 - 10/10
This one is a bit subjective, and depends on your gaming tastes as well as your RB library. If you're a person who likes to chase high scores, you will find a lot to like in Rock Band Blitz. Even if you can't compete with #1 on the leaderboards, there is a very convenient way to see the scores of all your friends and even issue them "Score Wars", which will earn you more coins if you beat them on a song over the course of a day or two. Even if you're a person who just likes to press buttons in time to music, RBB has a very addicting quality to it. While 25 songs at the $15 price point is a great value, if you have no previous Rock Band DLC and aren't willing to invest more money into it, you may find your interest waning after experiencing the songs multiple times. But because it's difficult to feel like you've played a song as well as you know you can, there is a strong "just one more song" quality to this game.
If you have a large RB DLC library already, then this game has as much lasting appeal as any music game can. It is a single player game, though I imagine taking turns playing songs in a room of the right people would be a very fun (and competitive) social activity. Still, if your main motivation for playing music games is to jam on songs with your friends, you may not enjoy the single player aspect of the game as much.
Achievement Difficulty - High
Getting all achievements for this game will require some dedication, especially if you don't have a history with success in music games. You will need to gold star all 25 RBB songs, which is quite difficult and will require multiple revisions to your strategy and multiple attempts (and, sadly, perhaps a bit of coin grinding in there as well). This achievement, while difficult, is at least fair. However, the game also comes with a bonus 100 GS available for people with DLC. The main offender here is being asked to play 300 (!!) unique songs from the Rock Band library. If you don't have 300 songs, well... it's going to cost you a lot of money to get there. You can export songs in bulk from past Rock Band games for considerably cheaper than buying songs off the marketplace, but this requires you tracking down those discs, as well as hassling with export fees or one-time-use export codes. I think this achievement is Harmonix's way of trying to reward their loyal customers with some gamerscore, but it will likely frustrate everyone else. Fortunately, you can get the requisite 400 gamerscore for this game with just the base 25 songs.
Overall - 9.5/10
I'm very pleased with Rock Band Blitz. What at first seemed like an unnecessary simplification of Amplitude turned into a game that is incredibly fun and addicting to play, with strategic elements that far outweigh any negatives associated with less track complexity. The hectic pace of making decisions every second throughout the song makes this game stand out in the music game landscape away from "play these notes perfectly," which has been the only way most people have experienced music games. It is an absolute must buy for all music game and puzzle game fans. The drawbacks of a few questionable achievements and the coin system cannot hold this game back from being one of the best music games released on modern consoles. And at $15 for 25 songs that also work in Rock Band 3, it's an incredible value.