As somebody who won a free copy of the game before release, and as a dedicated music gamer, I feel obligated to post my thoughts of Harmonix's newly released downloadable spin-off of the Rock Band franchise, Rock Band Blitz.
(note: This is the Xbox 360 version)
The rhythm game genre has hit hard times. The excessive saturation of the Guitar Hero franchise three years ago left the genre in a state of virtually irreparable despair. While the instrument-based subgenre was a unique, downright exhilarating experience in its prime, the extent to which the cash cow was milked left the consumer base tired and uninterested, resulting in dwindling sales and the apparent death of the franchise. Despite that, genre competitor Harmonix is bringing back their critically acclaimed Rock Band franchise for another go, albeit in an almost entirely different style that involves no beefy peripherals. With full compatibility to the entire Rock Band DLC and export libraries, 25 new tracks, and a price tag of $15, Rock Band Blitz is a hard deal to pass up if you've ever been gripped by the genre's appeal.
The gameplay heavily differs from the franchise's preceding outings. Instead of being confined to one instrument, the game puts the player in charge of the entire band (mostly consisting of four to five instruments per song). Each instrument contains two note lanes, rather than the normal five. The player can switch between instruments at any time using the triggers and hit the notes by using the D-pad and A button (alternatively, the joysticks hit notes as well).
In a departure from a formula that is practically written in stone at this point, the game's goal is not necessarily nailing as many notes as possible in attempt to achieve perfection. Instead, it showcases a variety of facets that encourage the player to shoot for a higher score. The most important of these assets is the multiplier on the left side of the screen. Hitting enough in notes on each instrument raises its multiplier, and hitting enough notes will lift it up to the multiplier cap. Checkpoints that raise the multiplier cap are spread throughout each song chart. The challenge here is that the cap increase is dependent on how high all of the instruments' multipliers are, with the most desirable result -- an increase of three -- only occurring after raising every instrument to the maximum. For example, if you have drums, guitar, and bass at 4x, but only have 2x for vocals, the cap will only raise up to three higher than the vocals, which in this case is 5x.
The other major deciding factor in the acquiring massive amounts of points is the selection of Powers. Three types of Powers are selectable before tackling a song. Overdrive Powers are just as what veterans think it is: Powers that are manually activated after accruing a certain amount of Overdrive energy. Note Powers cause notes with special properties to appear throughout the song, often indicated by purple-colored notes. Lastly, Track Powers mostly involve increasing the points gained from one instrument. Knowing the song ahead of time, whether from previous experience in preceding games or simply playing through the song in Blitz, is essential for making the most out of these Powers.
This harsh shift in direction from perfection to strategy might seem offputting for an average devotee of the subgenre, but as a long-standing veteran, I embraced the change, as the focus on strategic observation and memorization mesh to create what is a thinking man's rhythm game. Reaching the coveted Gold Star cutoff of a song will require full understanding of the game's core mechanics and a wisely chosen selection of Powers.
Graphically, the game looks colorful and sleek. The dark aesthetic of the city surrounding the instrumental lanes effectively compliments their comparatively bright and conspicuous presence. That being said, the notes can occasionally be hard to see at times, almost to the degree of being uncannily reminiscent of Beatlemania from The Beatles: Rock Band, and just like Beatlemania, it's most noticeable during the guitar solos.
The soundtrack is fairly difficult to comment on. Selections such as "One Week" by the Barenaked Ladies and "Death on Two Legs" by Queen are picks that anybody can love, while picks like Maroon 5's now infamous "Moves Like Jagger" is likely to never be touched by some dedicated players. The game's setlist leans slightly more towards the pop style as opposed to the classic rock direction, but considering it's a 25-song pack for only $15, it can be difficult for an average player to complain.
If these assets were in the game with no strings attached, I would be willing to say that the game would be close to the pinnacle of the genre. However, the aforementioned Powers are governed by the very catalyst of the game's core problems: the coin system. Powers are single-use only, with each use requiring a transaction of in-game currency. Playing a song with all three Power types costs a total of 750 coins. The problem is that playing a song only rewards about 300-500 coins on average, and while that amount is doubled for new songs, the game will eventually require the player to grind for more coins by running through tracks without the use of any Powers, which is contextually clashing in a game that is quite literally centered around achieving highest feasible scores. If the system wasn't enough of a nuisance, restarting a song requires repurchasing the Powers, which renders what should be the most useful mechanic in striving for a high score almost totally worthless depending on how many coins the player has in reserve.
There is a means of collecting coins more quickly; however, it warrants the attention of another glaring flaw. Signing up to a Facebook app called Rock Band World allows players to accept goals and challenge other players to Score Wars, with the reward being those coveted coins. While having a companion app for a game is not a wholly bad idea when used in a cosmetic fashion, Blitz relies on its app to the point where it almost banks on it, as some of the features presented in the program are significantly more complicated if not entirely absent within the confines of the actual game. On top of that, playing Blitz without an online connection cuts off the player's access to coins, restricting them to play without Powers as long as they're going dark.
Cumbersome social integration and a hairbrained monetary system aside, the actual crux of Blitz's gameplay is among the most refined rhythm games have seen in a long time (at least, if you play it with all three Powers as intended). Rock Band Blitz would be incredible if it weren't for its bothersome reliance on online intrusion. With those features, it's only good, but still good enough to be considered a must-buy for rhythm game fanatics. If you still have an itch for Rock Band, the value of the setlist alone makes it a no-brainer purchase. Fans of Amplitude and Frequency (also made by Harmonix) will also love the callbacks to those titles' styles of play. Blitz is a definite buy for devotees of the genre. Just be prepared for the occasional hang-up.
P.S. With the exception of the banner and thumbnail, the images used throughout the review are from my own capture card, so apologies for the less-than-stellar quality of the images. I'm not ready to upgrade to a PVR yet.
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