Once was a time when the plastic controllers of Rock Band ruled the world - or at least the living rooms of the world where they gathered in a garish pile. But if the music genre hasn't exactly died, the one that supported a plethora of peripherals most certainly has, its leave of absence stretching on for some two years and leaving its most successful exponent, Harmonix, looking for new avenues for its rhythmic gameplay.
Enter Rock Band Blitz. The Boston developer's upcoming Rock Band spinoff does away completely with peripherals. Even stranger, it's primarily a single-player game set for release on Xbox Live and PSN.
Rock Band Blitz harkens back to Harmonix's early days with games like Amplitude and Frequency. In Blitz, the camera zooms down the highway of 'Rock City' where a handful of familiar colour-coded lanes represent the different instruments comprising each song. Each lane only has two notes to hit - one on the left and one on the right. Hit enough correct notes with an instrument and you'll gain a multiplier signified by the lane filling in with colour. You can only raise the multiplier to a certain cap before the next checkpoint, so you're encouraged to switch between the various parts like one of those one-man band street performers.
Adding an extra layer of strategy to the mix are a host of power-ups. Overdrive power-ups are acquired by hitting several white overdrive notes until a meter fills up, at which point you can deploy it whenever you want. The demo shows off two of these; Bottle Rocket explodes several gems further down the road, while Bandmate will play another instrument for a brief time. There are also Note power-ups, which launch immediately upon hitting rare purple notes. The ones in the demo consist of a bomb that hits all gems within a certain radius, as well as a pinball that will continue to knock down notes as long as you can keep it in play.
Figuring out what power-ups to pick for what songs and when to deploy them adds a far greater layer of experimentation and tactics than the previous games in the series that tasked players with merely following directions. While it's a single-player title locally, Rock Band Blitz will have online leaderboards, emphasizing the competitive element. There will even be options to set challenges against friends, where you'll compete to set a record playing the same song under a certain deadline (say a day or a week). Whoever achieves the highest score when the deadline's up wins.
These score-attack elements could be Rock Band Blitz's raison d'etre because when you get down to it, Blitz is missing the fundamentals of what made Harmonix's most recent titles such a success. Guitar Hero replaced our air guitar fantasies with plastic ones, and the sharp focus on one instrument made it seem as if the band lived or died by your six strings (or rather five buttons). A single player's role in Rock Band was far less significant, but there was a rock star sense of camaraderie that made up for it. Since you're only handling one instrument at a time here, it risks marginalizing player input regarding how the song sounds.
During my brief hands-on time I tinkered with the audio options to change this, but the feedback still felt insubstantial and the songs sounded pretty good despite the fact that I was missing notes left and right. This is partially due to my own shortcomings, but also due to Rock Band Blitz only having one difficulty setting. The tracks are malleable enough that players can switch between easier and harder instrument parts, but the overall one-size-fits-all approach is a peculiar concession that highlights how much further you have to progress to get truly good.
While still accessible to newcomers, long-time fans will be happy to note that all previous Rock Band DLC will transfer over to Blitz. Additionally, there will be 25 new songs such as Rick Springfield's Jessie's Girl, and Great White's Once Bitten Twice Shy. As an added bonus, all songs from Rock Band Blitz will be compatible with Rock Band 3.
Rock Band Blitz isn't trying to be for everyone, but as pop music has taught us, nothing is for everyone. Every generation thinks the new generation's music is crap. Harmonix is taking that same tack to game design, assuming that us old fogeys will want a game the speaks to our heyday when it was just us, a TV, and a standard controller. It's a bold gamble, but a cunning one that may well work out.