Hitbox Review: Rock Band 4 — An expensive replayable rhythm game

Unleash your inner rock star… for a price. Your wallet will wish it only cost your soul.

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Developer: Harmonix

Release date: Oct. 6, 2015

Platforms: PlayStation 4 [played] and Xbox One

Price: $59.99

Rock Band 4 is a rhythm game where players use plastic instruments to press buttons in time with the beat of a song. There aren’t many games out there right now like it. The last game from Rock Band’s main competitor, Guitar Hero, was Guitar Hero Live, which also released in 2015. There are other rhythm games, like Thumper and Beat Saber, but none of them offer the experience of throwing a guitar strap around your shoulder and rocking out to your favorite songs.

Where do I even begin talking about Rock Band 4? I guess the easiest place to start is the three instruments required to play the game: a guitar to play guitar or bass, a drum kit or a microphone. Simple enough, except that the manufacturer, Mad Catz went bankrupt in 2017 and stopped producing new instruments. The only way to find a guitar or drum kit is to buy them used through third-party sellers on sites like eBay.

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A guitar could cost upwards of $100. A complete drum kit with cymbals and foot pedal is easily double that. I paid $120 for the guitar I found on eBay and $40 of it was just for shipping. I don’t even want to imagine how much it would cost to ship a drum kit.

Photo courtesy of an Amazon.com listing of the Rock band 4 Band-in-a-Box Bundle.

The microphone is by far the easiest and cheapest to acquire, with them going for $26 new on Amazon. You’re not going to get very much out of the game with just a microphone though. A guitar or drum kit are the meat and potatoes of Rock Band 4.

So with that costly hurdle dealt with, let’s talk about the song library. Rock Band comes with 65 songs out of the box. “Arabella” by Arctic Monkeys, “Caught Up In You” by .38 Special and “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy are just a few examples. The fact that “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce isn’t included by default is a crime. Unless you buy a used copy of the game, you will have to buy the Rivals Bundle which brings the total to 120 songs in addition to adding a lot of new features that I’ll get to in a little bit.

New songs can be bought individually, usually for $2, by album in some cases or through bundles. The three Rock Band 4 Hits Packs cost the most at $41.99 and include an assortment of about 20 songs each. You can find a searchable list of songs on the Rock Band 4 website. If you wanted to buy all the songs available in Rock Band 4, it would cost hundreds of dollars. The alternative is to pick your favorites. However, if you’re like me and grew up streaming all your music, the idea of buying individual songs is ludacris. It would be great if I could just stream songs from Spotify, but I imagine that would make the business side of Rock Band 4 a lot more complicated.

Now I can finally talk about the gameplay. I’ll be speaking from the guitar and bass perspectives since the singing seems like a side activity from the little I’ve done and I don’t have access to a drum kit. The guitar and drum gameplay are essentially the same though.

When playing, you’ll see a highway or street-like shape in the middle of the screen with notes traveling from the top to the bottom of the screen. You have to press the button of the same color as the note and strum the moment that the note reaches the bottom of the highway. You try to hit all the notes to get a high score. There are multiple difficulty modes that adjust the speed of the highway and add different types of notes, but that’s the basic concept. The best part is that you can activate an overdrive that doubles your score multiplier by pointing the guitar neck to the sky. It feels great every time. It’s easy to miss a note trying to do that though, so make sure to time it well.

Players are also graded out of five stars based on their score. Screenshot courtesy of the PlayStation Store.

In terms of single-player content, you can create and name a band and go on tour. You’ll be making choices about whether to stay true to your fans or go full sell-out. The entire tour took me about 12 hours to complete, with individual shows taking about 15 minutes. There’s a ton of customizability too. A character creator is available as well as a ton of clothing options. You can even create an entire band from scratch.

The Rivals expansion also added a Rockudrama mode which follows your band and tells the story of their success or failure with fake live interviews with real bands intermixed with you playing shows. You can watch your band go from playing a show for a single fan to playing for thousands. This mode is only about 2 and a half hours long.

Both modes are a great way to jump into the game since they start you off playing easy songs and gradually build up to playlists with songs of a higher difficulty rating. You can play the story modes on any instrument difficulty though. You can even change the difficulty in the middle of a song. You’ll also unlock additional clothing options as you play each of the story modes, culminating in obtaining a robot suit that looks like Doctor Doom if you complete the Rockudrama with the highest rating possible.

Your characters can be seen playing in the background. Screenshot courtesy of the PlayStation Store.

You can also play Rock Band 4 online with other players. Surprisingly, it’s not too hard to find a session still. The first setlist I played resulted in me being trash-talked with the preset text chat messages and kicked from the session because I was playing on medium difficulty. Each player can choose which difficulty to play at and the two others were playing on expert, which is the highest. Unfortunately, it seems that difficulty affects score and everyone’s individual scores are combined to create the band’s score for a song. So if one person is playing at a lower difficulty, it brings the entire band’s score down. In concept, it’s a great idea that allows everyone to play at their own pace and have an enjoyable experience, but could be a problem if someone is going for a high score. Thankfully, the other sessions I played in were much more casual and pleasant experiences.

Each level in difficulty is a pretty decent step up from the previous, so it takes a while to learn, but I could easily see myself playing a little bit here and there every week to try and make my way up to expert difficulty.

It’s a major investment to get started with Rock Band 4 and expand your music library, but if you’ve watched a few gameplay videos and have a good idea of what to expect, gameplay-wise, you’ll find an incredibly unique and replayable music experience.