Rock Band Unplugged Review
Thursday, July 02, 2009 5:02 PM
But the plug's what made it rock!
With Guitar Hero dominating the DS (but not the DSi), EA clearly saw a gap in the market for their rival Rock Band series to exploit, so here we are: Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP.
The setup's basically the same, but for people who don't like spending £80 per game for a new cheap plastic fake guitar controller and a simple gimmick game that's the same every time just with different songs, here's the gist; as a song plays, you press one of four coloured buttons that correspond vaguely with the notes in that song. Get it right, you win. Get it wrong enough times, you lose.
As you might be able to tell from that previous sneery paragraph, I'm not a fan of either Rock Band or its nigh-identical parent Guitar Hero. I don't like how dozens of games have been released under both licences in just a three year period, and yet the game's been the same since 2006.
That said, I do understand the appeal. These games are popular because they're so simplistic, as they aptly follow the Golden Rule of Gaming - "easy to play, difficult to master." Add a controller shaped like a cool instrument that most people don't have any inclination to learn how to play properly and a shedload of rockin' tunes from decent artists to play along with, you definitely have a recipe for a hit.
Now we've analysed the phenomenon, maybe I should actually talk about this latest version and how it fails. I think it's pretty obvious. No peripherals. No guitar. No drums. No microphone (good, one point right there). No, um, other guitar. No living room.
What we have here is a glorified iPod (that's a great idea actually - iPod Touch Guitar Hero! Play your own songs while randomly pressing the screen! Excuse me while I rush to the patent office...) Strip away the glamour of playing guitars in your living room with a few mates, or holding a gig in your bedroom, and the fun dries up.
What those peripherals also did was make it easy to find the buttons you need to press. With the default controls here being Left, Up, Triangle and Circle, it never feels completely natural when on-screen you've got a straight line. It makes things far more difficult than they need to be. I was struggling with the first few songs on just Medium, but that may admittedly be something to do with the fact that I have no natural rhythm - now proved definitively. Those two-notes-at-once moments really hung me out to dry.
What also complicates matters is the idea that you're controlling four instruments at once. Guitar, bass guitar, drums and microphone, which you have to use L and R triggers to move between. Do one instrument right for a few notes and it'll play for itself, leaving you free to move to another instrument. Do it wrong and you'll be playing a stressful game of catch-up.
X or Down activates Overdrive, which corrects your failings and gets you more points, but once you've messed up a few notes it's surprisingly hard to set yourself right again. Especially with the unhelpful button layout.
And that's it really. You can buy new songs (with real money) in the PSP store, you can buy outfits, instruments and helpers for your band (with fake money), both of which are nice but hardly change the game. It gets excruciatingly hard, even on Medium, just a few songs in, so much so I wondered if learning to play a real guitar would be easier. Probably.
Of course, there are those who will and can totally ignore everything I've just said. Who instinctively know the button layout, who can get five stars on every song without playing the wrong cord once, who've bought every Guitar Hero and Rock Band game and have a garage full of fake instruments. Those who won't suffer like I did.
Being able to buy new songs is a bonus, but it's still more shelling out for a series bloated out of all proportion (and divided into two equally pointless franchises). It can still be fun, but you know that Rock Band Unplugged: Bananarama is coming in a few months' time.
There's one thing that no-one can dispute though, and it's that the game just isn't as much fun without a guitar in your hand and having friends round for a gig in your living room. Without the peripherals, expensive as they are, the spell is broken. A Guitar Hero/Rock Band game without a point. What a surprise.
Unlike Chris I have got rhythm and I also remember Harmonix's first music game offerings - Frequency and Amplitude. The games, released on the PlayStation 2, saw you take control of every instrument, vocals, a scratch turn-table and featured the classic Guitar Hero gameplay on a classic PlayStation dualshock controller.
In my eyes, the peripherals destroyed the music game dream. Want to play a guitar? Play a real one. Want to play a music game? Why not use your skill to play all the instruments and mix the music to how you want it to sound. The games were addictive, difficult and charming, and though they didn't perform well at retail, I always knew the formula was solid.
So we come to Rock Band: Unplugged on the PSP. It looks like the Frequency-formula on a handheld, and by all intents and purposes, it should work. And sure, it does, but it's not the mainstream game that the console Rock Band and Guitar Hero games have managed to become. It's for the niche, the skilled, and the folks with an ability to concentrate on the run.
You see, a skilled music game isn't really suited to the PSP's complex control system, nor is it suited for on-the-go gaming. So, though I understand that Harmonix has gone back to their wonderful roots, the PSP might not be the best location to go down memory lane.