It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since music games peaked, and I remember when it happened. I was working at Best Buy and when holiday rolled around, we spent hours receiving, unpacking, stacking, and sorting thousands of bulky plastic instrument kits for four different platforms. It was a pain in the ass. But while my retail life got easier when their popularity subsided, many developers lost their jobs when that talent pool wasn’t required anymore. On cooling Rock Band sales, Harmonix stole the Kinect limelight by coming up with the camera’s best game: Dance Central. But they haven’t left their Rock Band legacy behind and Blitz is an incredibly clever reinvention of the mechanics you loved.
On paper, Rock Band Blitz is really just Rock Band Redux, but little of the luster from the big, disc-based games is lost here. Ditching the plastic instruments of yore, Blitz is re-mastered for a controller (although the hardcore early players would argue they were always ready for a controller), and you can play it pretty much how you see fit. Instead of a four or five-note highway for a single instrument, you have four or five highways representing each instrument in the song, with two notes in each, so you’re not having to nail your hammer-ons and pull-offs, you just need to press something on either side of the controller to register notes (I preferred flicking the analog sticks). Hit enough of these notes and you build your multiplier for that instrument. You could slip into a groove and play a single instrument through the whole song, but that’s not the point; you advance by switching to other instruments (using anything on the shoulders to do so) and maxing out all those other tracks before you reach a checkpoint. Doing so allows you to reach higher multipliers and higher scores, etc. There is no difficulty level here, but rather, some songs are simply more challenging than others. For example: Miley Cyrus songs are pretty easy so you can seek deeper meaning in… whatever, they’re just easier.
Aside from a Score Wars challenge mode, multiplayer is a bit less obvious this time around since, obviously, you’re not sitting around with an array of toy instruments. At any point, anyone with an active controller can input notes or switch between these tracks, which means that with some good friends, you can work seamlessly to conquer tracks (or just be a big jerk and mess up your friend’s score, but that’s actually less fun). As soon I hit the max multiplier for the drum track, Kelly would watch for a gap in the vocals to switch over and max that out while I scouted for other opportunities. By completing strings of specific notes, you activate your power-ups, which are chosen before the round to the detriment of your final coinage, but to the benefit of awesome points. There are tons of those power-ups here that you unlock as you play. One is called ‘Bandmate’ and can be deployed to automatically play notes while you can work on another track. Another launches a pinball that bounces around the highway and can be kept in play by using your ‘bat’ to switch between tracks. This works well with the game’s subtle co-op mode and works particularly well when alcohol and swearing is involved.
Blitz inherits all of Rock Band’s other trademarks: the art direction is fantastic with the same neon-candy aesthetic you’ve always loved, you can solo it, but you’ll want friends, and the pack-in songs are decent, but you’re going to want to get some points and buy some music from the Rock Band store. (Also: buying music is still as sluggish an experience as ever.) All the tracks you currently own or imported from other games will work perfectly. I don’t know how Harmonix does it, but they did it. This isn’t the full, glorious experience that the other Rock Band games are – you won’t be singing into any microphones or batting any drum pads – because people have voted with their wallets and mountains of dead instruments that they’re done with that now. Instead, Rock Band Blitz is a fantastic extension of what you already know and love about the golden age of music games in a bite-sized serving.