The Rock Band series, and in turn the music genre in general, has been a victim of its own success in the last couple of years. Starting as just simple taps on a controller and growing in popularity until people were investing in a new $150 set of instruments every year, Harmonix admitted they’d run out of steam after Rock Band 3.
This is the ethos behind Rock Band Blitz. Taking away the instruments, the multiplayer and the focus on achieving professional musicianship that the series previously strove for, Blitz brings things back to the old days of Frequency where it was just you tapping a couple of simple buttons to the beat. Startlingly, the way Blitz boils the traditional Rock Band experience down to its most rudimentary concepts feels like a breath of fresh air for the series and results in the first rhythm game to feel fresh in years.
Blitz is at its heart a score-chasing game. The usual five-wide note tracks are boiled down to just two, with the A/X button and the d-pad serving as your keys. All the musical instruments you’re familiar with playing appear at once, and it’s your job as the player to try and achieve a balance of playing time on each track. You’re incentivised to do this by instrument tracks “levelling up” the more you play them, and the only way to increase your level cap is by hitting one of the many checkpoints in a song with all tracks levelled up. You might be feeling a bit confused already, and I haven’t even mentioned half of the other systems in the game yet. Don’t sweat it – I was too. Blitz is a game of many different points-boosting mechanisms and gameplay quirks, none of which are explained to the player in sufficient detail by the tutorial. It makes getting high scores initially very confusing for the player, and the tutorial mode just straight-up glazes over such concepts like Blitz Mode, where you’re awarded points for keeping a note streak going.
What mixes the gameplay up from player to player is the powerups. There are over a dozen of them, and you can equip three different types of powerup per song. The abilities they gift are nicely varied, but you’ll quickly learn which ones are more effective in 95% of situations than others. For example, I found that the pinball powerup would collect me a good 20,000 more points than the bomb powerup. A little more balance would have been nice, as a month or two down the line I can see most of them being used once, simply to fulfil player’s achievement counts. Equipping powerups has to be done at the start of each song, and using them costs you in-game coins that are earned by completing songs. It’s a strange requirement, and it was frustrating early-game not being able to use the most rudimentary powerups I’d unlocked just because I didn’t have the arbitrary amount of currency, especially when without them you might as well kiss goodbye to any half-decent leaderboard position.
It’s when you’ve put a few hours into it and gained an understanding of how the systems at play work that Rock Band Blitz starts to grow on you. How much it does so is incredibly subjective on how much you’ve invested in the Rock Band series in the past, both socially and financially. Blitz only comes with 25 songs, but the brilliant hook is that every single one of your exported, purchased and downloaded songs from previous games can be played in the game as if they were designed with the two-button system in mind. Whoever at Harmonix worked on this magic track-conversion system deserves a big bonus, because if you’ve got an extensive song library you’re going to be playing Blitz for a very long time.
Alternatively, players that haven’t invested in the music store beforehand may find themselves falling very quickly down the DLC rabbit-hole, turning what was originally a $15 arcade game into a $80 sinkhole, as they first pay to export the previous Rock Band games they haven’t touched in eons, and then go the whole hog and start buying Rock Band 3 and Lego Rock Band too. Hey, I don’t know if you’ve cottoned on, but this experience is way too personal for me. If you share my lack of self-control when it comes to buying add-ons for games, then beware.
It’s very important that you’re part of a small community of friends that are all playing this game. If you aren’t, find one. With no directly competitive multiplayer, beating your friends’ leaderboard scores is the only way to extend Blitz’s lifespan, and the more regular score updates you get the more you’ll get out of the experience.
To review a game’s graphical quality would suggest I’ve had time to take it in, but Blitz focuses your eyesight so intensely on the key details that most of the finely-rendered, cartoonish roadside animation that surrounds the track goes unnoticed. In the rare moments when I have had time to look at it (the long breaks of silence in Won’t Get Fooled Again are good opportunities), they’re fine and give the game a bit of character, as the houses bob and weave with the rhythm and the pedestrians party around you. Nearly all of the time, however, you’re going to be looking instead at not just the track but the meters that adorn it.
There’s an awful lot to keep track of at once in Blitz, and it can get a little overwhelming. Your track level, your Blitz Mode meter, your leaderboards and your powerups are all displayed in opposite sides of the screen. It’s disorienting enough trying to interpret them all at once without also having to play an Iron Maiden song simultaneously. This is only something that can fix itself with practice, but as mentioned before, a little more tuition upfront would have assisted.
Putting it plainly, Blitz is a whole lot of fun. How much fun you have not only depends on your personal music tastes and Rock Band collection, but on your social networking skills. One of the most irritating quirks of Blitz is that it constantly forces you to head over to Rock Band World, the series’s official Facebook application. In order to get the most out of Blitz, by challenging your friends to high-score contests and by taking one-off challenges set by Harmonix, you’ll have to use this unwieldy app that really could have been integrated into the game. Having to go on Facebook isn’t something a lot of people enjoy being forced into, and there’s little reason for not allowing you to start a Score War from the game’s menus. If you can stomach having to flit back and forth between your console and laptop whilst playing, the Rock Band World stuff will help to extend the time you’ll spend with Blitz exponentially.
Blitz is a game that gives as much as you put into it. Keep an extensive music library and group of leaderboard rivals and its longevity is potentially massive. The packaged 25 songs definitely won’t be enough to sate your fill, and once you get the hang of its complex systems you’ll be chasing down those high scores in a fervour that you haven’t experienced since the rhythm game heyday. The fact that Blitz’s 25 songs also work as DLC for Rock Band 3 is the icing on the cake that makes it the most rewarding and fresh-feeling music game since Rock Band first brought the concept of plastic instruments to superstardom.