Anyone who is familiar with rhythm-based games knows the name Harmonix. They pioneered the plastic instrument phenomenon with Guitar Hero, and single-handedly brought the idea of playing in a full ensemble to the living room with Rock Band. However, before all of this they created a pair of music-based titles that still live in infamy among the hardcore circuit. Frequency and Amplitude are two of the lesser-known classics of the PS2 era. These games paved the way for the dominating force known as Rock Band. Harmonix has decided to take the ideas from the past and mesh them with their successful future to create the most logical answer to a portable Rock Band. This new interpretation definitely has more of the aforementioned titles in it than the latter, but it is still a very cool experience that feels right at home on a handheld.
Instead of offering a plastic add-on peripheral like the competition, the developers have opted to create a music game that uses just the system in your hand. The traditional highway note charts still flow from top to bottom with multi-colored jewels, but instead of wailing away on a plastic guitar you now use a combination of face buttons in conjunction with the notes. By default left and up on the d-pad represent the left two gems while triangle and circle signify the right side. For Rock Band veterans like myself starting off on Hard difficulty is just plain out of the question, this game takes some adjusting to before being able to be a pocket musician.
Another major difference between this iteration and its console brethren is that instead of focusing on one instrument, you have to tackle all four at once. Now I know what you are thinking, and trust me it can definitely get overwhelming at times, but fans of Harmonix’s previously mentioned music titles will quickly feel right at home. The idea works like this, each instrument contains a box of notes called the phrase indicator. Manage to nail all the notes in this section and you earn a multiplier bonus and that instrument continues to play by itself for a while. Then you can tap the shoulder buttons to switch to another track and repeat the process.
Think of this as multi-tasking as you will have to somehow manage all four isntruments simultaneously in order to score more points. This is why I recommend starting the game on a lower difficulty than you are used to, as switching from a guitar riff into a vocal track can take some adjustment. Just like in the big-brother version of the game you also earn Overdrive that can be used to multiply your score. This is imperative when it comes to scoring those four and five star performances. This can also be beneficial when you fail a certain instrument. Simply tapping down on the d-pad or the X button will initiate Overdrive and either rack up some serious points, or revive a fallen bandmate. There is no mistaking that this chapter in the series is substantially more challenging than the plastic instrument incarnation. Switching between tracks and keeping track of what notes you need to nail can become overwhelming at times, but the reward is great when you finally get the hang of it and are nailing multipliers left and right.
As far as modes go this is your typical Rock Band package. You have the quintessential World Tour Mode, which now allows you to completely customize your entire band (you are playing all four of them remember?) and take them on the road to success. The downside is that if you played the other versions this is the exact same formula, right down to the cities you play in and the staff you hire. Nothing has really changed to take advantage of the new format. Outside of that you have Survival Mode, which is the devil incarnate if I do say so myself. Basically this lets all four tracks play simultaneously and you must keep them all going at once. Not for the feint of heart I assure you. The last mode is called Warm Up Mode and it basically allows you an opportunity to play any instrument of your choice without having to worry about managing the whole band at once.
The biggest problem is that there is no reason to experience these other modes unless you have a death wish, or simply need the practice, as neither one of them effects your created band at all. However, the biggest travesty about Unplugged is a complete lack of any type of multi-player whatsoever. There is no quick play through ad-hoc, no band tour mode through infrastructure; just nothing to keep you coming back once you finish the single-player. This is sad simply because the franchise has come to be known as the definitive multi-player experience, and without it, it feels empty in some cases.
Of course we can’t talk about a Rock Band game without mentioning the song selection. There are 41 tunes stuffed onto this little UMD with only seven of them not appearing in previous versions of the game. This is impressive as well as disappointing, and further proof that perhaps the well is running a little dry on songs that fit well into the genre. The diversity of tracks is definitely a plus with bands such as Rush, Nirvana, Jethro Tull, Kansas and Billy Idol along with new tracks exclusive to unplugged including 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite”, The Jackson 5 with “ABC”, and Tenacious D’s rock anthem “Rock Your Socks”. While the song selection is good enough to hold it’s own, owners of the previous titles will feel a little bit of déjÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â vu with the list.
For a first on the PSP you will also be able to download new songs via the in-game store. When the disc lands at retail the first batch of DLC will be available, and carry the same price tag as its console counterpart. Tracks will run either $0.99-$1.99 a piece and the first bundle includes tracks from Disturbed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and No Doubt to name a few. The biggest problem I see with this in the future is that songs do not carry over between versions, meaning that songs purchased in the PSP version will not translate into the PS3 version. If this feature had been offered, along with the ability to download all the songs you already own into the portable version, the track listing would not have been such a glaring issue. As it stands if you own both iterations of the game, be prepared for a lot of repeat songs.
As far as presentation is concerned this is Rock Band, and there is certainly no mistake about that. The game carries over the same character models you have come to know and love (or hate) and the layout will be familiar to anyone who has ever strapped on a plastic guitar. The sound however, is a much different beast. Not only do the tracks sound excellent through a good set of headphones, depending on which track you are playing those notes are noticably louder than the other tracks. This makes switching to the proper track at the right time much more convenient. As with any handheld game I highly recommend playing with heaphones if you have the option, as the paltry PSP speakers do not do this title justice at all.
Rock Band Unplugged is a great addition to the family, even with its shortcomings. The World Tour Mode and Band Survival offer more than enough challenge for the music fanatic on-the-go and the track listing is great granted you don’t mind a lot of repeat tracks. Lack of multi-player is this game’s biggest downfall, and one that will ultimately decide it’s fate in the months to come. If you simply cannot get enough Rock Band and own a PSP, this new take on the series could be just what you are looking for. The challenge is steep, even for veterans, and the idea of jamming anywhere, anytime is certainly an appealing thought.