The music genre has seen better days. Since its seemingly unstoppable heyday in 2007, sales for both the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series took a dive as music games saturated the market. To shake things up, Harmonix went back to their roots to make Rock Band Blitz, the first Rock Band game on consoles to work without plastic instruments.
The gameplay in Blitz is very similar to Frequency and Amplitude, Harmonix’s earliest titles. The individual instrument tracks that you’ve come to know are back, but with a couple of key differences. First is that the amount of frets of notes are down from five to two, easily played by flicking either analog stick or tapping the d-pad and X button. More notably, though, is that you have to juggle all four or five instruments at once and notes are coming across each track at all times, leaving you scrambling between tracks with the shoulder buttons. If you look at the game before learning how it works, it’s a confusing visual mess.
How it does work is surprisingly simple: Each song is broken into sections by checkpoints, and you can increase your score multiplier on individual instruments by 3 between those checkpoints. You do this by playing notes on the different tracks, ideally switching to another instrument once you’ve reached the multiplier cap for that section (from 1x to 4x, for example). If you reach the next checkpoint with each instrument leveled up by three, the cap increases by three (from 4x to 7x, say). If one or more tracks is only leveled up by two, the cap only increases by two (4x to 6x)…or one or zero, depending on how well you’re doing.
Blitz also introduces power-ups into the series for the first time. There are three different kinds, and you have to spend coins that you earn to use them each time. Overdrive power-ups are used once you’ve gathered enough energy, which isn’t too far out from the regular Rock Band games. One power-up doubles your score as always, while another called Bandmate automatically plays an instrument track while you focus on another. Note that power-ups randomly generate purple notes that have a huge effect on your score when hit; one “blows up” and hits notes across all tracks, for example. Finally, there are track power-ups, which give you more points for a specific instrument track of your choosing. Your best bet with these power-ups is to assign it to the instrument with the most notes to play, which is usually the one with the highest difficulty.
Speaking of which, individual song difficulties are out. While certain instrument tracks in certain songs have substantially more notes to hit than others, you can’t tone them up or down. While it may be intimidating to think about shredding through some rippin’ thrash metal, you also can’t fail out of a song, either. If you find that you’re not very good, you can simply cruise through a song and allow yourself to be hypnotized by the rhythmic button taps.
Everyone will constantly have an eye on Blitz’s leaderboards, though, where you’re constantly invited to beat your friends. You’re egged on by a meter on the right side of the screen that tells you how you’re doing against a friend in real time, and you can even engage in Score Wars where you each get three days to play a song as often as you need to get the upper hand. The multiplayer is all asynchronous, but it’s intense all the same.
Adding to Rock Band Blitz’s social footprint is its integration with the Facebook app Rock Band World. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at something like that, there’s real value here — by connecting your Facebook account to Blitz, you can earn even more coins for power-ups than you would regularly by participating in challenges. For example, earning 30 total stars on songs across the 70s earns could earn you 2,000 coins. Without the Facebook app, you can only earn up to 600 coins per song, though Blitz rewards you with double coins if you haven’t played a song before.
Considering Blitz’s seemingly paltry 25-song setlist, one might think that those double coins would dry up pretty quickly. It’s a good thing, then, that the game is compatible with every single Rock Band song that you’ve ever exported from previous games or bought as DLC. That means that your Blitz library can balloon to a potentially ludicrous 3,900-plus songs. If that weren’t enough, the 25 songs that come with Rock Band Blitz are playable in Rock Band 3, just in case your plastic instruments were getting a bit dusty.
While Rock Band Blitz gets almost everything right, there are a few nits to pick. First is that there’s only one background, meaning that you have to look at the same thing for every song that you ever play. Second is that switching between instrument tracks furthest away from each other is a drag, necessitating several presses of the shoulder buttons. In Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP — the game most similar to Blitz — you could press the left shoulder button on the left-most track to get to the right-most track, and vice versa. Finally, it would be nice if you could export the songs from the Rock Band 3 disc for use in Blitz. As it stands, they make up the majority of the Rock Band songs not playable here.
Rock Band Blitz’s gameplay is great new way to experience your Rock Band library and perfect for playing in short bursts, yet it’s addictive enough to grab you for hours on end if you let it. While it’s sad to think that it will probably be a long time before we see another full-fledged Rock Band game — if ever — the release of Blitz as one of the best pure arcade games that you can download to your PS3 or Xbox 360 helps soften that blow a bit.