Review: Rock Band Blitz

Back in the winter of 2003, a 10 year old boy bought a PlayStation 2 videogame called Amplitude, developed by an unknown company named Harmonix. The game worked by laying out all of the different instruments of a song onto six different tracks, one for each of them, with your goal being to both activate each track by successfully blasting notes on them and to string several track activations together without missing a beat to rack up the multiplier.

That 10 year old boy thought it was the greatest game ever and, nearly a decade later, that’s an opinion he still holds. He then latched onto Harmonix like most children latch onto their parents; following them through the highs (Guitar Hero, Rock Band) and lows (EyeToy: AntiGrav) with such feverish devotion. It’s safe to say that they’ve had way more of an impact on his life (in terms of games, online interactions and, crucially, music taste) than almost anyone or anything he’s ever known. And it was all thanks to Amplitude, the game that no-one else gave a toss about but he.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s not to be a hipster douchebag by bragging about how I was into Harmonix well before you posers. No. It’s because Harmonix, nearly a decade later, have finally made a sequel to Amplitude.

Except that they also haven’t. You see, Amplitude’s (and its predecessor, Frequency) blood runs thick through the veins of Rock Band Blitz. There are 4 or 5 tracks (depending on if the song has Keyboards or not) which each have an instrument assigned to them and you gain points for switching between them and blasting notes in time to the music on said tracks.

But that’s about where the similarities end. For one, you only have to worry about two note buttons instead of three (which some may say dilutes the challenge, but they’ll shut up when they get to the second “Cult Of Personality” solo). For two, tracks never get activated if you play them enough. So, if you wanted, you could stick to the drum track for the whole of the song and still earn points.

And for three, you can’t fail a song. Instead, your goal is to get the highest scores and multipliers you can. You raise the multiplier by playing notes. Play enough notes and you go up a multiplier. Once you hit the multiplier cap, you move onto the next track. You do this on all of the tracks until either you have maxed out all of the tracks (at which point you can go about playing whatever track you think will net you the most points) or you hit a checkpoint.

When you hit a checkpoint, the multiplier cap goes up as many levels as your least levelled up track. So, say that you are playing “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People and you pass a checkpoint. If you levelled up all of your tracks (from 1x to 4x), the cap increases by three levels. But if you let a track go to waste, let’s say the vocals, and you only levelled that up to 2x before crossing the checkpoint, then the cap only increases by one level. Or, if you ignored it altogether and it’s still at 1x, then your level cap stays the same and you have to wait for the next checkpoint.

Keyboard tracks are designed specifically to screw you over in Blitz.

If all of that sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is at first. And, unfortunately, the game’s tutorials do an astoundingly poor job at explaining it. Even worse than me! And don’t even get started on power-ups because the game sure doesn’t. The tutorial shows you one power-up and then leaves you to figure out the rest as you unlock them.

Power-ups are essential in Rock Band Blitz to getting a high score or even to getting 5 stars on a song and they’re all locked initially. So, for the first few songs, you’ll wonder why you’re not getting anywhere near good enough scores. After a while, though, you’ll unlock enough power-ups to actually be able to make a run at the leaderboards, pre-assigning one in each of the three available slots before starting.

But there’s still a catch! Power-ups cost coins which you earn by completing songs. So, unless you’re really going for the big gold star run, you don’t want to utilise power-ups that would leave you at a net loss at the end of the song. And, to further the “Do or Die” vibe, if you restart a song halfway through you need to re-buy your power-ups. It makes for a nice bit of strategy.

So, yes, it sounds very complicated. But, and this is the beauty of Blitz, after actually playing the game for about an hour, it clicks. And once the game clicks, it won’t let go. Multiple times I’ve said to myself “just one more song” and then played 10 more after said song. It’s damn addictive and it’s practically legal Grade-A heroin if you are a high score leaderboard junkie.

All together now! “SPOONMAN!”

Hell, it’s addictive even if you aren’t a high score leaderboard junkie. Blitz takes a page out of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit’s book with a feature called Score Wars. How this works is that you link your online account to the Facebook app and the game can then compare your scores against your friends (or, if none of your Facebook friends have Blitz, it’ll just use your console friends instead). You can challenge friends to showdowns on songs you own or even for songs you don’t own (you’ll be surprised how much a challenge from a friend makes you plonk down money for a Nickelback song).

The game alerts you every time you start it up, when you’re in the menus or even when you’re in the song as to how your so-called buddies are doing and if you’re crushing their last score on a note-by-note basis. It’s completely designed to foster the most competitive experience possible. One that, sadly, I haven’t been able to fully test out because I have sucky friends. However, even if you have no friends, it still uses the in-progress song battle system to easily let you know how close you are to the next star. Many a battle has been valiantly fought against The Duke, let me tell you. It’s a feature that I can guarantee will bring you back to the game if you have the friends necessary for it to work.

I must take time out here to acknowledge the amazing sound work in Blitz. Harmonix games are always mixed and designed brilliantly and Blitz is no exception. Every track is perfectly clear and audible, yes, but the trump card comes from a nice little gameplay feature. Whichever track you are playing at that moment in time is the track that’s clearest in the mix. So, say you’re playing “These Days” by Foo Fighters and you’re on the drum track. The drums will be brought to the forefront of the mix and, whilst not overpowering the rest of the tracks, you’ll hear it clearer than, say, the bass. It’s a great little feature and works particularly great for songs with tracks that are barely audible otherwise.

The pinball is one of the sillier power-ups and, consequently, feels rather out of place.

Graphically, the game is coated in colour. I mean, seriously, this is one of the most colourful games I have had the pleasure of playing since Rayman Origins last year. It’s extremely lush and vibrant and seeing the solid blocks of colour on each track when they’re fully levelled up is its own reward. I have been reliably informed by my brother that the backgrounds and, well, pretty much everything that’s not on the note highways are equally colourful, cartoony and engaging to look at. I say “my brother” because I was never able to get a good look at them myself thanks to the joys of the endless notes effectively screaming, “EYES ON THE ROAD, MOTHERF****R!” Par for the course in the genre, really.

Blitz comes with 25 songs pre-installed (all of which are ready to play in Rock Band 3 with no charge or export process required) and whilst I wouldn’t hesitate to call them all good (it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I proclaim “Moves Like Jagger” or “We Are Young” to be anything close to good) they are all rather fun to play and work brilliantly in Blitz. You will, however, if you stay focussed, blaze through all of them in just under two hours. The game really comes alive thanks to Rock Band’s exhaustive DLC back catalogue. Every single non-Beatles downloaded song that you own or are yet to own is available to play in Blitz right out of the gate. So, if you’re an avid track collector, you’ll have hundreds of tracks to play as soon as you boot up!

This does come with a catch, though. If you don’t own a lot of Rock Band DLC (or exported tracks) and you don’t intend to, then Blitz is absolutely not for you. Whilst £8.79 or 1200 Microsoft points (or $14.99) for a game and 25 new songs is a steal for dedicated Rock Band players, it’s an absolutely awful deal for people who just want to play a new game. I cannot, in all honesty, recommend Blitz to you if you are not a Rock Band fan. It’s a crap deal, in that respect, I’m sorry.

If you have no friends, then expect plenty of tight battles against Mothership Q!

Furthermore, if you like games that have some semblance of structure, I cannot recommend Blitz to you either. Once you’ve unlocked all of the power-ups (which should take you about 2 to 3 hours), there is literally nothing else to unlock. There is no end goal, no overarching plot thread, no online multiplayer (excluding the leaderboards)… Rock Band 3 at least had the Goal system in place. Blitz is just a high score leaderboard app that you can play with your friends and a different way to experience the DLC you bought ages ago. Whether this is a sticking point will vary from person to person, but I thought it was fine. It doesn’t need any extra fluff, the high score craving is enough as is!

So, I’ve spent a while talking about who Rock Band Blitz isn’t for, you’re probably wondering who it is for. It’s for Rock Band fans who have played the series for years, bought crap tonnes of DLC, exported every single game and spin-off and want a brand new way to experience those songs that they bought ages ago and are sitting collecting metaphorical dust. It’s for Rock Band fans who want an amazing deal on 25 new songs for Rock Band 3 with a great, fun game thrown in for good measure. It’s for people with like-minded friends who they are ultra-competitive with. It’s for old-school Harmonix fans who have been waiting nearly a decade for some sort of sequel to Amplitude and Frequency

It’s for people like me, essentially. And if you, like me, fall into any one of those categories, then you should totally buy Rock Band Blitz ASAP. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s an amazing taste if you like it!

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