Review: Rock Band Unplugged

RockBandUnplugged.jpg I know this may be hard for younger gamers to believe, but it wasn’t too long ago that rhythm/music games were played by matching button presses with regular ol’ controllers rather than plastic guitars, drums and microphones. Before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Harmonix rocked the PS2 with Frequency and Amplitude, an underappreciated duo of beat-making, track-switching rhythm games that laid the foundation for what has become the heart of today’s rock franchise giants. Now Harmonix has come full circle with Rock Band Unplugged, the new PSP game that brings the Rock Band series back to its Frequency/Amplitude roots.

Rock Band Unplugged is a fairly standard note-matching rhythm game. Color-coded notes flow down the screen and it’s your job to tap the appropriate buttons with the correct timing as the notes cross a target line at the bottom of the screen — the better your timing and the more notes you string together in a row, the higher your score will be and the more fans and money you’ll accrue. If you’ve played any music game within the past 5-10 years you should be familiar with this setup. I mean, Harmonix and other developers have only been using this same core system for what seems like ages now.

But there is a twist. In Unplugged there isn’t just one track of notes to play, there are four tracks lined up side by side, each corresponding to a different instrument in the band – bass, drums, vocals and lead guitar. As the music plays, you must hit the shoulder buttons to cycle left and right between the tracks as notes appear for each instrument. If you keep the proper timing and complete full phrases on a track without missing a note, the current instrument continues playing by itself for a short time so you can switch to another track and keep the music flowing one instrument at a time. However, if you start to miss notes, the other tracks begin to scroll without you and the other instruments fade out until you can catch back up. And should you leave an instrument unattended for too long, its track line drops off the screen entirely and you lose the ability to play that instrument.

While it can’t match the feeling of being in a real rock band like the full games do, Unplugged’s track-switching system recreates the Rock Band style on the PSP remarkably well – I’d certainly rather play a portable rhythm game like this as opposed to using a bulky control attachment like the Guitar Hero DS games. The face button and d-pad-based controls are immediately responsive to your taps, and the instrument cycling mechanic makes for one frantically addictive gameplay experience – it’s cool how the volume raises/lowers as you change tracks to emphasize the current instrument you’re playing too.

Unplugged is also expertly balanced, with four difficulty settings making the game accessible to the most casual of players, challenging but not too challenging for intermediates, and devilishly difficult for true rock gods.

As for the music – the most important part of any music game — Rock Band Unplugged features an eclectic, high-quality library of 41 master recordings from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000’s, standouts (for me, at least) including Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son”, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, Tenacious D’s “Rock Your Socks”, and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” (view the full track list at the game’s official website). Unplugged is also tied into the Rock Band music store, and at the standard $1.99 per track you can expand the library through DLC. Only 17 DLC tracks are available at the moment, but the variety is excellent with songs from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Disturbed, No Doubt, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks and more. The Portal theme song “Still Alive” is available too!

The one thing missing from Rock Band Unplugged is multiplayer. For a Rock Band game I think it’s unacceptable that multiplayer was excluded from the package. I just don’t understand how basic ad hoc co-op and/or versus play modes were left out of a game like this. Fortunately, Unplugged is stacked with single-player content, including an in-depth selection of tutorials, quick play, survival and warmup modes, and a fun tour mode that sees you creating your own band, globetrotting to play different city venues, unlocking new songs and amassing fame and fortune.

No multiplayer is a disappointment, but even as a game for solo artists only, Rock Band Unplugged has more than enough to it to keep you and your PSP rockin’ through the hot summer months ahead.

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Pros:
+ Addictive, intelligently-designed gameplay mechanics
+ Great audio quality and track selection
+ Balanced range of difficulty levels
+ Captures the spirit of Rock Band and pays homage to Frequency/Amplitude

Cons:
– No multiplayer

Game Info:
Platform: PSP
Publisher: EA / MTV Games
Developer: Backbone Entertainment / Harmonix
Release Date: 6/9/09
Genre: Rhythm/Music
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!