Stop me if you've heard this one before: A hugely successful game maker is looking to capitalize on the success of their top selling music franchise by spinning it off onto the handheld game systems. This isn't Guitar Hero On Tour on the Nintendo DS, but rather Rock Band Unplugged for the Sony PSP. And while this Electronic Arts/MTV Games release isn't as good as its console counterparts, it is leaps and bounds better than what Activision was able to pull off on Nintendo's dual-screened system. And best of all, this portable music game won't give you a severe case of carpel tunnel.
Instead of trying to recreate the fun and excitement of Rock Band using weird fake plastic controllers that somehow plug into your handheld system (a la Guitar Hero On Tour), Rock Band Unplugged decides to try something completely different. It's the game's readiness to drastically differentiate itself from the console releases that is its greatest strength. It is, for better or worse, a completely different game; something that is not trying to be something it can never hope to be on a portable system. It would be foolish to try and recreate any one of the instruments (except for maybe singing) on a handheld, so I'm certainly happy to see Harmonix take a different approach.
Rock Band Unplugged is, quite simply, the pairing of two of Harmonix's best games: Frequency/Amplitude and Rock Band. At first the game looks like your basic Rock Band-style game, where you hit the notes that are coming to you in order to play beautiful music. But look closer. In Rock Band Unplugged you aren't just playing one instrument, but all four of the instruments found in your standard Rock Band song - guitar, bass, drums and vocals. It's your job to switch from one note highway to the next hitting notes and completing musical phrases.
You do this by using the two shoulder buttons, switching from one highway to the next trying to earn as many points as possible. Each highway features four different notes to hit, two mapped to the D-pad and the other two are represented by the face buttons. The two D-pad buttons are used to hit the red and yellow buttons on the left, while the triangle and O buttons are used to hit the green and blue buttons on the right. For as wonky as it sounds, this set-up works surprisingly well. It actually makes sense for these buttons to be moved away, especially when you're trying to two notes at once. The notes are separated by the shoulder buttons, so you use your two thumbs to hit notes and do the rest with your index fingers. If you don't like this set-up for any reason, the game gives you the option to change the button scheme accordingly.
Where Rock Band Unplugged differs from the likes of Guitar Hero and the console Rock Band games, is that you aren't simply trying to hit notes. Each instrument will have a phrase that they have to complete; which includes you hitting a number of different notes in a row to activate the instrument. Once you've played all of the notes the phrase will be locked and you can move on to a different instrument, with the now-completed instrument playing in the background. But don't get too comfortable, because you're going to be frantically rushing from one note highway to another trying to complete all of the instruments before you have to do it all over again. And don't forget that if you don't hit all the notes the marker will be pushed up a little further and you'll have to complete another phrase. It can all get very overwhelming, going back and forth hitting as many phrases as you can. But it's never frustrating, it's just an exciting time where you're on the edge of your seat trying to hit notes and keep the song afloat.
If you're a Frequency fan, then all this should sound familiar. This was the basic gameplay mechanic of both Frequency and Amplitude, Harmonix's earliest PlayStation 2 games. In those games you were pushing buttons to drum machines and other computer sounds in a electronica-influenced landscape. This is more basic, with you only playing the four main instruments found in all previous Rock Band games. The music is also more in line with the traditional Rock Band games ... in fact, some of it IS in other Rock Band games.
The game is made up of 41 songs, including some of the greatest hits from both Rock Band 1, 2 and the online music store. A quarter of the songs are new, and they are among the biggest reason to play through this game. Among the new songs include Tenacious D's "Rock Your Socks", "ABC" by the Jackson 5 and "What's My Age Again" by Blink 182. The rest of the sound track is made up of songs from the likes of Smashing Pumpkins ("Today"), Pearl Jam ("Alive"), The Killers ("Mr. Brightside"), Boston ("More Than A Feeling"), Dead Kennedys ("Holiday in Cambodia"), Siouxsie and the Banshees ("The Killing Jar"), Weezer ("Buddy Holly"), The Police ("Message in a Bottle"), Rush ("The Trees") and many, many more.On top of the game's good sized (for a portable game) music library, you can also download brand new songs from the online music store. Ss far as I can tell this is the first time a music video game has attempted to create an online storefront for a portable game. At the moment the only songs available are from acts like Muse, No Doubt, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Paramore, but one has to assume that more songs will be added on a semi-regular schedule.
It's not just the music and instruments that will look familiar, Rock Band Unplugged also features the same basic modes you saw in the other two Rock Band games. The most interesting of these modes is World Tour, where you take your band across the world playing all kinds of great rock songs. Sometimes this entails you play only one or two songs, sometimes you get to make your own set list, other times it's a mystery. If you've played the World Tour in either of the two other games, then you know what to expect here. As you might expect, this is a slightly smaller version of the world tour and most of the sets are shorter than what you saw in Rock Band 2. This is more because of the system you're playing it on and I ultimately found that it worked to the game's advantage.
On top of the World Tour mode; you can also play whatever song you want in the Quick Play mode, as well as practice your timing in the helpful Training mode. The one thing you won't be doing is playing with friends. That's right; this is a single-player only game. I bet you didn't expect to read those words in your lifetime. This has always been a franchise built around getting you and your friends together to rock, but you can't do that here. There are ways that it could have been incorporated, including a fun Amplitude-style battle mode. But alas, this first portable Rock Band game does not have any multiplayer to speak of. It's a shame; I can only hope that this is rectified with any future installment.
The gameplay itself, while simple, can be a little tricky at first. I've been playing Rock Band so long that I feel confident on expert, no matter what song. But that's not the case here. When I turned the game on and slid the difficulty to expert, I was knocked to my knees by how difficult it actually was. My thumbs weren't prepared for the brutal attack they were about to take. So I bumped the difficulty down and worked my way back up. There is a learning curve here, so don't expect to go from playing a fake plastic guitar to playing Rock Band Unplugged.
The good news is that I found myself getting better after every song. I didn't mind that I had heard most of these songs before, I had never played them before using this kind of Frequency-style gameplay. Before long I was attracting a lot of virtual fans and earning some cool cash, which you can spend to outfit all four members of your group. The game's not perfect, but it was a fun alternative to the real thing. If this Harmonix testing the waters to see if the PSP is the right fit for Rock Band, then I can't wait to see what they unleash on us when they eventually make a sequel. For me this is the sequel to Amplitude I never got, and for that fact alone I can wholeheartedly endorse Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP.