Rock Band Rivals' best feature is a VH1 Behind the Music-style mockumentary


Errr, ‘Beneath the Tuneage’

Around the reveal of Rock Band 4in the spring of 2015, developer Harmonix assured us that Rock Band 4wouldn’t just be the game before Rock Band 5and Rock Band 6. Instead, Harmonix was taking a more dedicated approach to the series, saying that it wanted to create a long-term platform instead of a one-off title. After spending some time with this fall’s expansion Rivals, we finally have an idea of exactly how Rock Bandwill be iterated upon.

To be clear, Rivalsis a features set. More specifically, it’s two large and distinct features. Rivals mode is one half of it, and the high-level elevator pitch is that it’s asynchronous, clan-based multiplayer. Up to 10 people can join a clan, and almost anything you do while playing the game helps the group’s aggregate score. Progress seems to be strung along by the likes of challenges, rewards, and good old-fashioned competitive spirit.

When speaking withRock Band 4product manager Daniel Sussman about the expansion, he tells us “The underpinnings of Rivals mode are to solve for some of the logistical issues that it takes to kind of convene a band at the same time. In a lot of ways, I think that it represents a missing piece of the Rock Band experience. I think that we’ll reshape the way that people relate to each other when they’re playing Rock Band and thinking about themselves as part of the Rock Band community.”

But, of the two halves that make up the expansion, Rivals mode isn’t what Harmonix really wants to talk about. The studio has a campaign built around the entire summer to detail Rivals, and the nitty gritty of the asynchronous multiplayer stuff is saved for another day. Besides, it’s hard to demo the mode, because how it works is only really evident across many players and lapses in time.

Instead, our presentation was mostly dedicated to Rockudrama, the cheeky moniker Harmonix came up with for a mockumentary detailing the rise (and possible fall) of your faux band. Everything about it smacks of VH1’s Behind the Music, but just not quite enough to get sued. This is called Beneath the Tuneage and Sussman says that “It’s an awesome platform for us to tell a stupid story and play around with language and narrative.”

Oh boy, is it ever a stupid story alright. That trailer above perfectly encapsulates the brand of idiocy this mode strives for. Some post-set quips we heard were “No exaggeration, greatest show in the entire history of music” (there was one person in the audience) and “momentous momentum.” The actors in the live-action sequences are mostly all musicians in the Boston music scene that Harmonix employees have become friends with over the years.

Rockudrama’s hook — if not for the inane comedy — is that it changes based on how well you play. As Sussman puts it “We’re trying to develop a story that’s more than just you making choices. The story actually reacts to your specific performance. If the drummer lays an egg during a particular song, then the narrator might mention that. Conversely, if the guitar player is awesome, the narrator might reference that. All of this is framed within the context of a TV show that you’re sort of watching and also playing.”

The reason for Rockudrama is mostly because Harmonix likes making campaigns. “We saw a lot of engagement with the Rock Band 4campaign,” Sussman said. “We wanted to do something similar — a narrative mode that has a story and more wrapped-up your playthroughs. We also wanted to do something new.”

However, this might not be the enticing half of Rivalsfor those who value replayability. When asked how much incentive there is to play through Rockudrama multiple times, Sussman said “Just like every campaign, when you know the story, I’m not sure that’s there’s all that much reason to go back and play it a billion times. That’s something that’s true for the Rock Band 4 career, that’s true for the Rock Band 2 career — once you’re done with it then you sort of know how it goes.”

Rather, it’s Rivals mode that scratches that itch. “What I think is really exciting about Rivals is the idea that it’s this future-looking persistent thing that never ends. For people that like this game, it’s a reason to log in and play at whatever cadence you want to. It has a lot of stickiness as it relates to the active Rock Band community,” he commented.

If there’s a notable weakness to Rivals, it’s that it’s a features set and only a features set. With new Rock Band, people will expect new songs. That’s not quite the case here. There’s an offer of 10 tracks with a pre-order (12 if you go through Amazon), and that helps mitigate things. Still, those with only Rock Band 4and not a wealth of DLC might find themselves tired of playing the songs that they wore out last fall.

But, for those who are perfectly content with a features set, Rivalsseems like it’s poised to accomplish what it intends to do. It has both the long-term and short-term appeal, each coming from one of its specific halves. After spending some time with Rockudrama, it’s easy to guess that it’ll be the more attractive part of the expansion. We’ll have to wait until later this summer to see if Rivals mode lives up to its end of the bargain.