There's much to be said about the state of the Rock Band franchise and its developer Harmonix, both positive and negative. In spite of the instrument-based music and rhythm genre going belly up between 2009 and 2010, the Boston based developer keeps on truckin' with weekly DLC releases for the franchise and now a whole new way to enjoy your library of songs. Rock Band Blitz is a single player arcade-style score chaser that will be very familiar to those who are well acquainted with Harmonix's own early games, Frequency and Amplitude; while it isn't nearly as exciting or fulfilling as getting some friends over to form a fake plastic band, it still has that powerful 'one more song' pull that keeps you coming back for more long after you should have put away your controller.
Like Amplitude, Frequency, and Rock Band Unplugged on the PSP, Rock Band Blitz uses the face buttons and shoulder buttons to hit notes on the screen and cycle between the available tracks as you travel down a literal note highway through a throbbing, bouncing city that dances with the beat. Like Rock Band 3, there's the drums, bass, guitar, vocal, and keyboard tracks, each with their own charts and functions, only this time each track has only a left and right note instead of a full fretboard like the full games, and you can't fail even if you suck at it. My first thought was that this would be too simple to be enjoyable, but with time I found it to be very similar to my own tendency to use my index fingers to drum on surfaces, so my skills transferred easily, even though there is a severely limited pool of possible note patterns. However, the game isn't about difficulty, as there are no difficulty settings on the songs, it's about getting a high score. The challenge isn't to hit the most notes, it's about juggling the different tracks and their individual score multipliers, weighing out the pros and cons of each decision, and managing your various powerups to get the best score.
To get the highest score, you have to flip between each of the available tracks (not every song has every track) to ensure that all your multipliers are at the highest available at the time, so when you hit a pre-determined checkpoint your multiplier threshold will increase depending on where your lowest multiplier is. If everything is at the current maximum level, you will gain 3 potential multipliers, but if you have two tracks at max, and two somewhere in the middle or at the bottom (there are four available at any one time), then the track's lower threshold rises up to meet your lowest multiplier. This means that if you completely neglected one track and focused on the others, you won't gain any multipliers because your lowest is at the bottom. It's very complicated to explain, but once you've played a couple songs it will make complete sense.
The other key element to a high score is your powerups, which pull double duty as the primary feature that makes this feel like an arcade game. There are three types of powerup, and you can use one of each on every song, providing you have the coins to buy them (more on that later). The overdrive powerups are ones that have to be activated manually by pressing square or X, depending on what system you're playing on; these powerups can be a shockwave that hits all nearby notes for an instant bonus, a jackpot that gives you a triple multiplier if you can hit every note without missing one for a pre-determined period of time, or a more traditional temporary duplication of your current multiplier. Note powerups show up on the note chart as purple bumpers and when you hit them they will affect the chart by either randomly altering future notes for bonuses, or even launching a massive pinball that bounces back and forth across the screen, and if you stop it from passing you, it will stay on longer and net you a bigger bonus. The third and least interesting type of powerup is a track powerup that allows you to choose which track you want to get double points on, which is especially useful in songs that have one instrument that stands out, but isn't very interesting otherwise. My only problem with a game that prides itself on its use of powerups is that you have to pay out hundreds of coins every time you want to play a song with a powerup equipped; it's not a matter of purchasing it once and that gives you the ability to use it forever. Granted, you won't likely ever be short on coins, but you certainly can't equip them every round.
As you're playing, there's a bar on the right side of the screen that shows your position on the leaderboards relative to your friends or rivals. As you get more points, you watch your meter slide past them and onto the next friend, which is a great motivator to keep at it. Rock Band Blitz also utilizes Facebook integration via the Rock Band World app to manage rivalries, score battles, and co-op challenges.
The setlist consists of 25 songs total, and the game costs only $15 (or 1200 Microsoft points, depending on which system you're playing on). Since the entire track list can instantly be exported to your main Rock Band library free of charge, that makes this a better deal than any DLC before it, and even better than the on-disk deals you get when you pay $60 for 80 songs. On the flip side, the in-game tracks have only one difficulty and you play all instruments at the same time, so it's greatly handicapped in that respect. Of course, like any package deal, there are likely going to be some tracks that really don't stand out as exceptional. Harmonix has done a great job mixing up the decades and genres, but the old adage rings true - you can't please everyone. The same people who adore classics such as Iron Maiden or Queen are unlikely to get the same enjoyment from Maroon 5 or Kelly Clarkson, and to be entirely honest, most of the songs that come with it are a bit dull to play. Rock Band Blitz allows you to play all of your DLC purchased up to this point in this style, and I found myself having more fun with the downloaded songs than I had with the ones that came with the game, though I admit the way the fully-featured songs were scaled down to fit in Rock Band Blitz despite the vastly different interfaces was quite impressive.
Great as Rock Band Blitz's features may be, especially the free export of the 25 song tracklist and the support for existing DLC, it has some serious issues that will keep many away. The intense amount of time needed to learn how to maximize your scores and manipulate the various features and powerups is going to be too much for the average player. Oftentimes you have to decide what's better for the greater good, leaving the note-heavy guitar track to play the more sparse vocal track because the vocals have a lower multiplier and you need to keep all your multipliers up to achieve the best scores, or just keep getting notes on the guitar track and taking a hit at the next checkpoint, waiting for a more active area of the vocal track to maximize the multipliers. This is especially frustrating on some songs, where there will be keys, but they don't start for two or three minutes, meaning all of the other tracks are handicapped while you wait to have the option to increase the keys multiplier. Luckily, the programming is good enough to temporarily ignore inactive tracks, but it's very frustrating when dealing with lengthy sustains, watching in dismay as all the other tracks go by with dozens of notes per second that you could be harvesting.
Rock Band Blitz is easy enough for anyone to play, but challenging and nuanced enough that even the best players will take months to map out the best paths and powerup distributions necessary to achieve the very best scores. On its own merits, it's a truly unique game which will provide excellent value for money for those who still play Rock Band, but for more mainstream players the effort and practice required to get the best scores is going to be more than it's worth. For those who are familiar with Harmonix's signature humor, there are plenty of little Easter eggs scattered throughout, so if you are the kind of person who's likely to spend a lot of time with a title like this, there's plenty to keep you laughing in between songs, and that smile really urges you to continue. It's always begging for just one more song, even if, truth be told, I'd rather just be playing Rock Band 3.