Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Harmonix/Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: June 9, 2009
Before it got players to rock out with plastic guitars on Guitar Hero or form bands that played plastic instruments in Rock Band, Harmonix got its first taste of gaming success with FreQuency, an instrument-less rhythm game released fairly early in the PlayStation 2 life cycle. The game took several popular remixed tracks and separated each line of audio into its own stream, and the player's objective was to go from stream to stream, hitting the right buttons to reform the song and get a high score in the process. At the time, people outside of Japan really hadn't seen anything like it, and the concept was intriguing enough that an online demo was packed in with the PS2 broadband adapter for a while.
The development house came back with Amplitude, which was pretty much the same thing as FreQuency but with a more diverse mix of songs. Years after the release of Amplitude, fans of the series have finally gotten their wish in a very roundabout way on a very different system. Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP takes the core mechanics of Harmonix's earlier games and overlays a Rock Band skin. While that might not sound too appealing at first, rest assured that the title ends up being one of the better rhythm games to hit the system, thanks to its game mechanics and features.
The premise for Rock Band Unplugged is similar to the console version. After forming a band comprised of four custom characters, complete with band logo and individual wardrobes for each, you go around from city to city playing at different venues to different song set lists. As you go on your travels, you'll amass more fans and gain more money as you and your band climb your way up the ladder of success.
Without resorting to plastic peripherals, the title manages to emulate the home console experience rather well. The game is still comprised of a lead guitar, bass guitar, drums and a singer but instead of taking control of just one role, you have to take them all on simultaneously. To accomplish this, you jump from instrument to instrument playing each section until the song ends. Complete an instrument's section correctly, and that section will automatically complete for a few more sections. Fail to complete the section, and that instrument will go missing from the song until the next section is successfully completed. The constant switching of instruments makes for some frantic gameplay, especially on the harder difficulty levels, where the notes will come in fast and sections go from one end of the screen to the other.
The single-player modes are a direct copy of the first home console version of the game. The World Tour mode is the main premise of the game, while Quick Play lets you choose any song you have and lets you play it from there. It's important to note here that you have access to only 10 songs at the beginning of the game. While that provides a good mix of genres to play with, you must go through World Tour mode if you want to unlock the rest of the song library.
Rock Band Unplugged introduces something new to the PSP: an online store. While an online store already exists for the system's XrossMediaBar, this is the first time that downloadable content has been made accessible directly from the game interface. Just like the other versions of the game, having downloadable content stays true to the philosophy of having the game become a platform for music in general and ensures that the title doesn't become stale for quite some time. The only downside to this is that the extra songs cost $2 apiece. While it's understandable considering that each song must be charted for the new gameplay style, PS3 fans will feel somewhat jilted that they'll have to pay again for a song that they'd already purchased on the PS3 version.
While this all sounds good, there are a few things that sour the package a bit. For starters, the band customization is pretty limited. While the body types are all there, your initial hairstyle isn't free and your clothes selection is less than half of what's available in the home console games. This might not be so bad, but the lack of multiplayer definitely is. One of the more appealing aspects of Rock Band is the ability to play with friends, and taking that away makes the game feel a bit empty. This is especially surprising since Harmonix has experimented with the online space before in FreQuency and Amplitude. Even an online scoreboard would have been nice, but that isn't present either, relegating your high scores to your machine only.
The controls are responsive without being needlessly complex. The four notes on each highway are represented by the left and up buttons on the d-pad as well as the Triangle and Circle buttons, with on-screen prompts reminding you which button activates which note. Track-switching is handled by the L and R shoulder buttons, while the X button activates your bonus energy meter. Without any other buttons to hit, the game becomes very easy to control, and with the button responses being spot-on, you can only really blame yourself if you miss a note.
The graphics are about on par with the PS2 version of the game. The character models don't sport much detail, but they look good on-screen. The same can be said of the various costumes, especially the ones that look like they could be elaborate on the home console iteration. The backgrounds look fine and are a good mix between old and new venues. The game is missing a few things, though, notably the crowd and the special effects. Throughout the song, you'll always see the band members, but you'll never see a single audience member even though you can always hear them out there. The special effects, such as black-and-white filtering and mirrored filtering, are absent as well. While it would prove to be a big distraction if they were there, Rock Band fans will miss their presence. Finally, the performers aren't exactly dynamic. Unlike other versions of the game, the band seems to have its own set of animations that are independent of your performance. You can miss a note, for example, and still see the drummer or guitarist performing normally as if nothing had happened.
The sound for Rock Band Unplugged is fantastic. All of the 40+ tracks in the game are master recordings, and the downloadable content released thus far is also comprised of master recordings from the original artists, resulting in some clear and crisp music, especially when heard through headphones. The clarity really comes through when you start to mess up in the game, since it becomes really easy to tell if you messed up something as minor as a bass track or as major as the vocals. The track variety is there, with songs ranging from '60s classic rock to '70s funk and modern era hits. The good news is that some of the songs on the UMD are exclusive to the PSP iteration (for the time being, at least), giving fans something new to play when they turn on the system. The bad news is that the downloadable content released thus far hasn't been exclusive. While that could change in the future, it would seem that the developers want the existing songs out there first before committing to something new.
Rock Band Unplugged accomplishes the task of being a good spiritual successor to the games that made Harmonix famous. The game mechanics are inventive yet solid, while the controls and sound are as tight as you can expect it to be. The game, however, does not accomplish the task of carrying over some of the elements that made the home console version famous, and the most notable omission is the multiplayer component. While this is something to keep in mind if you're looking for a good music game for the PSP, it's not enough to prevent it from being a very good purchase for the portable console.
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