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Rock Band Unplugged Review3
by Ryan Davis on
Rock Band miniaturizes onto the PSP better than you might think, though Unplugged is brought down by technical issues and an overly familiar track listing.
Harmonix and Backbone go for a fusion of old and new with Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP, which has the multitrack-juggling gameplay of Frequency and Amplitude, but with the structure and aesthetics of Rock Band. Conceptually I find this whole package incredibly appealing, though in practice, the game is hampered by performance issues, lots of recycled Rock Band songs, and the lack of any social aspect. So yeah, it's got issues, but it still capably captures much of the Rock Band feel, and it's still fun to play.
When you first load it up, it's immediately apparent that this is Rock Band. The menus retain those distinctive psychedelic hues, and even though the texture quality and the number of polygons has been noticeably reduced, it's still a clean, sharp-looking game. The focus of the game is primarily on the world tour mode which, aside from its diminished scope, is nearly indistinguishable from the console version. You're still trotting the globe, playing gigs to earn money, fans, and stars, and unlock bigger and better transportation options and support staff. The key difference, and this is something that penetrates down into the core of the gameplay, is that rather than being a member of the band, you are the band. When you create your band, you'll choose the name and the look of all four band members, and you use the money you earn to buy new gear and clothes for the whole group. The whole creation/customization element in Unplugged doesn't go as deep as it does in a full-blown Rock Band game, with fewer things to customize and fewer ways to customize them. On the other hand, you've got a four-piece of rock dolls to play dress-up with, instead of just one person.
Whether or not you've played Rock Band, there's going to be a little learning curve to Unplugged, since you're now playing all four instruments on a song instead of just one. You're still hitting buttons in time with notes as they scroll down the screen--multiplied by a factor of four. This probably sounds crazy, but the game makes it manageable by essentially auto-playing an instrument for a while after you play a section without making any mistakes, allowing you to switch over to another instrument. To pull this off flawlessly, you need to not only be aware of when the track you're playing will clear out--something that the game highlights with an extra-large note at the end--but which track you need to play next. The four instrument tracks are lined up side-by-side, which means that you'll often have to quickly hop over a track or two before getting to the right one. It can be manic, and if you don't get to the track you need to clear on time, or if you just make a mistake, it can feel like it's taking forever for the next eligible section to scroll down.
But even with the added track-juggling stuff and the lack of instrument controllers, Rock Band Unplugged still taps into that sensation that you are really playing these songs, like some kind of one-man, headphone karaoke. The note patterns on medium were a little sparse for my tastes, but playing on hard, I found it to be really satisfying and enjoyably challenging. It's unfortunate, then, that the frame rate in Unplugged occasionally stumbles. Most of the time everything is moving smoothly enough that it seems fine, but once you get a lot of notes on screen, and you switch on the score-multiplying overdrive effect, things get crazy choppy. A solid frame rate is one of the most critical things for a rhythm game, and it's disappointing that Unplugged doesn't quite nail it.
The track listing may be another sticking point for some folks. With a few, wonderful exceptions--like Jackson 5's "ABC"--the music is a mix of songs from the main Rock Band games and DLC. It's a lively, interesting mix of music, but if you've played a lot of Rock Band, there's a good possibility that you're already kind of worn out on a lot of the songs in Unplugged. If you're looking for more music, there's a PSP-specific music store built into Unplugged. There are ten songs in the PSP music store as of this writing, and Harmonix has promised more in the future, but my issue here is that of value. Currently, all the songs being offered are $1.99 a pop, same as you'd pay for most regular Rock Band DLC. I understand that Harmonix still has to spend the time mapping out note paths for all four instruments, and the licensing fees are probably no different, but it's harder for me to justify two bucks for a song when I can't even play it with my friends.
It's an imperfect package, but even the sporadic frame rate chop and well-worn track list couldn't conspire to keep me from really enjoying most of my time with Rock Band Unplugged. There aren't many rhythm games on the PSP, but this is easily the most satisfying experience I've had with the genre on the PSP, warts and all.