PAX East: First Look at Rock Band Blitz

I’ve just completed my second year of PAX East and once again, I’m overwhelmed and exhausted when I think about summing up my experience.  I may not have gotten to spend as much time as I liked on the go (seasonal allergy headaches and dehydration are an angry combination) but isn’t that always the way of cons?  The experience was still overwhelmingly positive and again, next year I want to spend even more time peeling the PAX onion of experiences.

I made it a point to catch one panel.  Last year I saw the panel on Geek Parenting and loved it, but this year I wanted something completely different.  I decided to go with the panel given by Harmonix, “Evolution of Beatmatch Gameplay,” which shared the experience of developing their new title, Rock Band Blitz.   I was a little bit wary; I love Rock Band and its sequels, but what more could they bring to the table?

Out with the… old?

The panel presentation started off with a shot of several games that have been inspiration or predecessors to the Rock Band franchise, and instantly I was reminded of one fact: I am a fan of the beatmatch genre.  It’s possible I owned every game shown.  Mad Maestro?  An obvious fit.  Elite Beat Agents?  Yep, that too.  Amplitude?  The game that got me hooked on Harmonix.

Then, as we all know, they started expanding into the peripherals: the guitars and drums and mics and keytars, as the Rock Band catalog of DLC was ever-expanding to include everything from the classic to the cult (“Still Alive”) to the silly (iCarly?).

With Rock Band Blitz, they’re combining a little bit of everything I’ve loved from Harmonix: the game itself is played on regular controllers, no peripherals, a great-niece, perhaps, of Frequency and Amplitude.  This is no direct sequel, however, and is absolutely in the Rock Band immediate family: it’s divided into the familiar Rock Band instrument tracks, and aesthetically, it fits neatly into the Rock Band universe.  Best of all: it will utilize the entire Rock Band catalog, hundreds of songs instantly available (and the new songs that will come with Blitz, presumably, will be available to play with your instruments).

Diffusing a bomb with two jugs of water

The majority of the panel was a fascinating tale of how a game makes its way from a concept to a demo.  Blitz had a bumpy ride, even getting an all-new creative team to revive it from the dusty shelves full of Harmonix ideas.  Balancing the different elements of what makes a good game is apparently something like crossing a river with a boat, a fox, and three hens, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that first and foremost in importance is whether the game is fun.  For example, when easier modes were revealed to be too easy and, well, lame, they started discussing doing away with difficulty levels altogether (which, in some minds, is like ditching the wheel).

As for actual gameplay, they didn’t simply transfer those old PS2 concepts to next-gen controllers; they went through iteration after iteration of different ideas, figuring out which had the best combo of being comfortable, intuitive, and, again, satisfying and fun.  The end result involves using the shoulder buttons, the analog stick and the d-pad, so your thumbs will still get a workout.

What of the future?

The panelists were quick to emphasize that this was not necessarily the future of the Rock Band franchise.  DLC is still coming out, and they haven’t forgotten about those who love to rock out with their instruments; this is meant to be an alternative.  Some of the benefits cited included the fact that you don’t need to haul out all the peripherals to start up a game.  Also, while at first glance it’s a solo game, they still consider it a social one; the idea is that you compete against your network friends, rather than needing an entire party in your living room.  Call it a digital party instead of an analog one.

Aside from a few quick mentions at the beginning, almost no comparisons to Amplitude were made.  This makes sense, considering that franchise was Sony-only and they want to use the Rock Band catalog.  Still, there’s no doubt it’s descended from these games in spirit, which personally thrills me.  Still, I do wonder why they’ve gone in this direction, now.  Are people tired of games with instrument peripherals?  Have they pushed that concept as far as it will go short of starting your own garage band?  Did the split that led to the concurrent franchises of Guitar Hero and Rock Band oversaturate the market?

Perhaps.  In the meantime, I know I’ll be playing Blitz when it hits this summer.  I’ve missed the days of playing a beatmatch game armed with only a controller and my wits.  And who knows – after playing some new songs my fingers might start itching to pull out my keytar and a mic.  Perhaps Blitz, a little space from our peripherals, and a Labor Day party is all we need to remind us just how fun Rock Band really is.

When I walked into the Harmonix panel, it was almost more out of fondness and nostalgia for a genre and a company I’ve loved for years.  When I walked out, though, I was edified, chuckling at a pretty entertaining panel, and eagerly anticipating a new game.  Mission accomplished.

What about you?  Did you catch any panels at PAX East?  Will you be giving Rock Band Blitz a try?  

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