Rock Band Unplugged
While Guitar Hero DS was a cack-handed (literally) attempt at making a fully functional yet portable GH game, Harmonix's new Rock Band Unplugged takes a slightly different approach to a similar problem. While the idea behind it, make a portable Rock Band, is essentially the same the subtle difference lies in the implementation. Resisting the temptation to try and shoe-horn a god awful peripheral over the curves of the PSP in some hand breaking way Harmonix have wisely decided instead to tweak the gameplay to suit the platform rather than the other way round.
At first glance it may appear little has changed; it all looks very Rock Band with notes scrolling down the screen in familiar fashion. Hitting notes at the right time is also still the order of the day with the d-pad left, up, triangle and circle filling in for input from the various peripherals. The subtle yet important difference comes in how you have to complete each song. Rather than simply pick an instrument and power through a song RB Unplugged asks you to juggle all the different instruments in a system akin to musical plate spinning.
Each song is broken up into phases and nailing a complete phase on a particular instrument will see its meter go into the green and it'll start to play automatically for a short while. That's your queue to jump (using the L and R buttons) to one of the other instrument which has by now started to dip into the red and repeat the process to get it back up to green and playing by itself. This frantic yet highly intuitive juggling act only lets up during solos when you're locked onto the instrument in question to stop you trying to work around the tricky bits.
As you'd expect, Overdrive survives the transition to the PSP just fine and is built up as normal by hitting certain sequences of notes perfectly. Once you've built up enough it can then be employed to either ratchet up the score multiplier or bring an instrument back from the dead if you've let it slip.
The move to controlling a whole band on your own in this manor may not seem like a huge gameplay leap at first but it's clearly the result of a lot of thought about how best to adapt the multiplayer Rock Band experience to a singleplayer PSP game. This change in emphasis subtly turns the experience away from one of musical showmanship, where it's all about feeling like you're playing along, to a much purer gaming one where it's all about furiously managing each instrument to keep them playing and racking up high scores.
As you'd expect, World Tour mode is the beating heart of Rock Band Unplugged and much like other incarnations it allows you to create and customise your own band before taking them out on road. The aim is to go from grotty backstreet clubs and bars all the way to huge stadiums earning more fans and money along the way. If you're after a simple quick fix there are also Quickplay and Warm-up modes, the latter of which lets you play with a helpful 'no fail' setting and without the need to change instruments. There's also a Survival mode which removes phases from the equation and keeps you switching between instruments at random. You won't find any multiplayer options lurking in the menus unfortunately which does make kind of sense if you think about how the game has been retooled as a singleplayer experience.
Of course the one thing that does get lost in the translation to a handheld console is the feeling of actually playing a real instrument. While holding a plastic guitar or whacking a fake drum kit can give a tantalising glimpse of what it'd be like to play for real there's very little of that thrill that can be replicated on a PSP. The funny thing is that's okay, in fact you'll find you don't really miss it. The rhythm action genre was around long before Harmonix thrust the original Guitar Hero into the limelight, in fact Harmonix themselves were already veterans of the scene having previously released FreQuency and Amplitude to much critical acclaim. The influence of those earlier games shines through in RB Unplugged as Harmonix's pre-peripheral expertise is used to make it feel like a unique game in its own right rather than a castrated version of its big brother.
The track listing features forty one songs, all original master recordings, which include a kind of greatest hits selection from the previous two Rock Band games as well as a smattering of songs exclusive to Unplugged. It's a nicely wide ranging selection offering something for everyone with artists like Bon Jovi, System of a Down, The Police, Queens of the Stone Age and Soundgarden all featured. There's also the promise of new songs appearing for download in the PS Store which can only be a good thing.
It's hard to find too much to moan about in Unplugged, it's a beautifully made slice of portable gaming. The one genuinely annoying thing is that Harmonix have still not seen fit to tweak the way World Tour forces you to repeat certain songs over and over at the start of your career. It's been a problem in all Rock Band games and remains so here pushing your tolerance levels for certain songs to the limits.
While the Rock Band name would probably be enough to sell this it's Harmonix's well honed understanding of the rhythm action genre that really holds the key to the success of Rock Band Unplugged. While it may be something of a tribute to Harmonix's own roots, Unplugged manages to provide a gameplay experience that's pleasingly fresh yet reassuringly familiar at the same time. You may feel less like a rock star and more like a traditional gamer while you play but it's great fun and a million times better than being laughed at on the bus while strumming your DS.