Before igniting the rhythm game peripheral revolution with the original Guitar Hero, Harmonix released a pair of rhythm games that laid the groundwork for that seminal title: Frequency and Amplitude. Now, with Rock Band Unplugged, Harmonix has gone back to these roots, putting out a peripheral-free rhythm game that is simultaneously reminiscent of Frequency and Amplitude, and undeniably a Rock Band game, despite the absence of any plastic guitars or drum kits. Most importantly, Rock Band Unplugged is an exciting rhythm game that should appeal to Rock Band veterans and rhythm game newcomers alike.
Yes, your band can be big in Japan.
If you've ever played a game of the Rock Band ilk, you'll be immediately at home with the gameplay in Unplugged. Colored gems representing notes come down a track toward you, and as they cross a horizontal target in rhythm with the song, you must press the corresponding button or buttons for those gems. By default, the four buttons used are the left and up buttons on the D pad and the triangle and circle buttons, which makes for a comfortable fit and corresponds nicely with the left-to-right layout of the gems on the screen. What sets Unplugged apart from its console cousins is that you are responsible for all four of the instrument tracks that make up a song--bass, drums, vocals, and guitar--and you must switch between them constantly using the shoulder buttons to keep your band members onstage. In the standard gameplay modes, successfully playing every note in a phrase will result in that instrument playing on its own for a little while, freeing you up to focus your attention on another track. Having to keep the proverbial plates spinning adds a layer of complexity and fun to the already engaging rhythm-based button pressing. Should instruments get neglected and start to fail out, you'll actually hear your gradual demise as those layers fall out of the song, which can be scary. Conversely, it's very satisfying to build the song back up, kicking in track upon track until the entire song is playing again. And if you're not in the mood to juggle tracks, the warm-up mode lets you focus on whichever track or tracks you want, without penalty.
As in the console games, when it comes to racking up the big points, consistency is key. As you maintain a perfect streak, you'll build up a score multiplier that will increase the point value of each note by up to five times, though one slipup will send that multiplier back to zero. Special sections of glowing gems fill up your energy meter, and once you've got enough energy stored up, you can enter overdrive, which has two uses here. If none of your band members have failed out of the song, overdrive will dramatically increase your existing multiplier for a period of time. If any members have failed, overdrive will get them back into the game. The four difficulty levels range from very manageable to blisteringly fast and complex, so players of all skill levels can strut their stuff onstage.
The heart of Unplugged is the World Tour mode, in which you create a four-member band, name it, choose from a number of very cool artist-created logos, and hit the road. The variety of clothing and gear options you can purchase in the game's rock shop means that you can customize your band's look and style to suit your own tastes, whether those lean more toward power pop or death metal. From humble beginnings playing at small clubs and dive bars, you can propel your way to the big time, earning fans and money, and getting access to better vehicles, bigger venues, and an army of merch girls, roadies, sound guys, and others sworn to do your bidding. These trappings of the Rock Band franchise are a perfect fit for Unplugged and serve to make the game more compelling, because you're never very far from your next significant step on the road to rock immortality.