Rock Band Blitz is a two-button, five-instrument, single-player take on Rock Band for XBLA and PSN

Rock Band Blitz is a two-button, five-instrument, single-player take on Rock Band for XBLA and PSN

Harmonix has a giant library of licensed music; it’s one of the company’s greatest assets. Many of us own an incredible amount of songs for the Rock Band series, and the upcoming downloadable Rock Band Blitz will give you another way to interact with that music. Rock Band Blitz is a single-player game for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network that lets you control every instrument using the controller, and you’re trying to get the highest score possible in a stylized, arcade-game version of the popular rhythm game.

Here’s the kicker: Every song that is on your hard drive will work in the game. Every piece of DLC, every track you can export, and the game’s 20-plus included songs will all work the day of release. Rock Band Blitz is going to have an extensive catalog of music right out of the gate, and every song you buy from the Rock Band store moving forward will work with the game as well.

You score points by jumping from instrument to instrument, hitting two buttons for each in time with the music. You build up multipliers and earn items to push your score even higher with skillful play. It’s a simple game that anyone can learn in a few minutes, but figuring out the strategies to get the highest scores is going to take time and effort. It’s designed to be more inviting than the instrument-based Rock Band, and since you don’t have to own or use a dedicated controller the potential market is much larger.

The core concepts behind Rock Band Blitz are actually several years old: The game was running as a prototype when Viacom sold Harmonix. The game was then taken out of mothballs a year or so ago for continued development. “We dusted it off and took a look at what we had done and started to finish it,” Matthew Nordhaus, the game’s project director, told the Penny Arcade Report. They experimented with three button game play, and more for drums, but ultimately they wanted to keep the game simple; each instrument was reduced to two buttons. You don’t need any plastic instruments and in fact some of the mechanics, such as sustained notes, would be impossible to play on instruments like the drums. “It’s something we could have solved, but the answer wouldn’t have obvious or simple… it just wasn’t the way we wanted people to experience the game,” Nordhaus said.

Simplifying each instrument to two buttons encourages the player to focus on strategy instead of the intricacies of multiple button presses. This is a game of high scores—you can’t fail out of a song—and since you don’t have to deal with a tangle of buttons you can read the board quickly and decide when to jump between the instruments and use your items to gain the maximum amount of points. You will be able to compare your scores to others on the leaderboards and your friends list after each performance, and challenges will also be fed to you in real time; you’re always aware of how well or poorly you’re doing in relation to other players. You’re in constant competition for the top spot of the leaderboards, and the game has multiple mechanisms to communicate your ascent.

Converting songs from the five-button, three-instruments with vocals format in Rock Band to the possible five instruments with two buttons each mechanics in Blitz is an automated process, and actually takes place on your system. A program goes through each of your existing songs as you play them and changes the format to fit Rock Band Blitz. “We’re still tweaking it, it was a huge job,” Nordhaus said.

Rock Band Blitz’s shift in mechanics is matched by a shift in presentation. “The vibe of Rock Band is about authenticity. We set out deliberately to make this like an arcade game, really loud and bright and tons of stuff going on in the screen… it’s very much a departure from the musical authenticity that has defined Rock Band,” Nordhaus explained. There are elements that are pure fantasy, such as bottle rockets that you can trigger to clear the lanes, or steel pinballs that roll around the screen and knock out notes. You’ll unlock different abilities as you play, and knowing which ones to use on each song and when to trigger them will give you an edge on the leaderboards.

Rock Band Blitz is much more casual and fantastic than previous entries in the franchise. My heart sank when I first saw the game, and I wondered if Harmonix had compromised in too many places to reach a broad audience. Then I had a chance to play it, and saw the strategy involved in how you move and rack up combos in order to get the best possible score. I started nodding my head as I hit those two buttons in time to the music, and I lost myself in the act of playing. Rock Band Blitz still delivers what you want out of a rhythm game, it just gets there in some surprising ways. I can’t wait to play the final version.