|System: PSP||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Harmonix||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: EA Games||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: June 9, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jonathan Marx
The battle of the bands has finally found its way onto portable gaming devices. For a year now, we've been shredding away on our DS with the Guitar Hero On Tour franchise's Guitar Grip and the pick stylus. Undoubtedly, Activision did an amazing job of translating their marquis music game to the world's most popular handheld. Of course, EA, Harmonix, and MTV Games have given Activision a run for its money on home consoles; it was only a matter of time before they too would try and bring their Rock Band brand to a gaming portable.
Rather than getting in direct competition with Guitar Hero On Tour for the DS, EA decided to do away with plastic peripherals and publish Rock Band Unplugged (RBU) on the PSP. This move seems to have allowed the Rock Band franchise to bring its unique brand of music gaming to life. For starters, players will get to play as a four-piece band rather than just bass, lead, or rhythm guitar. Also, music fidelity comes through crystal clear - far superior to what can be reproduced through the DS. Finally, players will eventually have access to an enormous catalogue of songs they can download via PSN. Consequently, Rock Band Unplugged is a tremendously solid title that will let PSP owners jam on, on the go!
While many, including myself, saw the Guitar Grip and tactile strumming as the key to Activision's success on DS, Rock Band Unplugged shows that a face button layout can be every bit as engaging and technical, if not quite as immersive. The controls in RBU are very natural and simplistic - the game essentially only employs seven different buttons to press, which can be customized in the options menu. Regardless, this simplicity belies a level of depth that matches what is offered by the competition. That being said, nailing expert guitar sections in Guitar Hero On Tour may be a bit more rewarding. However, DS rockers are never able to branch out into the other instruments that make up the band.
Rock Band Unplugged does an excellent job of incorporating drums, vocals, and two guitar types in its Tour mode. This is done by dividing each song into four tracks, having players play a bit of each track. Notes in the song aren't just indistinguishably separated onto different platforms, they actually have their own character depending upon which instrument you're manning. Hitting notes is simple enough; all you have to do is depress the appropriate face or D-pad button in time to the onscreen prompts, including solo and barred notes. This is all pretty standard stuff anyone moderately familiar with the music and rhythm genre will instantly recognize.
In order to stay alive in RBU, however, you'll have to master a delicate balancing act of instruments. Players will have to successfully play though phrases (a set of musical notes) in order to keep that particular instrument playing and out of the red zone, before switching to the next instrument in need of TLC. Switching between tracks is done efficiently with the L or R shoulder buttons (though this can be altered). A player who has mastered the RBU technique will stay with each track just a few seconds before switching to the next instrument.
Of course, though balancing tracks is the game's distinguishing feature, it is only part of it. When a certain instrument's solo comes up in the course of a song, you will be forced to play through that solo. As with the console versions of Rock Band, you will be graded on the quality of the solo. Also, players will still be able to accrue energy in their Energy Meter and release the Overdrive to save band members or to give the entire band a major point multiplier boost.
All this hopping from one track to another takes a bit to get used to, but in the end it feels very satisfying and adds another level of complexity to the genre. If you are looking for a more traditional approach, you can go into the Extras tab at the main menu and select Warmup. This mode lets you play just a single instrument. While I'm glad this option was there, I didn't find it to be particularly compelling.