MTV Games' Rock Band series shrinks down and drops the plastic instruments for the PlayStation Portable release Rock Band Unplugged, which turns the band video game series into a break out solo effort.
There's no singing or plastic drum controller to smack in Rock Band Unplugged, as players use the PSP's default controls to beat match notes scrolling down the familiar note highway. In Unplugged, you don't just play one part, you play all parts. Players match notes for the bass, drums, vocals and guitar, switching between instrument tracks after successfully completing "phrases" for each part. The goal is to keep the whole group playing, perfecting your performance and becoming a rhythmically gifted virtual one-man band.
Rock Band Unplugged is a spiritual sequel to pre-Guitar Hero Harmonix creations Amplitude and Frequency, but with a more bankable name behind it. Does Unplugged deserve to share in the spotlight?
Perfect For The PSP: A peripheral-dependent, socially interactive game like Rock Band may seem like an odd fit for a portable platform without some gimmicky attachment add-on. But after playing Rock Band Unplugged, I'd argue it's actually the perfect portable implementation, taking advantage of the PSP's button layout, Wi-Fi capabilities and previous-generation caliber hardware specs. Portable gaming hardware is almost always a performance step backwards from its console counterparts, something Rock Band Unplugged makes up for with strong, beat matching gameplay.
Full Fledged World Tour: Unplugged's version of the band career spanning World Tour mode seen in previous Rock Band titles is just as capable as its forebears. There are songs to unlock, bizarre outfits to acquire for your avatar, even a little band management that one must deal with as you hire staff and secure transport. It's all pretty light stuff and can ultimately mean some song fatigue will set in as your band is forced to play some of the same songs over and over again, but at least it keeps things interesting.
Eclectic: The soundtrack lineup for Unplugged is a fascinating mix of songs that will have you jump from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Bon Jovi to the Jackson 5 in the same set list. It's a decidedly un-boring mix of tracks that can be expanded with Unplugged's in-game music store.
Like Amplitude, But Better: Rock Band Unplugged's gameplay is straight up Amplitude and Frequency, two PlayStation 2 rhythm games that went under-appreciated in their time. Only Unplugged is way better. Harmonix and Backbone Entertainment expand on the gameplay established by those two PS2 era games, refining the interface to make the chaos of track-switching more visually digestible, adding in all the design improvements made during the evolution from Guitar Hero to Rock Band 2.
Like Rock Band, But Portable: Most of the things that make Rock Band so much fun and personalized are present in Unplugged. That includes the carefully curated song selection, light on duds, and fun to play note charts. Character customization is deep, as are the available modes for quick play, practice and career modes. Best of all, you can actually hear the music clearly without the din of plastic instruments being whacked. Of course, it's missing one thing...
Customizable Button Layout: Any want you want it. That's the way we need it.
There's No Multiplayer: We're spoiled. And we have Wi-Fi. So there should be a multiplayer mode in Rock Band Unplugged, but there isn't. Four player co-op and head-to-head modes would be great, but no dice. Maybe in the sequel, since that's a great bullet point.
Double Dipping: There's no way to use the songs you might have purchased in Rock Band or Rock Band 2 on the PSP version, so you may have to buy some of these tunes a second time if you want to expand beyond the 40 or so tracks already included.
Rock Band Unplugged is a wonderful addition to the franchise, full of addictive gameplay and quality production values that doesn't dilute the brand. It's the kind of game that will go a long way to reinvigorating the PSP library, thanks to its incredibly strong design and potentially limitless music library. There are a few minor technical quibbles, including some annoying load times and autosave pauses, but the rest of the game is sound.
If you're at all interested in the Rock Band series or have enjoyed Harmonix's original PlayStation 2 rhythm game efforts, I can't think of a reason not to pick up Unplugged.
Rock Band Unplugged was developed by Backbone Entertainment and published by MTV Games for the PSP, releasing on June 9th. Retails for $39.99. Played through World Tour mode and tested Band Survival.
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