Review: Rock Band Unplugged (Sony PSP)

Rock Band Unplugged
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Backbone Entertainment/Harmonix
Publisher: MTV Games
Release Date: 06/09/09

When Harmonix first revealed it would be releasing a PSP version of Rock Band without the use of any peripherals, some people thought the company was a little off its rocker. Even though plastic instruments or touch screen and motion controlled gimmicks now rule the music game format, Harmonix harks back to a simpler time with Rock Band Unplugged – a time where the company released the classic rhythm entries Frequency and Amplitude. With the success and experience of Harmonix coupled with the development muscle of Backbone Entertainment, Rock Band Unplugged’s recipe consists of two cups Frequency/Amplitude and seasoned to taste with Rock Band. While the concept may seem foreign at first, in actuality Unplugged serves up one of the PSP’s finest titles while easily being the most accessible title in the franchise.

For those not keen on Frequency or Amplitude, in a nutshell, the titles had a player single-handedly producing a song layer by layer. Each layer was represented as a stream in a digital pipeline where players had to activate markers in time to the music and after two successful phrases, the layer went into autoplay, enabling the player to switch to a new layer and flesh out the music. This mechanic holds true in Unplugged, but instead of featuring layers such as “FX,” secondary drum layers and effectors, Rock Band has the layout stripped down to the lead guitar, bass guitar, drum and vocal layers we all know and love. Also, while the elder titles featured crazy power ups that could slow down the song, instantly enable a layer’s autoplay and the like, Unplugged has the extra mechanics whittled down to the familiar Overdrive, which in the PSP version can extend a player’s multiplier up to the Spinal Tap cliché of 11.

Upon firing up the game, players will be immediately familiar with most of the game’s offerings and presentation. Even in portable form, the game still offers up the console version’s tour mode, which follows the success story of your personal band (with all four members customizable) as they go from rags to riches and perform in venues all around the world. Outside of the main meat of the game, Unplugged still features three different quickplay modes to keep the player entertained – a warm-up mode that allows a player to focus on only one chosen instrument throughout a song, the standard quickplay mode that allows the player to choose one of 41 tracks (10 of which are exclusive to Unplugged for a limited time) and jam as normal or a band survival mode in which the layers never autoplay and players will have to constantly juggle between the instruments to keep them from failing out.

A lot of variety is offered for a single player, however, the huge strike against the mode offerings is the complete lack of multiplayer in any format. While players will eventually be able to access an in-game store to purchase further song content for Unplugged, any interactivity with another PSP in any form is omitted. Thankfully, though, the game is executed so well that even a single player will get a healthy amount of mileage out of Unplugged and the future DLC potentially infinitely extends the game’s replayability.
Presentation-wise, Unplugged does everything one could expect from the PSP hardware and, in essence, Backbone has successfully plucked Rock Band 2 from the Playstation 2 and delivered it onto the PSP without any noticeable drops in quality.

In Unplugged, the note highways will occupy most of the screen, similar to hosting a full band on one console, however, underneath the action your band members will rock the stage just like in the standard series of games. During game play, the HUD still displays everything normally present on the console versions and the note highways are crisp and clear with a steady scroll rate. Regardless of the game play taking full charge of the display in-song, the menus are full of detail and color, the loading and static screens are rendered very well, the characters animate very well and all of the customization provides a wide variety of appearances and animations for each band member. All around, Unplugged provides fantastic visuals that do not detract from the game play in the slightest.

The title is certainly no slouch in the audio department, either, with the songs belting out from the PSP even without the use of headphones. Since sound is usually seen as the most important aspect of a music-based game, you can tell the developer took care in providing the highest quality of music possible. The song tracks are full of quality and Backbone has successfully spliced apart each layer from the song to highlight whichever instrument the player currently has selected. Whether or not a player personally likes the songs that serve as the basis for 90 percent of what you’ll hear from the game is entirely up to them, but the 41 tracks provide a grand variety of hits from the “Ëœ60s up to today. While all of the other sound effects in the title have been clearly recycled from other installments in the franchise, it by no means detracts from the quality of this UMD’s audio and players couldn’t ask more in terms of audio.

With the presentation being spot-on, players should receive solace in knowing that the full package is rounded out with some excellent game play as well. It’s surprising how much the layer mechanic freshens up the Rock Band game play and even though a majority of the songs can be found in other installments of the franchise, playing them in a new way extends the appeal of the game even further.

Aside from the move becoming a one-person band, another extremely notable change is the reduction from five keys on the note highway down to four to accommodate the hardware. The game gives players the option to change the button layout to any design they wish so players are able to mess with different setups in order to find the control they are most comfortable with. In fact, the title gives players a lot of control options they use to find their groove as there are options to speed up the pace at which layers are changed and enable players to switch immediately from the guitar (right-most) track to the bass (left-most) track or vice-versa in one move (as in Frequency) instead of being blocked off at the edge of the playfield (as in Amplitude). In the game, those who aren’t accustomed to Frequency or Amplitude might have to take a few run-throughs or use the training mode to become accustomed to switching tracks in time to string combos, but once a player gets the grasp of things, everything works the way it is supposed to and stringing phrases together will become second nature. On occasion, given the nature of the d-pad, having to hit two directions on the pad doesn’t always register 100 percent, but this seemed to happen very rarely on the default scheme and if it becomes a huge problem, players can always change the layout. It’s a very small complaint, I know, but in honesty, it’s the only minor qualm I ever had with the control in Unplugged.

Given that the change in format for Unplugged is due to its controls, it’s easy for anyone who has played a Rock Band game before to jump in because essentially, the core game play is virtually unchanged. Note gems flow down highways just as in any other game in the franchise and it is up to players to match the timing and commands to make beautiful, sweet music. Everything is still here including Overdrive and sustained notes (with no whammy bar, any sustained overdrive note automatically adds a small amount of extra juice to the meter for the length the note is held) and while the vocals are no longer measured in pitch, they are replaced with note gems so there are no foreign concepts here when it comes down to a single instrument. Through controlling the entire band, at no point does the lack of a instrument in your hands feel like a detriment to the game and, thankfully, it allows Unplugged to be a truly great portable experience. The span of modes available keep both beginners and experts in mind so players are able to make the experience as easy or hard as they wish and while there is little to be surprised by in the game play, the small change in playing every instrument takes the game a long way. With combos and Overdrive, Unplugged can be a very high-scoring affair and the staggering point totals will keep players coming back for more – it’s just a shame there’s no leaderboard on which to boast said scores as the game could easily become quite competitive.

Players will easily keep returning to the game as not only are there scores to be bested, but the tour mode has a large number of set lists to tackle, the band survival mode serves up some decent challenge, there are multiple difficulties to each song that less-skilled players can graduate through, there are a ton of customization options to purchase through money earned in the game, new songs will be added through the in-game song store and players will have to unlock quickplay songs by clearing them in tour mode (however, less patient players can go to the options mode and immediately unlock the full list whenever they please). With such robust offerings, it’s easy to say players have a console Rock Band experience in portable form and paying a mere $40 instead of needing to drop hundreds for a full band experience should appeal to anyone looking for rock on the go. A copy of Unplugged and a pair of earphones will no doubt eat up any car ride and displaying the title on your TV via your PS3 provides a satisfying experience if there’s no friends around to jam with and you don’t feel like dragging a drum set out to the middle of the floor.

The Scores
Story/Modes: VERY GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: INCREDIBLE
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal Factor: AMAZING
Miscellaneous: GREAT

Short Attention Span Summary

Rock Band Unplugged doesn’t stray too far from the beaten path (and some might say it only combines two different Harmonix games), but it offers a lot to experience and is just plain fun. Backbone Entertainment and Harmonix have essentially taken the Playstation 2 version of Rock Band 2 and changed it up to not only make it playable on the PSP but also freshen up the series’ game play. Unplugged has its presentation and gameplay nailed down and the music store, tour mode, multiple modes and sheer fun means players could be enjoying the title for quite some time. The title is sadly missing any sort of multiplayer or leaderboard functionality, but the quality of the title takes the single player game play a long way. When you look at the bottom line, Rock Band Unplugged is the best all-around rhythm game experience on the PSP (arguably portable systems period) and stands as one of the best games on the entire system.

Currently, Rock Band Unplugged is scheduled to launch on June 9 – at which time the game’s music store will open and Sony will be releasing a special edition Rock Band Unplugged PSP bundle. The bundle will include a piano black PSP system, Rock Band Unplugged, a voucher to download the movie School of Rock and a 4GB Memory Stick PRO Duo for the price of $199.99. At launch, the store will be live with 10 downloadable tracks and Harmonix has indicated downloadable tracks will be made available for $0.99 or $1.99 per download. For a full listing of what tracks are available on the Unplugged disc, as well as the first 10 DLC tracks, please see our news story detailing the full list.



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5 responses to “Review: Rock Band Unplugged (Sony PSP)”

  1. Aaron Sirois Avatar

    After fooling around with the demo, I can easily see why this game got such a high score, but it doesn’t have EBA beat in the portable rhythm department.

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