The PSP is seeing a bit of a resurgence in 2009 thanks to renewed support from third-party publishers, with several big ticket franchises making their way to Sony’s handheld; the first of them being Rock Band. Activision tasted much success with Guitar Hero: On Tour on the DS, and EA hopes to achieve the same with Rock Band on the PSP. But while Guitar Hero on the DS came with a nifty peripheral controller, Rock Band: Unplugged is the first game from either Rock Band or Guitar Hero franchises to be released without an instrument peripheral, instead relying on the PSP’s D-pad and face buttons to play the game.
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So this is pretty much a poor man’s Rock Band. After all, what is a Rock Band game, or Guitar Hero for that matter, without the peripherals? I won’t get into the details of how a rhythm-based music game works, since most people are quite familiar with them. But things are a little different in Unplugged. Not only is there no peripheral, but you’ll be playing for all four of the band members – bass, guitar, drums, and vocals – in each song.
The four buttons that would normally constitute the coloured buttons on the peripheral are represented on the PSP by the left D-pad button, up D-pad button, triangle and circle, with the left d-pad button representing the note streaming down on the left side, while circle is for the note on the right side. Up and triangle represent the notes in between. It can get quite confusing since you’ll be using two hands to hit the notes, while it would be done with just one hand on a guitar peripheral. There is no strumming to be done and there are no hammer-ons and pull-offs to worry about. That’s good because the complications in Unplugged come from the fact that you’ll have to play for the entire band.
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Songs are broken up into small segments of about 10 seconds each called phrases. You also have occasional solos, which are longer, but require you to concentrate on just one instrument. Playing through one phrase on an instrument without missing a note will make that instrument go on autopilot and play on its own for a while, allowing you to move to the next instrument. Switching between the four instruments is done using the left and right bumpers. So throughout the song, you have to move from instrument to instrument and nail phrases without ignoring any one instrument for too long.
It’s quite a juggling act and can get a little chaotic even on Medium, the second of four difficulty levels. Not only do you have to keep moving from one instrument to another, but the moment you get to an instrument, you also have to immediately be ready to hit the right notes, which is easier said than done because even when you’re not playing, the notes are still streaming down and you could, and very often will, miss the first couple of notes when you move to a new instrument. Rock Band is essentially a multi-player experience, and the lack of a multi-player option in Unplugged is quite miffing to say the least.
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The Tour is the main game mode on Rock Band Unplugged, requiring you to move from city to city and across continents and play through songs and sets (including multiple songs) to unlock more. Playing through songs earns you money and fans and as you garner more of each, you can unlock tour buses, private jets etc, and hire staff such as street teams, promoters, stylists and managers to make you more popular, hence earning even more money and fans. You’re often also handed optional challenges such as getting a certain star rating for a song. Succeeding could earn you double the money, but failing will leave you with nothing. It’s quite a lengthy mode with a fair amount of content to keep you busy.
If you’re not the kind who wants to play through the Tour to unlock all the songs, you can just unlock them all from the Extras menu and play whatever you like. If the juggling act of playing all the instruments gets too much, you can also just play what you want via Warmup Mode. Band Survival mode plays similar to the Tour tracks, but there are no phrases, which means instruments don’t play on their own and you will have to keep moving from one to the other ensuring that you don’t fail on any instrument.
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The soundtrack is quite an assortment and I suspect there’s something there for everyone in the 40-odd tracks regardless of the kind of rock you like. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Judas Priest, 3 Doors Down, Audioslave, Job Bon Jovi, Smashing Pumpkins, Lamb of God, Billy Idol, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters – it really is a nice mix. (click here for the entire track list). The screen layout is pretty good and despite having to handle four instruments on-screen, it never feels crowded. The presentation is pretty neat and simple, the menus are easy enough to navigate and load times are manageable too.
Despite the cumbersome nature of the gameplay, it does become familiar as you play on and you will get used to the controls. But really, this is never going to be a game that will have you hooked for hours on end. It’s got a good soundtrack and you don’t need to carry around a peripheral with you to play it when you’re out. So Rock Band: Unplugged is a decent game for the commute to work or for 15-20 minute bursts every now and then. But if you’re looking for anything more than that, you won’t find it here.
(+) Neat, diverse soundtrack
(+) Beefy Tour mode
(-) Cumbersome peripheral-less controls
(-) No multi-player
Title: Rock Band: Unplugged
Developer/Publisher: Backbone Entertainment/EA
Platforms: PlayStation Portable (Rs 1,599)