What's this you say? Rock Band on PSP? With no instruments? No wrist-bending attachment we need to purchase with which we can manhandle our PSPs as though they were mini guitars? We can hardly believe it. Thanks for the tip off, here's a fiver for your troubles. But looking at Rock Band Unplugged on PSP, it's easy to be sceptical. After all, for a game that's brought friends together to rock out on plastic instruments, how successful could a portable iteration be with just the buttons on the console and no multiplayer? As it turns out, the answer is 'actually, very successful, maybe you'll learn to be a bit more open-minded next time, jerk.'
Developed by Backbone Entertainment, Rock Band Unplugged cribs heavily from Harmonix's two PS2 music games, Frequency and Amplitude. This is no bad thing at all, as fans of those games will attest that their gameplay was some of the most addictive music-based fun to be had in that generation of consoles. Ditching the futuristic music highways and power-ups found in those games, Rock Band Unplugged replicates the look and feel of its home console counterparts, with a grungey faux-music video of your band playing in the background, with a simple 'highway' of notes leading down in the center of the screen. While the graphics aren't amazing, they do the job well enough and never slow down, and some of the stage designs are quite interesting.
The main difference between Unplugged and the other games in the series, and indeed Guitar Hero, is that you aren't just in control of one instrument throughout each song. You're in control of all of them. Of course, you can't play every instrument at once, so the way this works is that you pick an instrument to play using the shoulder buttons, and slide over to its track. Then, as long as you successfully play a 'phrase' (that is, a small section of notes), you'll 'clear' the track, which will continue to play itself while you move onto another one. However, a track will only stay cleared for so long, and eventually you'll have to return to it. It's like spinning several plates on poles, as you continually have to move back and forth between tracks to keep them going, and it works extremely well, bringing a new layer of stategy and tactics to the game. However, there are also solo sections, which are essentially extra-long phrases where you receive a percentage score.
Much of the game revolves around chaining together phrases to attain higher multipliers, which in turn fills your Overdrive meter and allows you to double your points for up to an 11x multiplier. Finally, your performance on the song is given an overall percentage rating and a score out of five stars. This is where the game really gets addictive, as you'll feel the increasing need to get a perfect rating on every song, and every playlist, and due to the large amount of both of those, you could be stuck playing the game for weeks going on months.
There are forty one songs (all master recordings) in the game, much of which is shared with Rock Band and the as-of-yet unreleased-in-Australia sequel. However, there are some unique tracks, such as 'Kryptonite' by 3 Doors Down and 'ABC' by Jackson 5. Admittedly, the sountrack is a little less hardcore than some music fans may have liked, with less Metallica and more Blink-182, but there are still some classics like 'Pinball Wizard' by The Who and 'Livin' on a Prayer' by Bon Jovi. Of course, there's also downloadable content for the game, as there are with all Rock Band games, which means that as long as you're willing to shell AUD $2.45 a song, the fun can keep going on and on. The quality of all of these tracks is impressive, and it's certainly a game that is best enjoyed with headphones.
The game includes the standard 'Quickplay' mode as well as the more meaty 'Tour' mode, which is used to unlock costumes, venues and songs. Progression in Tour mode is essentially identical to the other Rock Band games, as you complete single songs or setlists in different cities around the world, hiring staff and competing in competitions to earn planes or roadies, before finally trying to achieve Rolling Stones fame. Unfortunately, since the track list is a bit shorter than usual, there is a good amount of reptition in the tracks you'll get in playlists. Fortunately, you're always given a choice of multiple paths to progressing to the next stage of Tour mode, but if you're a completionist trying to five star everything, you may want to take breaks from time to time before you get completely sick of Freezepop and Tenacious D.
There are only two disappointments with Rock Band Unplugged, and both of them are omissions, rather than anything the game strictly does wrong. The first is the lack of customisation options. While you do have control over the clothes and instruments of every member of your band, the body types of the drummer, guitarist, etc, are all somewhat predetermined. Considering you can still dress up your lead guitar in Spartan armor, it isn't such a big deal, but it feels a bit more constrictive than Unplugged's big brothers. The other is that there is absolutely no multiplayer in Rock Band Unplugged, either through ad-hoc or infrastructure. Nada. Zip. While the style of gameplay is different to traditional Rock Band games, Amplitude showed how successful a similar online multiplayer mode could be back on the PlayStation 2. So what gives?
That said, Rock Band Unplugged is still a fantastic success on the PSP. In lieu of a true sequel to Frequency and Amplitude, Unplugged is on the cusp of being just as good. With a catalogue of varied songs, with some true classics in the mix, as well as addictive gameplay and great presentation, this may just be the best music game money can buy on the PSP. And considering that it's a console that's home to quality music games like DJ Max Portable, that makes Unplugged something special indeed.
Addendum: Rock Band Unplugged has just been released on the PlayStation Store at the price-point of AUD $6.95. This, however, is not the full version of the game, and only includes 'five top hits'. Additional tracks you have to purchase from the PlayStation Store, as a bunch of tracks have been slowly released to the store over the past few months. The full retail version of the game has been delayed, and there is no firm Australian release date at this stage, making this PSN release the only way to get the game inside Australia, excluding importing. Obviously, it's a lot cheaper, but seeing as the PSN game relies heavily on downloading extra content, there is potentially a greater cost involved to get a respectable setlist. So, if you're looking at the reduced song version of Rock Band Unplugged, go ahead and turn that 8.5 into a 7.