Every massive band has a story to tell about how they climbed the ladder of fame on their way to becoming one of the biggest groups on the planet. With Rock Band Rivals, the first premium expansion for Rock Band 4, Harmonix gives your band its own harrowing tale through a mock documentary called Beneath the Tuneage. The expansion also brings enhanced stat-tracking, a new menu layout, and the new Rivals mode that brings you together with a Crew of other players to complete objectives.

The new Rockudrama career mode has you play through 10 three-song shows over the course of your band's career. As with other modes, Rivals' Rockudrama mode pulls from your entire library, including Rock Band 4 disc songs, previous games' exports, and, of course, the series' robust DLC library. Each show represents a different milestone for your band.

From your band's first show at an arcade in front of a crowd of one to a performance on a cruise ship that ends in disaster, you experience the humorous ups and downs of being in a fake rock band. Between each song, the narrator dynamically reacts to how the band performed, even highlighting the top performer of each track. Based on how well you do, you earn fame for your band, which contributes to unlocking the next stage of the career mode.

Going into certain songs and sets, you can even wager how many stars you'll earn or play under more difficult circumstances, like activating the extremely tough Brutal mode that makes your notes invisible shortly after they appear on the highway, or playing a random song instead of choosing your own. Participating in these side wagers can boost or stunt the fame you gain from the performance.

This Rockudrama is delivered in the style of shows like VH1's Behind the Music; the presentation flips between showing off your band in action and having live-action talking heads. The footage is interlaced in a way that feels like an actual documentary, and it cuts back and forth between real people talking and footage of your in-game band without feeling jarring.

The New Tools Of The Trade

Alongside the launch of Rivals, Harmonix and new partner PDP are releasing a new guitar. Ditching the Fender Stratocaster body style that has been around since the inception of Rock Band in 2007, PDP has opted to model its guitar controllers after another Fender staple: the Jaguar. The new wireless Jaguar guitar controller retains many of the positive qualities of the Rock Band 4 Strat controllers put out by Mad Catz, but new additions make it the best guitar controller yet. A firm, durable strumbar and sturdy construction are just the beginning, as the Jaguar is also the most portable guitar controller yet. For gigs on the road, you can fold the guitar in half to make it fit easily into bags or suitcases, and the fact that the neck is hardwired into the body of the guitar helps prevent those annoying shorts that many die-hard Guitar Hero or Rock Band players have experienced over the years.

If you're a drummer or vocalist, the Rivals full band kit also includes the latest versions of the wireless drum kit and wired microphone, but neither give any substantial improvements to the already strong versions that launched alongside Rock Band 4. Since the full band kit comes with the Jaguar guitar, the newest drum kit, a wired microphone, Rock Band 4, and a download code for Rock Band Rivals, it's the best way to jump into the experience if you've yet to pick up Rock Band 4, or you have older instruments in dire need of upgrading.

As you watch the narrative portions of the Rockudrama, you hear several funny stories from former teachers, other bands, and even your group's poor merch boy. This Rockudrama wouldn't work if it attempted to tell a serious story. Luckily, Harmonix knew this, and both the narrative and actors remain tongue in cheek throughout the entire mode. The humor can be a little hit or miss, but regardless it is an entertaining tale to play through.

The initial release of Rock Band 4 was criticized for lacking multiple mainstay modes while clinging to things that had worked in the past perhaps a little too much. With Rockudrama, the Rock Band 4 experience has a more unique career mode that feels like something new. Unfortunately, the mode isn't nearly as substantial as the base Go on Tour career mode that shipped with Rock Band 4. While the base career mode required you to play hundreds of songs to get to the top, Rockudrama has you play through significantly fewer songs, and unless you fail to reach the goal needed to unlock the next stage, you can't replay shows you've already completed.

As I finished the final show, I saw that I missed the best ending target by 100 fame points. I figured I would simply go back and replay a show I didn't do so well on to unlock the good ending, but to do so I would have to replay the entire campaign. I wish there was some way to replay individual shows, but Rockudrama is set up like an arcade mode, even tracking your high score for each band.

Outside of the new career mode, the Rivals expansion adds its eponymous mode. In Rivals mode, you create or join a Crew of up to 10 people to complete challenges. The challenges track across all modes that you can play on Rock Band 4, bringing more meaning to the songs you play whether in a career mode or quickplay. Each time you play a song within the parameters of the challenge, you earn points for your Crew. If your Crew gets enough points on a challenge, you can bump your team of players up to a new tier to challenge more competitive Crews.

The challenges aren't meant to require you to play any particular instrument, difficulty, or skill level, meaning that all kinds of players can contribute to a Crew's progress. One of the challenges leading up to launch was to play songs with the word "love" in the title, so while there were spotlight songs that awarded bonus points like The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" and The Outfield's "Your Love," I was still able to earn points through playing other songs that fit the criteria like Stone Temple Pilots' "Interstate Love Song" and The Stone Roses' "Love Spreads." In addition, you get points for each instrument you play it on, so I could play each on guitar, then switch to drums, vocals, and bass to even further help my Crew.

It's a mostly passive mode, but I really enjoy the communal angle it takes. A group I joined up with already set up a group chat through a third-party app, complete with spreadsheets of which member prefers what instrument. If you don't want to get that involved, the tracking within the Rivals mode UI is enough to keep all members engaged.

In addition to tracking stats within your Crew, Harmonix also added a more robust stat-tracking system for individual players. Included in this is how many songs you own, how many gold stars you've accumulated, and a new leveling system that you can raise just by playing songs.

Of course, one of the major reasons for Rock Band 4 owners to upgrade to Rivals isn't out yet. Synchronous online play was sorely missed from the base game when it launched last year, but Harmonix is hoping to remedy that with a December release for its new online suite. With the new Rivals objectives, getting together with your Crew and playing songs together to earn points could prove to be the shot in the arm the community has been looking for since the game's initial release, but with it scheduled to release 14 months after Rock Band 4's initial launch, it's also possible that the ship has sailed. When they launch, the new online options will only be available for those who own Rivals, so that alone might be enough to incentivize hardcore fans to pick up the new expansion.

Rock Band Rivals is a strong expansion that delivers on what it promises to do. The Rockudrama mode is a fun, light campaign that lets you experience your library in new ways, while Rivals mode gives you more encouragement to play the songs in your library. If the online offerings deliver the experience fans have been clamoring for, Rivals could prove to be a must-have add-on for the enthusiastic Rock Band community. As it stands, if you've been looking for fun new reasons to jump back into the virtual shoes of your fake rock group, Rivals gives you just that.

 

For a better look at the stat tracking and how Crews are stacked against one another, check out the screens below.