After a long, long wait, BandFuse: Rock Legends, the newest music game on the market, is finally released. First announced in early 2012, the game was initially supposed to be a competitor to the original Rocksmith, but with a more diverse set of features- multi-track recordings that faded as the difficulty increased, a recording studio, bass guitar support, real vocals, and a triple-A set of tracks that people were genuinely excited to see, as well as the game’s biggest differentiator- two-dimensional tablature. This was a feature people wanted out of Rocksmith and simply were not going to get.
But time went on; the recording studio feature quietly vanished; Rocksmith added its own bass guitar functionality; a good chunk of the tracks were released as DLC for Rocksmith; some tracks announced for the game vanished completely; and finally, perhaps most importantly, the minor issue that is Rocksmith 2014 was both announced and released before BandFuse could come out. And yet here we are, with two music games attempting to teach its players how to play guitar. How does it stack up- as a game, a teacher, and against its closest competition?
Learning From Legends
Unlike the Rocksmith franchise, BandFuse hinges one of its many bets on the inclusion of such rock legends as Bootsy Collins, Slash, Mike Ness, and more. It’s really great to see these musicians in these kind of games (welcome back to the music game scene, Slash!), and their included tracks are great, but there’s a fundamental issue- I never once felt like I was learning anything from them. For example, take the pinch harmonics video lessons- we have videos from Zakk Wylde and Alexi Laiho. Zakk’s videos never once feel like they’re teaching, only like he’s showing off his ability to quickly play pinch harmonics. Alexi’s video is a lesson, but it’s not a good one. He fumbles through the lesson, attempting to explain pinch harmonics, but I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to get me to do. Having a beginner come into this and attempt to learn everything from the game is going to be a fruitless endeavour if someone who’s played for two years can’t even understand what the lessons are trying to convey.
The lessons are not completely taught via video, however- there are several interactive lessons that can be found in the Lick Lab. There are multiple different pinch harmonic practice tracks here, for example, starting from a basic one where the player will play a pinch harmonic on the fifth fret, to full pinch harmonic chords. So there is a great variety of playable lesson tracks- even more than Rocksmith 2014- and yet there’s this slight disconnect; if the player can’t really figure out how to play the track from these legends, how are they supposed to approach the practicable material?
Practice Makes Perfect
The Lick Lab itself is a nice feature that, in a bad way, reminds me of Rock Band 3 (more on that later). In the Lick Lab, players can practice the most recognizable parts of a song. For example, in “You Oughta Know”, players will learn the “reverby” single-note riff. The Lick Lab allows players to select a speed to begin at- N4N (note for note- the game will not advance the note track until you play the correct note), 60% speed, 75% speed, 90%, 100%, 110% (which is very useful- when slowing back down to 100% speed, the song seems easier and you’re more prepared to deal with a flurry of notes). The game will then advance you to the next speed level, or have you play the riff five times at 100% speed. Not only does this ensure that you have the riff down, it also pushes you to go faster and do well enough so that you can advance to the next speed level.
Unfortunately for the Lick Lab, there are several problems. The first problem, the one players will notice instantly, is that even though the game knows what instrument you are playing, it will still provide two versions of each song in the song select menu- guitar and bass. So now while we originally had a fairly clutter-free “block” interface, we now have two copies of every song. But that’s not the worst of it- the playable lessons are also in here, so we have an interface filled with lessons and multiple copies of songs. So getting where you want to go is a fairly drawn-out process. No, it’s nowhere near the atrociousness of the menu system of the first DJ Hero game, or even the first Rocksmith with a ton of DLC, but it definitely needs to be cleaned up.
The second issue I have with the Lick Lab is that it doesn’t cover all of the bases of a song. Like I noted above, this is similar to how Rock Band 3 worked- you could train a song, or practice a song. Training a song worked similarly to how the Lick Lab works now- the familiar parts of a song; practicing meant you could select any part of a song and practice it. But while Rock Band 3 allowed you to practice or train- even from the Quickplay menu, at the touch of a button- BandFuse makes you back out to Shred U, go into practice mode, find your song again (as it doesn’t remember your position in the playlist from Quickplay or Lick Lab), and you’re ready. Notably, Practice mode doesn’t allow you to select guitar or bass, as I would expect.
In Practice mode, we have the same option set as in Lick Lab, but you can pick any part of a song to go to, and it won’t bump you up in speed if you’re doing well enough. The speed can also be set to any speed between 60 and 110 percent speed. So, say we were again practicing “You Oughta Know”- now, in practice mode, we could actually learn the chorus. Practice mode is the best way to encompass the whole song, but the issue I have with it is the same issue I had with Rock Band 3- it’s not satisfying to come out of the Lick Lab and play a song, then discover there’s slight variations later on that ruin the playing experience and require grinding practice mode. Yes, I’m looking at you, “Drive”. (And yeah, if you want to get good at a song, you practice it- but there’s something to be said about quickly learning a song well enough for it to sound good at important parts, which is what the Lick Lab offers.)
This is, of course, in contrast to Rocksmith 2014, where, with the tap of a single button, you have access to a fully featured Riff Repeater that will do whatever you want it to, at any speed. It’s there that this practice mode/Lick Lab combination falls completely flat in comparison. Sure, practicing in the middle of a song in BandFuse would have technically come off as cheating- the game is scored and you’re going on the leaderboards, after all- but I don’t play these games for score, I play them to get better, as I’m sure a lot of people do, and an instantaneous practice mode would help with that tremendously.
Taking (Watching) Lessons
Next up is the Lessons that the game offers. Again, these are taught by the rock legends in the game, from the very basics of holding the guitar, to such extremes as sweep-picking. Which is cool and all, but the problem is when you go look at the sets of lessons- take, for example, the Medium guitar lessons. It’s just video, after video, after video, after video, with one or two playable tracks, and then at the very end, it suggests backing tracks. But some of these videos are kind of nonsensically placed- why, for example, is it important to have a medium-level player, one or two notches above a beginner, to already be watching videos about songwriting, when they just need to be working on their playing? I don’t mind the videos being in the game, but wouldn’t that fall under a more “Bonus” type of section?
There’s lots of content as far as the guitar lessons go, but the bass is sparse and the vocals is in dire need of content. The bass has only one legend- Bootsy Collins- and even then, there’s not much content to go off of. Vocals is even worse off, with no legends, and the included videos just explaining the interface.
Put it on My Tab
Speaking of the interface, it’s both better and worse than many assumed it was going to be. It’s incredibly difficult to sightread past a certain point. “All the Small Things” by Blink-182? Yeah, that’s cake. “Devour” by Shinedown? Probably my limit. Certainly, it’s easier to sightread on lower difficulties, as there’s a slower scrolling speed and less notes, but on the hardest difficulty, sight-reading can get pretty tough.
Sightread woes can be alleviated by Pressing A (or X on PS3) at anytime to freeze the chart completely for maximum readability. This is a feature that many have asked of Rocksmith 2014 in addition to more in-depth finger placement suggestions. Pressing Y (or Triangle on PS3) will bring up a useful chart of what finger represents what color, as well as the different types of notes available- handy if you’re a newcomer or just trying to master the interface. My only complaint about this is that it covers the note track- so if you want to see what notes are on the screen and match them to the chart, you’ll have to go back and forth between views.
One of BandFuse’s best features comes from the specialized tab colouring. In Rock Band 3’s PRO mode and Rocksmith, each string is denoted by a colour. Not so in BandFuse- strings can have multiple colours at once, and these colours denote what finger you should be using to play the note. The colouring follows traditional Guitar Hero and Rock Band colours- your first finger is green, second red, third yellow, blue pinky, and, when you work up to it, orange is your thumb. This is an incredibly neat system that works tremendously well- no more of doing what you think is best, now you know what the best way to play it is. It makes going into Lick Lab and practice mode all the more helpful.
The vocals interface and engine is spectacular as well- both were lifted with permission and help from Harmonix, the developers of Rock Band. Coming from that game to this one is easy- the differences are minor. The notes are now yellow, and you know thanks to a small scrolling track what note to sing (A, Ab4, etc.), which is something useful for trained singers. You are also able to sing in the right octave as well- though you are not penalized if you don’t. These features, if combined with a strong setlist and improved focus on vocals in the future, could certainly make BandFuse the vocals and karaoke music game of choice for former Rock Band and Guitar Hero devotees.
The rest of the visuals in the game are sparse- there’s a small star counter, a score counter, a multiplier meter (that goes up to 99x!), and, of course, the background music videos. The music videos look nice, though I never really notice them (and I have to wonder what kind of a size effect they’ll have on DLC). The game also runs without a hitch at 60 FPS, a prime necessity for the music game genre.
Audio-wise, the game sounds good, and it’s at its finest when the game “ducks” you, or removes the backing track. I knew the feature was active but I never noticed it until I hit a part I was confused at and stopped- then I realized that what I had been hearing the whole song was just me. This is undeniably one of the best parts of BandFuse and a shining example of how you can make the person playing your game feel excellent. The only issue I have is the extremely limited selection of pedals and amplifiers- they all sound good, but there’s not much variety, so don’t expect to hear a great-sounding “Knights of Cydonia”, for example, if that were to ever come around. Hopefully more pedals and amps can be added as DLC, but I’m not holding my breath- the original Rocksmith had a pack like this and we never saw another, nor are we likely to in that franchise.
Take This Show On The Road
BandFuse, instead of having a “Recommends” feature like the original Rocksmith, or “Missions”, like Rocksmith 2014, instead opts for a straight Tour mode that feels like the most useless Tour Mode since the glory days of PS2/Wii Rock Band 1. Sure, we have a plethora of “tours” available, where you can earn money or fans, but what’s the point? All the songs are already unlocked, you’re seeing the same music videos over and over, and you never feel like you’re in a tour or a band. It just doesn’t fit the game. Tour modes have always had purposes that affected the games outside of that mode- more venues, costumes, guitars, etc.- and in BandFuse there’s none. There’s just no reason to go through it.
Backing tracks are also available for players to play through, and there’s a really nice variety of tracks- enough to where it makes the competition of Session Mode in RS2014 sting slightly less. I feel like these backing tracks are a really good way of honing your skills within specific scale sets and keys, while Session Mode would be the way to learn those scales and keys; that being said, without access to Rocksmith 2014, playing these backing tracks might end up being just guesswork as to what to play and where.
The biggest concern I have with BandFuse, however, is the difficulty system. I need to make this clear to all beginners and intermediates: unlike every Guitar Hero game, unlike every Rock Band game, unlike Rock Revolution, Power Gig, Rocksmith, or Rocksmith 2014, if you aren’t on the hardest difficulty, you don’t get to play the solos. I’m not sure how hard I have to drive this point home, but I have to make sure that anyone going into this game knows that. The reasoning is sound, sure- they didn’t want to dumb down the solos to where it might confuse players, whereas rhythm can be dumbed down easily- but I think back to when I was learning guitar and I just can’t see anything but frustration happening. Is it a goal to work towards? Yeah. Is it one that’s just not going to go over well for a majority of people, when Rocksmith has proven it’s the way to go? Probably. If there’s one upside, it’s that the lower difficulties gradually ramp up as the song goes on. No, there’s no dynamic difficulty, but it does push you to play more notes, or some chords, as the song goes on. The difficulties, like Rock Band 3, have a decent-sized gap between them, so jumping from Easy to Medium, etc., could be tough depending on the song.
It’s The Best, Around
“Finally, it has to be said that the note recognition in BandFuse is flawless.”
Two other nice features BandFuse offers are the ability to record your performances and the ability to play multiplayer with USB microphones. The former is great- Rocksmith played back your performance but you couldn’t record it, and 2014 did away with this altogether. Recording yourself, then coming back in even a month and listening to how you’re improved, is a great way to provide motivation in improving yourself. The latter is even better- you can “mic up” your guitar by putting a USB microphone in front of an amplifier and play that way, allowing you to try out multiplayer without purchasing additional cables or the band pack (though I’ve found this causes bad feedback on songs that use a lot of distortion). It’s a neat feature that works well, and to be honest, I’m kind of surprised to see it- though I’m glad it’s here. The hardware itself is also more replaceable than Rocksmith- while Rocksmith uses a breakaway and full cable that’s only replaceable by buying a new cable if it goes faulty, if your BandFuse cable fails, it can be replaced by any existing instrument cable and a ¼” to 1/8” cable adapter, meaning replacement is both cheap and easy. The only reason you would ever have to replace your BandFuse cable is if the USB connector failed, making life for you, the player, easy. An additional piece of hardware comes with the Xbox 360 version of the game, a “breakout box” that allows users to directly hook up analog speakers or headphones directly to their console. It also includes a headphone extension cable, so you can use any standard pair of headphones (from iPod headphones to Beats) with the box and game, making maintaining audio latency cheap and easy.
Finally, it has to be said that the note recognition in BandFuse is flawless. In almost two weeks of playing the game, I have never once played a note or chord and the game marked it as missed when it shouldn’t have been. Sporadically, I think I’ve hit notes I shouldn’t have, but I’ve never missed a note I shouldn’t have. In a game where analyzing your input properly is of utmost importance, the game performs admirably- in my opinion, head and shoulders above Rocksmith 2014, which still misses some notes for me.
Overall, “BandFuse” is a good game that has the potential to be great, even excellent. As a platform, it’s going to be slow to build, though we have major artists such as Yes, Hendrix, Boston, and more coming in January. The problem is, however, that BandFuse is a game of “but”s. The setlist is great- fantastic, even- but there’s a lot of it we’ve seen on Rocksmith. The practice mode and Lick Lab are functional and work, but Rocksmith just has the better option. DLC is coming, but Rocksmith has more and it’s only improving. There’s great vocal capabilities, but no lessons to back it up. There’s a lot of lessons, but they don’t really do all that much. There’s a tour mode, but it’s practically worthless. The 2D tablature and finger colouring is excellent, but it’s tough to sightread, unlike its three-dimensional cousin.
I’ll wholeheartedly recommend BandFuse, but not as the number one way, or even the only way, to learn. As it stands, the game is a good complement to existing teaching methods, but it doesn’t aspire to be any greater than that right now.
BandFuse: Rock Legends was reviewed on the Xbox 360 console prior to December 1st, 2013.
Available now for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
North American Release: November 19th, 2013
Europe Date: TBA