Update: New Images
Just about everyone agrees that Rock Band is an awesome video game, but with its mass of plastic instruments, you just can’t play it while you’re waiting for a bus. Luckily, Harmonix has solved that problem with Rock Band Unplugged for the PlayStation Portable. This handheld version of the blockbuster music game wisely doesn’t try to replicate the Rock Band experience. Instead it goes for a different kind of gameplay. Where Rock Band is extensive and social, Unplugged is intensive. Different or not, judging from my time playing it, Rock Band Unplugged works really well.
I’ll start with the similarities: All the trappings of Rock Band are back in the handheld version. You design your rockers, name your band, go on tour, earn money to buy new clothes and instruments and play shows, gradually unlocking the game's 24 venues and 41 songs as you tour the planet. But while the “filler” material is nearly identical to Rock Band, that’s where the similarity ends. Unplugged’s gameplay is very different than the console version's. Where full-scale Rock Band tries to replicate the experience of playing in a band, Unplugged is a more abstract game. It’s more about beat-matching than feeling like you're really playing an instrument and rocking out.
There is no separate peripheral for the game: You are the peripheral, and you play by hitting the PSP’s buttons in time to the game’s music tracks. But in order to keep the “Band” part of the Rock Band brand name, Unplugged presents players with four musical tracks (Guitar, Bass, Drums and Vocals) running simultaneously and allows you to switch between them during the song, based on accuracy. So if you nail the bass line to The Jackson 5’s “ABC,” during the verse, you'll be prompted to switch over to the guitar line and play those notes during the chorus. When you switch (and whether you have to) depends on the mode you’re playing on.
At its most basic, Rock Band Unplugged allows you to play in “Warm Up” mode and play a single instrument through a song. In Quick Play and World Tour modes, you use the shoulder buttons to switch from track to track. I’ve played a lot of Rock Band, and while it’s definitely a different experience, getting a handle on Unplugged’s controls is fairly easy. I spent maybe half a song getting the hang of the game, but after that, it feels pretty intuitive. You could even say it's easier, in that there are four buttons, not five, so no stretching your finger to get that annoying orange note! The game is similar to Amplitude and Frequency two Harmonix-made PS2 games that involved button matching four different tracks of music. So if you dug Amp and Freq (and most people did) you’ll like Rock Band Unplugged.
The controls are split-second and responsive. No problem there. Switching from track to track with the PSP’s shoulder buttons is smooth and makes perfect sense—like most good video game concepts, Unplugged’s mechanics are instantly understandable. You maintain streaks by switching from instrument to instrument. Build up star power with accurate note runs, and turn it on with a button push. Overall, it’s a simple, really fun game with great music, and you could see how perfecting your play would be very addictive. But if you’re expecting the kind of social fun of Rock Band and Rock Band 2, you’re not going to get it here: There is no multiplayer.
Band Survival Mode is the hardcore (or masochistic) way to play Unplugged. In it, all four tracks are playing at once, and you have to keep everyone in “the band” alive by switching from track to track. Imagine running from the drumkit to the guitar to the mic in Rock Band all the while keeping track of your dropping failure meter and trying desperately to keep everyone from being booed off stage. It’s frantic and awesome, and definitely a challenge. I failed out of Medium on a low-tiered song. I can't even imagine the complexity of trying this on Expert with a Freezepop tune.
Rock Band Unplugged will feature a full, in-game store to purchase new tracks. Ten will be available at launch on June 9th. Not that you’ll need them too quickly: The game comes packaged with 41 tunes, which should be more than enough to keep you rocking for a long time. Below are the currently announced tracks. Those marked with an asterisk are exclusive to Rock Band Unplugged for a time, but will eventually be available for download on Rock Band and Rock Band 2.
Jackson 5 - "ABC" *
AFI - "Miss Murder" *
Audioslave - "Gasoline" *
Black Tide - "Show Me the Way" *
Freezepop - "Less Talk More Rokk" *
Tenacious D - "Rock Your Socks" *
3 Doors Down - "Kryptonite" *
Alice in Chains - "Would?" *
Blink 182 - "What's My Age Again" *
The Killers - "Mr. Brightside"
Queens of the Stone Age - "3's and 7's"
System of a Down - "Chop Suey!"
Judas Priest - "Painkiller"
Nine Inch Nails - "The Perfect Drug"
Nirvana - "Drain You"
Weezer - "Buddy Holly"
Bon Jovi - "Livin' on a Prayer"
The Police - "Message in a Bottle"
Kansas - "Carry on Wayward Son”
The Who - "Pinball Wizard"
The game is scheduled to be released in North America and Europe on June 9, 2009.