Rock Band Rivals: The Rundown

As a massive fan of rhythm games, the Rock Band series holds a special place in my heart. It devoured most of my free time in both high school and college, and I still bust out the recent Rock Band 4 at least once a week. Therefore, when I was offered the chance to talk to Harmonix about the upcoming Rock Band Rivals expansion, I jumped on it.

I sat down with Harmonix PR Lead Dan Walsh and Rock Band Creative Lead Ryan Lesser at PAX West for a walkthrough and demo of one of the major modes in the upcoming expansion, eponymously entitled Rivals Mode. This mode introduces an asynchronous online multiplayer mode to the base Rock Band 4.

In the new Rivals Mode, you can create a “crew” of up to ten friends online (or you can go solo if you really want to). Each week, Harmonix will create challenges for crews to compete against each other in.

Two different challenges will be offered each week. The first is a themed challenge, with the given example being a “Love Song” theme, where the goal is to complete songs in your library that relate to the theme. Every member of your crew that completes fitting songs (which are marked in your library when playing in this mode) will contribute to your crew’s overall XP total. Walsh and Lesser mentioned that Harmonix worked hard on balancing this mode so that each member of a crew’s contributions help the crew as a whole equaly, regardless of instrument or difficulty played.

The second challenge involves completing specific songs, rotated weekly, and is aimed more toward high-score focused players and those that wish to compete within their own crew. When a member of a crew completes a song in this challenge, their score is saved to a grid that keeps track of each instrument’s top score in each song. This grid also lists the name and profile picture of which crew member earned the score. Should another member best this saved score, their score and profile will overwrite the previous one. To use a word Lesser hesitated to use, this mode allows a bit of “infighting” within a crew while still earning them some XP.

The XP a crew accumulates from these challenges goes toward moving them up or down a global ranking ladder. The ladder will have six tiers, ranging from “Bronze” to “Bloodstone,” upon which crews will move around weekly. Depending on the XP a crew earns each week, they can either be set to move up a rank, stay in a safe zone to keep their rank, or not earn enough and end up losing a rank. Lesser mentioned that the top rank, “Bloodstone,” is set to be a difficult achievement, as Harmonix only expects about 0.3% of crews to attain it.

After the feature rundown, and a chance to show off my drumming skills on “Cherub Rock” by The Smashing Pumpkins, Walsh pulled out his phone to show me another aspect of the Rivals expansion: a companion mobile app.

The app allows access to the same crew detail rundown that can be seen in-game (current ranking, scores from each crew member, management tools for the crew leader, etc) along with a chat system to talk to your crew members. While the game itself does implement a chat system as well, it is a basic one that consists of sending pre-set phrases to each other. Within the companion app, though, full chat is possible. The companion app is set to launch alongside Rivals for both iOS and Android.

Walsh and Lesser both ran through some smaller changes to the base game as well, including an achievement medal system for completing certain tasks in Rivals Mode, and more detailed song library filters. They both put focus on how you can now rate songs in your library from one to five stars, and then sort your library by song rating.

One thing that nearly went unmentioned that I had to ask about was the new instruments being released alongside Rivals. I found it interesting that Harmonix was releasing a whole new set of instruments alongside a simple expansion pack, so I asked Walsh and Lesser what the impetus was to create new peripherals.

Walsh explained how, after Harmonix and Mad Catz (the creators of the instruments bundled with Rock Band 4) parted ways, the company PDP approached them about desigining new instruments. PDP, known for their Afterglow and Rockcandy peripheral brands, worked with Harmonix to create new instruments to fix the issues the original Mad Catz ones had.

Along with offering an upgraded microphone and a drum kit with modified firmware and an adjusted bass pedal, PDP designed a brand new guitar based on the Fender Jaguar. The new gimmick of the guitar is that it can fold in half at the base of the neck for transport, and Walsh made point to mention that thanks to this guitar, Rivals will be the first mainline Rock Band release to not launch with a Stratocaster-styled peripheral.

Looking beyond the Rivals launch, I asked both Harmonix members about the plans for the future of the Rock Band franchise. While neither Walsh nor Lesser could mention any specifics, they did say that Harmonix plans to continue to support Rock Band 4 as a platform, rather than just creating new iterative titles. The company plans to have an active hand in the Rivals expansions, changing and updating modes through player feedback.

Lesser also mentioned that teams at Harmonix are already working on future expansions to the base title for 2017, and that the company is planning to launch a more traditional synchronous online multiplayer mode this December.

Rivals is set for release on October 18th, 2016, for both XBox One and PS4. The game will be offered both in a full-priced bundle with Rock Band 4 and as a $30 expansion for those that already own the base game. Harmonix is also currently offering free DLC tracks to those who preorder, although Walsh confirmed that these tracks will also be eventually made available for purchase for those who don’t preorder.