After topping the charts with two hit console releases, Harmonix is looking to switch things up with Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP. Yes, you heard right: a Rock Band game without the plastic instruments. As unlikely as it may sound, the concept actually works pretty well in practice...just not without some choice cuts made along the way.
Though it proudly wears the Rock Band name on its sleeve, Unplugged actually plays more like Harmonix's earlier titles Frequency and Amplitude. The focus here isn't on playing with different instruments, but on switching between them, tasking you with carrying out your act as a one man band. Notes are mapped to the PSP's face buttons and d-pad, which can be freely reassigned based on your preferences. It's all very different from what you're accustomed to in Rock Band, but there's a familiar framework tying it all together.
World tour mode headlines Unplugged's feature list, where you can assemble your own homegrown band to take on gigs in the game's far-flung venues. It's a close facsimile of what you'd see in its console counterpart, though it's still a little easy to spot where customization options are lacking.
Song progression is also more or less the same. Your goal is to score stars and rack up fans in order to move on to the next gig. There are a fair number of songs to explore in the 40-plus track list, mostly a back catalog of previous Rock Band hits. Nine of the songs are exclusive to Unplugged for the time being, but expect to see them come out as DLC on the consoles soon.
With its unique emphasis on shifting note tracks, Unplugged demands a certain style of play. Luckily, the game gives you some options to tailor the experience to your liking. If you're still getting your feet wet, you can focus on playing a single track in warm up mode. If you're up to it, bigger challenges await in band survival mode. You can also unlock the complete song library from the get-go, and just like in the console version, you can activate no-fail mode if you want to jam stress-free.
In addition, Unplugged touts its own in-game music store capable of adding DLC tracks to the existing song list. For a handheld music game, this shows a surprising amount of follow-through, but without any sort of cross-connectivity to the PS3 platform, it becomes difficult to rationalize its practicality.
Beyond the option of connecting online to download songs, there isn't any multiplayer functionality to speak of--a central aspect of the series that feels glaringly absent in Unplugged. It's a perplexing and potentially deal-breaking omission, but otherwise, the game hews close to what you've come expect from Rock Band. Its features are fully fleshed and tidily supported, and for all intents and purposes, Unplugged is still very much a Rock Band game.
So how exactly do you boil down the Rock Band experience into something that can fit in the palm of your hand? Unplugged's approach condenses vocals, drums, bass, and guitars into parallel note tracks that you can switch between using the shoulder buttons. After hitting all of the notes perfectly in a musical phrase, the game momentarily takes over for a short period of time, allowing you to play catch up on the other instruments.
The idea of switching between instrument tracks is new to the series, and it introduces an interesting juggle dynamic that keeps you on your toes. Each instrument follows its own unique note phrasing, making the process of switching between them almost like dropping a needle onto a vinyl record in motion. Things get really challenging when you're aiming for high score streaks with overdrives and band grooves, but it never manages to feel cheap.
It may sound crazy to play a Rock Band game without peripherals, but mechanically speaking, Unplugged makes it all work. There's indeed a method to the madness, and in some ways the challenges set before you here are some of the most intense in the series to date. If you're looking for a real fight on a handheld, you shouldn't dismiss Unplugged so easily.
It won't exactly wow you with its visuals, but Rock Band Unplugged enjoys a good measure of visual parity with its console cousins. Much of its cartoony charm remains, albeit on a smaller, squint-inducing scale. The instruments' note tracks also make good use of the PSP's screen real estate, making it easy to read oncoming note strings.
Unplugged's suite of licensed music is also strong, with master recordings for all of the songs available in the game. Each of the instruments sounds clearly distinct, though for the full effect, you should play the game with headphones on. The PSP's speakers don't do it justice.
Within Unplugged's clever title lies an unmistakable truth: it really is Rock Band without the instruments. But though it succeeds at capturing the series' core gameplay, the experience is largely a lonely one, something that runs counter to the jam session vibe established by its predecessors. If you like the idea of taking your act on the road, then you'll find that the game does the job right. A few parts short of a harmony, perhaps, but still perfectly capable of making beautiful music.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation Portable.