Harmonix — and, by extension, developers Backbone — had a difficult balancing act to achieve in creating Unplugged, their downsized PlayStation Portable exclusive version of Rock Band.
For the newcomers that have only found the studio’s output only via its most recent games, they had to carefully re-dress the experience of their foundational Amplitude and Frequency games in Rock Band‘s rock/gothic/punk clothes, and had to ensure that that re-dress didn’t also alienate the long-time supporters — the ones, you could say, who were there for the early dive-bar gigs and bought the hand-screened, car-trunk T-shirts.
As a card carrying member of the latter category, then, I can say with some happy surprise that they’ve succeeded with at least that much: though its four-lane compression (corresponding to Rock Band‘s traditional bass/drums/vox/guitar breakdown) might be the next step down from Freq‘s eight to Amp‘s six, returning to that twitchy lane-switching familiarity was entirely welcome after the nearly six year interim since Amp first hit the shelves.
How it feels for the newcomers, though, is harder to gauge, and if you are one of them, a quick breakdown on how this all translates: unlike traditional Rock Band‘s unbroken tracks, instrument lanes in Unplugged are broken into ‘phrases’ that, if played accurately, allow that instrument to continue automatically for a few phrases more, giving you time to switch to a different instrument and continue the chain, the reward (apart from your score) being getting all four lanes — and the song itself — to play at once.
It’s somewhat the rhythm equivalent, then, of plate-spinning, a constant tension of weaving your way back and forth through its instruments to keep the song alive, with your ultimate goal to weave it in an unbroken pattern — that is, picking up the drum phrase as soon as you’ve left the bass phase.
In this sense, then, it’s a far more technical game than Rock Band proper, and — and this is the true kicker — quite obviously by its very nature a less social one. At this point, rhythm games have trained us that their point is the performance, and the synchronicity with other players, and the most damning thing you can level at Unplugged is that it’s entirely lacking in show-off-ery.
That’s something that follows, too, with the fact that while it contains most all of the band-customizing capabilities of its big brother, it unfortunately lacks any online functionality beyond connecting to the Rock Band store to purchase new tracks — something that, again, stings most because Harmonix has spoiled us with its console counterpart.
But for those willing to make the transition from band to solo artist, it performs brilliantly at fulfilling Harmonix’s long-time company charter — giving you that rhapsodic experience, in whatever limited capacity, of making music with nothing more than a series of finger-twitches, and continues to be (especially with the months-on new additions of downloadable tracks) the absolute best reason to keep your PSP charged in 2009.