Rock is dead, they say.
At least it's felt that way to fans of Harmonix Music Systems' "Rock Band," the series that made jamming with fake instruments an essential part of video-game culture in the early 2000s. Those plastic guitars have been gathering dust since "Rock Band 3" came out five years ago.
Happily, Harmonix has decided it's time to get the old band back together. And, unlike most reunion tours, "Rock Band 4" (for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One) arrives with all its predecessors' youthful energy intact. It's the best party game around, turning your living room into a raucous nightclub.
The winning formula remains intact: Colored notes stream down the screen, and you press matching buttons on the guitar-shaped controller. Likewise, drummers have colored drum pads to strike, and singers need to match onscreen notes.
It's all simple enough that just about anyone with even the slightest sense of rhythm can join in. And this version's major addition, freestyle solos, gives you the freedom to really cut loose and unleash whatever notes you like.
Newcomers to the stage will want to invest in the $250 "Band-in-a-Box" bundle, which includes a guitar, drum kit and microphone. Solo acts can purchase the game and a guitar for $130. Grizzled veterans of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions can polish up their old gear and just buy the software, which costs $60 for the PS4 and $80 for the Xbox One. (The latter is more expensive because it comes with a required adapter for the old instruments.)
If you're a "Rock Band" old-timer like me, you've probably spent hundreds of dollars on downloadable songs. The good news is that Harmonix has upgraded a huge chunk of its library — some 1,500 tunes — and you can download previously purchased tracks for free. All kinds of great music are here, including dozens of classics from the likes of David Bowie, The Who and The Clash.
It's fortunate that so many downloadable hits are available, because the 60-plus songs on the "Rock Band 4" disc itself represent the weakest lineup Harmonix has ever fielded. In a nod to what currently passes for "alternative" rock, you get vapid inspirational anthems from Fall Out Boy, Imagine Dragons and Grouplove. A few '90s acts you hoped you'd never hear again, like Spin Doctors and Live, rear their ugly heads.
However, there's still room for reliable "Rock Band" stalwarts like Foo Fighters, Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age. Some arena rock staples, like Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" and Van Halen's "Panama," make their "Rock Band" debuts. And you get a few invigorating blasts of weirdness from art-rock goddess St. Vincent and Rhode Island noisemakers Lightning Bolt.
There's even a nifty slice of power pop from The Warning, a trio of three Mexican sisters, none older than 17. Long live rock. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.