Is Rock Band back? Well, kinda, maybe, eventually. Epic Games revealed the new Fortnite experience Fortnite Festival, a new update that lets players take their persona out of the battle royale and stuff a guitar or pair of drumsticks in their hands in rhythm game action familiar to any old Guitar Hero fans.
Just like the recently announced Lego Fortnite survival crafting game and arcade racer Rocket Racing created by Rocket League developers Psyonix, Festival is an experience found within Fortnite itself. A game within a game, if you will. The long-awaited return of Harmonix’s old-school rhythm game may not be exactly what old Guitar Hero players may have been hoping for but don’t go trying to sell your old Rock Band instruments just yet.
The developers told Gizmodo they share players’ hopes that one day we’ll all break out the plastic guitars, drums, and mics and once again share in the collective daydream of rocking out live together.
Unlike Rock Band, which restricted players to various instruments and roles, nobody’s kept from playing their favorite part in Fortnite Festival. Gizmodo jammed out to a few of the 15 or so tracks available at launch, and what becomes immediately clear is the controls and layout remain the same no matter which instrument you play. Players use four keys to play their parts if they’re on a keyboard and mouse, controller, or mobile.
Save for a few early “experiments” of a mobile-based Guitar Hero; the Harmonix developers told us this marks the first time players can get the full Rock Band experience on their phones. Though we didn’t get to try it, the four-button controls are essentially the same with touch.
The simplified controls make the game far more accessible, and it unifies the experience across the various platforms where you can play Fortnite (honestly, are there any modern platform that doesn’t support it at this point?). For anybody expecting to flex their old muscle memory as the dedicated drummer of their old Rock Band quartet, you may come away disappointed by the condensed control scheme. While there’s still the same old five-star ranking system and score multipliers (building up to automatic score boosts called “Overdrive”) for hitting notes correctly, there’s no dedicated button to activate star power or a whammy bar to add some of your own flair to each track.
Back in the days of Rock Band 1 through 4, the different instruments had vastly different controls. Vocals required users to perform their best karaoke into a mic and modulate their voice to sound like the original vocalists, if not sing well. Drums had the usual four notes and a foot pedal to represent the bass drum. None of that is in this current release.
The simplified gameplay might make some old-school Guitar Hero fanatics sneer in contempt, but this may be the first few stanzas of the real Rock Band reunion tour. The folks at Harmonix told us they have big plans for the Fortnite Festival that, in essence, sounds like they want to take players back to the glory days of the multi-instrument jam sessions.
However, the devs want to somehow allow users to plug in their old instruments to Fortnite Festival “as soon as possible.” Most likely, that will start with the guitar peripherals used for the lead guitar and base parts.
“It’s really important to us,” said Jessa Brezinski, a product manager at Harmonix. She stressed that the developers know how many fans still have fond memories of plugging in their plastic faux instruments and jamming out to Sweet Child o’ Mine. She declined to say when exactly players could expect peripheral integration but again said it was something they were figuring out how to integrate.
At launch, there will be around 15 songs available, with more coming within the first week. During our demo, there were tracks from The Weeknd and Taylor Swift, but the goal is to have “hundreds” of songs players from a variety of bands can jam to in the first year. Unlike Harmonix’s older titles, tracks could rotate in and out over time, and different numbers of songs from various artists could be available at various times.
Just like the rest of the Fortnite experiences launching as part of the big Chapter 5 push, Fortnite Festival will have its own season pass, and depending on whether you’re paying or playing free, you’ll have access to more or less content.
You’ll still see some experience going to your main profile when playing any of these game modes, but each battle pass also has its own XP track as well. After all, these experiences keep users playing and paying into Epic Games’ major moneymaking metaverse. Season 5 is dropping just a few months after Epic announced major layoffs, and the company is trying to centralize its various developers into what’s become its most important breadwinner.