It's not often that it happens, but occasionally you'll see a massively successful band at the peak of fame take time off from playing stadium concerts to treat their fans to a more intimate performance in a smaller venue. Sure, they might play some of their new songs, but it's in those smaller clubs that the band can trace their roots and show a legion of fans what the early days were like. Harmonix is in a similar situation with Rock Band Unplugged. This PSP adaptation of the popular rhythm franchise bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Amplitude, the company's 2003 PlayStation 2 rhythm game that earned critical acclaim but didn't quite light the genre aflame like its later game, Guitar Hero, would ultimately do.
Amplitude was a predecessor to the Guitar Hero/Rock Band style of gameplay in an era before plastic guitar controllers became the norm. The core of the game was similar in the way that players were given the task of pressing buttons in sync with a series of icons cascading down the screen to match the timing of a song and create the effect of playing an instrument. And though that base formula sounds awfully familiar at this point, one important gameplay feature from Amplitude that never made the transition to the next wave of rhythm games was the idea of switching instruments in midsong--something Unplugged relies very heavily upon.
That's where Rock Band Unplugged feels like Amplitude the most. With the absence of music peripherals, you use four buttons on the face of the PSP--by default, left and up on the directional pad along with triangle and circle--to match the red, yellow, blue, and green notes that make up each instrument's track. But by pressing either of the shoulder buttons, you can switch between instrument tracks at will. One second you'll be mimicking Roger Daltrey's vocal track on The Who's "Pinball Wizard," but the next moment you might be drumming as Keith Moon or strumming guitar as Pete Townshend depending on your own preference. But as a way of guiding you between the best parts of each song, the game will limit switching selections to one or two other tracks at once.
The challenge that exists with this style of play is the difficulty present in any form of multitasking. The familiar Rock Band fail meter is shown on the left of the screen to tell you which instruments are doing well and which aren't. Playing tracks while keeping a constant eye on which one needs to be played after the current guitar riff or drum fill is over is described by Harmonix as "plate-spinning"--a sort of rewarding chaos that keeps you juggling different tasks. A pair of separate gameplay modes exists to modify how you manage the tracks; Warm-Up Mode lets you choose between tracks but lets only the one you're currently playing affect the band meter, and Band Survival Mode shows notes for every instrument at once to really crank up the challenge level.
Though Unplugged feels very much like a spiritual successor to Amplitude, the game carries the Rock Band branding for a reason. Aside from the fact that the overall look and presentation of the game feel distinctly similar to its console counterparts, you'll have the option to create your own customized band and then take them on the road in World Tour mode. There are 24 venues to choose from along the way, and you can earn cash to buy new instruments and clothing while building your posse by hiring staff members.
If you're still scraping by with a 32-megabyte memory stick for your PSP, Unplugged's in-game music store--another Rock Band hallmark that's transitioned over to PSP--will probably make you consider upgrading. At launch, 10 songs will be available, and more songs will show up on a semiregular basis to cull some of the more popular numbers from the weekly console releases. The store uses your existing PlayStation Network ID, so it should be a fairly hassle-free process to get things set up if you've already done any purchasing on your PSP or PlayStation 3. (This DLC will complement an initial tracklist on the game that includes a few PSP-exclusive songs viewable here.)
Rock Band Unplugged is currently scheduled for release on June 9. Keep an eye out for future tracklist information leading up to our complete review when the game is released.