I never did understand why games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero never saw an iteration on the PSP. Granted, I had always envisioned them in a different form than the game in question. I thought perhaps a little peripheral of some sort could attach to the PSP and act as a fret board, but instead Harmonix gave us a game that is more akin to a portable version of their PS2 games Frequency and Amplitude.
Rock Band: Unplugged utilizes nothing but the PSP's buttons, bringing it back to the days when music games could be played with controllers if you didn't have the necessary peripheral, like a dance mat, on hand. But, unlike games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Frequency/Amplitude, the controls are the biggest struggle to overcome in Unplugged. Where as DDR used an easy directional button layout, and Frequency/Amplitude only used three buttons, Rock Band Unplugged has four buttons to use.
The default button layout utilizes the Left, Up, Triangle, and Circle. The problem with this configuration is you may often find yourself hitting the Square button to hit the first note and sometimes hitting other buttons too, thinking they have a function. The key to making this game work is focus and trying to forget that the other buttons exist, which I kept struggling with. Once you're able to focus and avoid hitting the wrong buttons, the game becomes much more enjoyable. Now, you can customize the controls to your liking, but at the end of the day, no matter how much I tweaked, I found the default the controls to be the most accessible.
At the heart of it all, Unplugged is essentially a portable version of Rock Band 2, they even share a playlist that is largely similar. You have the World Tour mode which will take your user-created band and players on a tour through 24 venues, across 24 cities. You also have the Quickplay mode, and if you just want to play all of the songs, you can enter the options menu and enable a pre-made code that unlocks all of the songs for you, but disables saving.
What seperates Unplugged from the big-brother console versions is its ability to allow you to control all of the instruments, including vocals, at any time you want – a feature originally present in Frequency and Amplitude. So while you're tappling along to the guitar, you can hit the shoulder buttons and scroll to the drums, vocals, or bass. The best way to utilize this mechanic is to perform well and complete the segments each instrument has. Once you complete a segment, you can move on to the next instrument, all the while the one you just left will be playing on its own temporarily. Some of this process is automated, so don't worry about constantly having to keep track of four highways. You will have to get the hang of switching, catching the first few notes, and immediately adjusting to the different patterns. But if you don't wish to play all instruments, then you can select the Warm Up mode that allows you to stay on one track, allowing you to switch only if you choose to. Oh, and as far as solos, when a solo appears, the game will automatically switch you to where you need to be so that you don't miss anything.
In total, there are 41 tracks, and if you've played Rock Band 1 and Rock Band 2, then you've played practically every one of these songs already. Obviously, for the the portable game, the note charts are a little bit easier, so veterans may actually breeze through these songs on the Expert difficulty with ease. On the other hand, you do have Downloadable Content, as the game is PlayStation Network compatible, which will allow you to access the PSP's Unplugged store. Unfortunately, if you've purchased a song for the console versions, you'll have to repurchase it for the PSP game.
But the biggest drawback here comes in a pair. First, there is no multiplayer, none whatsoever. For a franchise that's entire point was multiplayer gameplay, not even an ad-hoc mode is downright inexcusable. Furthermore, the game's lack of innovation is also rather annoying. I mean, really, not even a little USB microphone attachement to sing the vocals with? Sure, it's not like many people would use it outside…well…there are a lot of weirdos in these New York City subways, but I digress. Anyways, again, perhaps not many people would use it outdoors, but certainly those playing in-doors, on a trip, in a hotel, etc. may very well do so. Another nice innovation would've been a little guitar attachment to the PSP's action buttons. This attachment could be just a few inches in length and have four buttons, similar to that of a guitar controller, and when pressed down it would press on its respective PSP button – nothing but a simple spring-based attachment. It would also allow you to hold your PSP like a mini guitar controller, and you could use the D-pad to strum with. That would genuinely make it a great portable experience.
The soundtrack is nice and solid, as MTV/Harmonix have chosen to use the harder Rock Band tracks for Unplugged, as opposed to the softer ones, providing better energy and excitement for the game – a must for an on-the-go game. If you're interested in the game, it'll ultimately be the soundtrack to make your final decision. My personal favorites here are: Queens of the Stone Age, Motorhead, Pearl Jam, Weezer, System of a Down, The Off Spring, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Dead Kennedys, The Police, Boston, The Killers, Judas Priest, Lacuna Coil, Blink 182, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Billy Idol, and Tenacious D.
If you don't mind playing a game with only your fingers, I suppose you could give Rock Band Unplugged a chance. But for a game with minimal downloadable content, no multiplayer, a playlist and World Tour experience that is largely identical to the console games, and little to no innovation…$40 is not quite the ticket I'd be willing to pay. The soundtrack may be great for the newer folk, but if you're a Rock Band veteran, you've played these songs to death.