Well, let’s see. Real instruments are expensive, music lessons are expensive, guitar strings, drum heads and drum sticks cost money, and it takes most people weeks, if not months, of hard work to get halfway decent at an instrument and even longer to become an expert. Most folks don’t want to go through all of the expense or take the time to learn how to play an instrument, and so they don’t.
Rock Band, on the other hand, is less expensive, easy to learn, and fun to play. Rock Band 3 is the newest game in the series and gives players the opportunity to learn how to play drums, keyboard and even guitar with its new Pro modes, tutorials, and instruments. In addition, several tweaks have been made to the experience to make it more enjoyable as a whole on the Playstation 3. For the most part, the “push the buttons in time to the music” gameplay remains the same.
You begin the game by naming your band and creating your virtual rock n’ roller. The game’s character creator has been improved, adding the ability to fully customize your character’s face and create more varied body types. You can then pick ‘stand in’ characters to fill in the blanks in your group from a group of ready-made characters, some that come from earlier games. The band constantly accompanies you throughout the game, starring in cutscenes and in various background animations, making them a more intimate part of the game.
Gone is the tedious ‘Career’ mode of previous games where you slogged your way through preset lists of songs in order to unlock the next group of songs and earn cash to buy in-game items. Rock Band 3’s Career mode is active all of the time, and is based on Goals. Goals are similar to Trophies, and they get earned as you play through all of Rock Band 3’s various modes. As you complete Goals you will unlock clothing items, instruments, and even some customization features, which provides some incentive to complete them.
Most of Rock Band’s gameplay will be done in Quickplay mode, where players can play individual songs or run through a setlist. Setlists can now be saved and shared which makes for a more convenient and shared experience. Band members now can be easily added and dropped using the “overshell” found at the bottom of the screen. The game can also be put into “All Instruments” mode which supports up to seven players: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and three singers. Rock Band 3’s tracklist has 83 songs, and as a child of the 80’s, I found plenty to like, but as always, your mileage will vary. Luckily, the Rock Band Music Store has over 2,000 songs to choose from and is constantly updated with new content.
Players looking for a more structured gameplay experience will find it in Road Challenges. A road challenge consists of several gigs, each consisting of a few songs. In a refreshing change of pace, the game provides three groups of songs to pick from for each gig. Each of the three groups consists of either a list of specific songs, or random groups of songs picked from a particular era, genre, or length. The goal of Road Challenges is to accumulate as many Stars and Spades as possible. Stars are earned in the traditional score-based manner, and Spades are won by completing a specific challenge within a song, such as deploying Overdrive a certain number of times or maintaining a streak.
Challenges add a twist to the gameplay that can change the way you play a song. At one time, the song’s challenge was to deploy maximum Overdrive as many times as possible. I found myself passing up opportunities to extend Overdrive so that it could run out, allowing me to start maxing it out it again.
Rock Band 3’s Pro modes for guitar, drums and keyboard serve to bridge the gap between playing a game and playing music. Instead of saying “How to Play” or something similar, the menu item leading to the tutorials boldly proclaims “Learn An Instrument.” I played through some of the keyboard tutorials and was impressed to find it started with basic scales and included notes on proper finger placement and usage. How effective these tutorials will be remains to be seen, but it looks like Harmonix is serious about making Rock Band a tool for learning in addition to being a game.
Rock Band 3 throws out the old rules for Easy and Normal guitar. It used to be that playing Easy difficulty on guitar meant only the top three buttons were used, and Normal difficulty only used the top four. Players using Easy or Medium difficulty will now get an occasional blue or orange note thrown into the mix. This led to some unfortunate surprises for the less experienced players I played with and I think Harmonix should have stuck with what worked before. Otherwise, Rock Band 3’s standard 5-button guitar gameplay is the same as it was before.
In Pro Guitar mode the familiar colored blocks are replaced with actual chords that must be performed using one of two new guitars. The Rock Band 3 Wireless Fender Mustang PRO-Guitar Controller more closely emulates a real guitar with its 102 neck buttons and six strings. The forthcoming Rock Band 3 Squier Stratocaster is a real guitar that can be used in Rock Band 3. The Squier contains sensors in the neck and fingerboard that track finger position during gameplay, and can be plugged into an amp for off-line play. This review will not be covering Pro Guitar as the aforementioned instruments are not available as of this time.
Rock Band 3’s standard drum gameplay also remains the same, but adding cymbals to a Rock Band 2, The Beatles Rock Band or Rock Band 3 drum set enables Pro Drums. In Pro Drums, the cymbals are charted separately from the drums. Previously, hitting either the cymbal or drum would count, but in Pro Drums, a colored cymbal coming down the note highway indicates that the cymbal must be hit instead of the drum. Up to three cymbals can be added and configured in any way the player sees fit.
I enjoyed playing Pro Drums; it was very satisfying and is enticingly close to actually drumming save for missing the hi-hat pedal. Experienced drummers can look forward to going back and playing their old favorites properly as Rock Band 3 will update all existing songs to be compatible with Pro Drums automatically.
Rock Band 3’s singing component uses the 3-part harmony structure that premiered in The Beatles Rock Band. For the most part it works, but it is now harder to tell when you are off-key. In the first two games, the arrow indicator would turn red and tilt to indicate that you were either too high or too low. In Rock Band 3, the player does not get very much of an indication unless they are really off. Having the multiplier number sit inside the circle that fills up as you do well only makes it harder to tell if you are on key or not. Activating Overdrive seemed to be little less accurate than it was in previous Rock Band games. Overall, I was disappointed in the vocal portion of the game.
And now for the part you’ve been waiting for: the keyboard. The Rock Band 3 Wireless Keyboard controller is a 25-key keyboard that can be played in either Keys or Pro Keys mode. Keys mode is played with the C-G keys and is the standard 5-button gameplay we’ve all known over the years. Pro Keys starts with basic patterns on Easy that utilize the full keyboard and ramps up to note-accurate charts on Expert. The keys are not weighted but feel like what one would find on a consumer keyboard.
The keyboard also comes with its own USB “dongle” that has 2 additional USB ports for plugging in other dongles or microphones. As someone who primarily plays Rock Band on an Xbox 360, which does not use any dongles at all, I find it very annoying to have a bunch of wires and boxes hanging out of the front of my Playstation 3. In my opinion, having all these dongles almost defeats the purpose of having wireless instruments in the first place.
In addition to the keys and standard Playstation controls, the keyboard also has a touch sensitive strip and overdrive button on its handle. You read that right; the keyboard has a handle. It also has pegs, and comes with a strap that makes it a fully functional KEYTAR! Despite not being easy, playing the keyboard in Rock Band 3 is loads of fun. Along with Pro instruments, Harmonix will be releasing a MIDI adapter that will allow the use of keyboards or electric drums with MIDI outputs.
Rock Band 3 is the best band game out there right now, bar none. While the core gameplay hasn’t changed a whole lot, the Pro modes add an extra level of challenge and further close the gap between playing a game and actually playing music. The new keyboard also opens up the game to new bands and genres of music, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what new tunes drop into the Rock Band Music Store.
The new user interface also makes the game much enjoyable to play with a group and the revamped Career is a welcome change from the old “here’s a setlist, now play it” routine that got boring about 3 games ago. Road Challenges make the journey to one hundred percent completion a much less monotonous one and change up the gameplay.
Rock Band 3 does miss a few beats, though. I preferred the way Rock Band 2 handled the vocal portion of the game. Rock Band 3 makes it hard to tell when you are doing well as a singer. The decision to make Easy and Medium guitar modes more difficult was not a good one, in my opinion. The business with the dongles is just plain silly, but that annoyance pales in comparison to its biggest issue.
Rock Band 3 had an unfortunate tendency to randomly lock the Playstation 3. I played it on two older ‘fat’ PS3s and experienced about 2 lockups per day. Oddly enough, the lockups never happened during a song, but while navigating menus, customizing characters, and even twice at the title screen. This was a rather unpleasant surprise, especially given Harmonix’s previous track record of releasing bug-free games.
Rock Band 3 is a great game even with those minor issues. Players willing to spend the extra money for the Pro experiences will find greater in-game challenges and the opportunity to learn more about their instruments. Harmonix has taken a huge step in bridging the gap between fake plastic rock and real life musicianship, but not at the cost of fun, which Rock Band 3 delivers in spades.