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Review: Rock Band 3

Oct 21 // Nick Chester

In short, it rocks

With 15 years of developing music games under its belt, saying that Harmonix Music Systems has some experience with the genre is a bit of an understatement. Launching into the spotlight with Guitar Hero in 2005, the Boston-based developer has spent years iterating on and polishing that original design.

Five years later, the market is crowded with multi-instrument music titles; Harmonix's latest, Rock Band 3, is one of three hitting shelves this holiday. But the developer has always led the pack, including being the first to introduce full band play with its original Rock Band.

With its latest game, it's unmistakable -- Harmonix has no peer in this space. With its new additions and ingenious interface tweaks, Rock Band 3 is undeniably the finest and most refined music game the market has ever seen. 

Photo Gallery:   (you can use your arrow keys)


With 15 years of developing music games under its belt, saying that Harmonix Music Systems has some experience with the genre is a bit of an understatement. Launching into the spotlight with Guitar Hero in 2005, the Boston-based developer has spent years iterating on and polishing that original design. 

Five years later, the market is crowded with multi-instrument music titles; Harmonix’s latest, Rock Band 3, is one of three hitting shelves this holiday. But the developer has always led the pack, including being the first to introduce full band play with its original Rock Band.

With its latest game, it’s unmistakable -- Harmonix has no peer in this space. With its new additions and ingenious interface tweaks, Rock Band 3 is undeniably the finest and most refined music game the market has ever seen. 

 

Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Wii)
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Publisher: MTV Games / Electronic Arts
Price: Standalone - $59.99 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), $49.99 (Wii)

Rock Band 3 is kind of a big deal: a massive, multi-layered product that’s more than it seems on the surface. But the game’s hot selling point -- the back-of-the-box bullet point that is going to make it stand out at retail -- is its support for all-new instruments, including keyboard and “pro” instruments. That’s the stuff you want to hear about, right? So let’s start there…

Long-rumored (and oft-requested), keyboards are now a part of the Rock Band experience, complete with a brand-new peripheral. This controller is closer to its real-life counterpart than any instrument peripheral before it, with a full two-octave range of keys for in-game use. It’s lightweight but sturdy, and can be comfortably played with it sitting on your lap, attached to a strap “keytar”-style, or sitting on a keyboard stand (sold separately).

“Standard” key mode will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Rock Band game, the note highway consisting of five colored notes that correspond with five keys that sit on the upper range of the keyboard. Just like with guitar, notes drift towards the screen in varying patterns, correlating with the music; this includes everything from single notes to varying “chord types” that you’ll be become familiar with as you work your way through the game’s soundtrack. 

Speaking of the game’s soundtrack in relation to keys, it needs to be noted that not every track on the game disc has native key support. Of the game’s 83 songs, only 63 of them feature keyboards and associated charting. Of those 63, there are a number that feature keyboard or piano parts that aren’t especially riveting, either. Many of the bands keep them to a minimum, sometimes just for atmosphere or “character”; as you can expect, those songs aren’t particularly fun to play on the keys. 

Standing idly by while the song carries on with guitar, bass, vocal, and drum tracks, only to pop in a few times (and with a few notes) can be dull, to say the least. Sticking only to keyboards, you’ll find that songs start to repeat themselves fairly often, too. This will be remedied in the future, though, as Harmonix promises to continue to support the Rock Band platform with new music, much of which can and will place an emphasis on this new instrument. (Just earlier this week, a full track pack of Billy Joel’s music was announced; a number of tracks by The Doors will be made available alongside the launch of Rock Band 3 as well.) 

But on the songs that do make heavy use of keyboards (even if they’re not always particularly complicated parts), you’ll find that it’s just as satisfying as using the standard guitar or drum peripheral. It helps that the keyboard can also be used to play either bass or guitar parts in songs that don’t support native keyboard charting, including tracks from previous games and downloadable content. (Hint: Search out those songs that charted synth, strings, or piano parts to guitar and bass instruments; might I suggest all of those Lady Gaga songs you downloaded while you thought no one was looking?) 

Once you’ve mastered those Expert keyboard parts (and good luck, because they certainly can get tough), it’s time to play a real instrument. Surprise: if you’ve got the keyboard peripheral, you’ve already got one -- all of the songs that support keyboards in Rock Band 3 also support “Pro” mode. This mode utilizes the familiar note highway with a twist, in that it displays all of the notes on the instrument (with parts of the lane shifting left or right, when necessary), asking you to play the actual notes (including chords) from the song. In almost all ways, Pro mode is obviously more difficult than the standard mode, but certainly more fun and rewarding. 

Pro mode also extends itself to the guitar and bass tracks for all of the new songs on Rock Band 3, with the introduction of two new peripherals -- the “this is an actual guitar” string-based Fender Squier Stratocaster (which acts as a game controller and doubles as a real guitar) and the 102-button Fender Mustang. Pro mode for guitar works in a similar fashion to Pro keys, with numbered notes (which correspond with fret positions) coming down a six-string (or six-"lane") note highway. If you’re a guitar player, you’ll recognize it as being similar to standard (horizontal) tablature; it’s generally easy to understand, even for novices, who will likely be able to pick up the concept within minutes. 

Every drum track in the game, including all older tracks that you may have exported to your hard drive, also supports Pro mode. This mode makes use of cymbal attachments (up to three), and even features support for a hi-hat pedal if you choose to go that route. In addition to the standard four-pad-plus-bass-drum charting, the game overlays cymbal hits where appropriate. This charting, in theory, should mirror the same part you’d play on a real kit. For anyone who’s been playing Rock Band drums since the first game, this isn’t going to be a huge leap. While the Pro mode is certainly more complicated, you’ve already got those basics down. It’s interesting to see how the jump from the standard Rock Band kit to a full kit (for all intents and purposes) isn’t quite as large as you might expect. 

These ambitious Pro modes are a huge step for Harmonix and music gaming, essentially holding the player’s hand while they are guided through playing a song on a genuine instrument (or at least a close approximation of one). It’s a response to the “just play an instrument” cries, and truly seems like the culmination of everything Harmonix has always set out out to do: slowly introduce gamers to the “real world” of music. As a self-taught guitar player, something like Rock Band 3’s Pro guitar mode would have been welcome while I was holed up in my bedroom as a teenager trying to figure out the riffs to my favorite songs.

Make no mistake, playing these Pro modes isn’t going to be easy. Unlike the standard colored five-note charting, it’s unlikely many folks will be able to sight-read this stuff, especially on Expert levels; I found that learning and then anticipating the parts (rather than reading them on the fly) yielded the best results. So you’re going to fail or miss hundreds of notes. It’s going to require practice. It’s going to be frustrating; it’s going to require dedication and a lot of repetition. Yes, this is just like learning an instrument. Whether the hours that that requires can be considered “fun” is up for debate, and many will fail or get frustrated and give up, even with the great tools Harmonix has included in Rock Band 3. But as anyone who has mastered an instrument (or even the simplest song) can tell you, the rewards are worth the effort.

Even if you’ve got no ambitions to play a real instrument -- if the simple act of picking up a faux instrument and rocking out does it for you (and hey, that’s fine, too) -- Rock Band 3’s still got plenty to offer. Building on the core of its previous titles, Rock Band 3 has an exhaustive list of new features, although none of them particularly worthy of a bullet point on the back of the game’s retail box. Nonetheless, once you’ve started using them, you’ll wonder how you lived without them. 

Of particular note are the features tied in with your song library. The game’s new song sorting now allows you to filter out tracks from your library based on a number of factors including song length, genre, difficulty, score, and more. You’ll also be able to rate songs (on a scale of one to five lighters), with the higher-ranking songs appearing more frequently in random setlists and the lower-ranking songs becoming more scarce. The game will even use that information to suggest downloadable content, which might be hell on your wallet, but can help keep casual players in the loop on new releases relevant to their interests.

 

Rock Band 3 also addresses many of the frustrations found in previous iterations of the series, including giving players the ability to drop in and drop out of songs at any time. In fact, every rocker gets his or her own menu using the game’s “overshell”; while navigating the menus, every player can quickly hop into their own menu and edit their options without disturbing other players signed in. It’s a small thing, but the result is fewer minutes futzing around with menus, and it’s especially useful when playing in large groups or a party setting. 

The game also features a new style of career progression that spans across aspects of the game. Instead of entering a single career mode, you’ll be able to earn fans across all of the game’s modes by following a number of goals. Sort of like a mini-achievement system built into the game, you have access to a series of goals spanning all instruments, as well as general game objectives. It’s super easy (and super fun) to track them, giving even casual players an easy way to chart and plan their progress. As you accumulate fans (this can also be done by following the game’s more structured “Road Challenges”), you’ll progress your band to stardom, like in previous titles. You’ll start seeing them play in bigger venues, using nicer travel accommodations, being mobbed by fans, and more. 

 

Much of this will happen as you navigate menus, too, with your created characters and bands always engaging in some activity -- setting up for a show, relaxing at a bar -- between sets. This might seem small, but this is important to note, because you’re not going to be spending a lot of time staring at loading screens or static menus in Rock Band 3. There’s always something happening, the game is always moving, and you’re always engaged with your band. And here’s a big one: there are very few perceivable loading screens in Rock Band 3, whether you’re playing gigs or simply selecting a song in quickplay. Just choose a song, and within moments, after a seeing your band setting up for your gig (sure, it’s hiding a loading screen, but it’s super brief), you’re right into playing the track.

It’s odd that I’ve gotten this far into a review for a music game without directly addressing the on-disc soundtrack, right? There’s a good reason for that, and I think it has to do with the fact that -- up until this point -- there’s simply so much music available for what Harmonix has always referred to as a “platform.” By way of downloadable content and music export from some of its retail games (all of which, save for The Beatles: Rock Band, can be played in Rock Band 3), there are currently over 2,000 songs available to play. Sure, it’s unlikely you’re going to have them all, but your options for building your library have become so broad that addressing the 83 songs on the Rock Band 3 disc seems superfluous. (But I’m about to do it anyhow...)

Of course, with every music game, you won’t be able to please everyone all of the time. At the very least, Harmonix continues its tradition of crafting a well-rounded setlist featuring parts that are fun to play across all of its instruments (some of my earlier gripes about the keyboard-specific songs notwithstanding). It’s likely you’ll find songs on the disc you could do without, but as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There’s also something to be said for Harmonix’s song selection process, which appears to come from a genuine passion for the music, versus selecting songs based on their marketability. Even if you don’t love every track on the disc, the reasons for why each has its place here should be obvious to anyone with a musically open mind. 

 

All of my praise aside, if you’ve tired of the genre or never had any interest, it’s unlikely that Rock Band 3 is going to change that for you. If your interest is piqued because of the game’s new Pro modes -- and it should be -- be wary that it’s a considerable investment in terms of both money, time, and effort. If you’re not prepared to put in the work, it might not be for you. 

For fans of the series and the music gaming genre, Rock Band 3 is a must-buy, simply because it’s unsurprisingly the best iteration in the series yet. It’s not only going to replace similar and competing games in your music library, but it makes them look downright dated in comparison.

It’s a game that’s so solid that Harmonix could continue to support the game with downloadable content for years to come, and fans would find little to complain about. If they’re already dreaming of a follow-up, they’ve got their work cut out for them, because Rock Band 3 seems about as close to perfect as you’re going to get.


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Nick Chester // Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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