Since the introduction of Rock Band three years ago, there has been little innovation in the plastic band genre. Guitarists still play instruments with five buttons, and drums still have a limited number of pads compared to a real kit.
Rock Band developer Harmonix seemed to recognize this when they took an extra year off since the release of Rock Band 2, but has the game evolved?
With the hardware, there is an obvious change. With full band bundles now a thing of the past, the only instrument one can purchase Rock Band 3 with is a two octave keyboard. Past plastic instruments came in pieces that were assembled, and by and large felt flimsy and cheap, particularly the drum hardware.
Not so with this keyboard instrument. It arrives in one solid piece, with a plastic window proudly displaying it before you even open the box.
With this new instrument comes a new option. While the standard five note highway remains if you select regular Keys, a whole new system emerges when you select Pro Keys. In the Pro Keys mode, the lanes change into representations of the notes on the keyboard. If an F# note comes down the lane, you have to hit F#. It also contains the four difficult modes of the standard modes, scaling up the difficulty from single notes at Easy to full chords at Expert.
This is, quite simply, a revelation. While one could feel that their plastic instrument skills were wasted time, the muscle memory you develop playing the advanced Keyboard modes directly translates to a real keyboard. If you play the chords you learn from “Sister Christian” on a piano, they will sound almost exactly the same, only being simplified somewhat to accommodate the two octave keyboard.
Along with this new mode come Pro Modes for the guitar, bass and drums. The new guitar was not available at press time, but like the keyboard, it will directly map the notes of the guitar to the appropriate frets of the guitar controller. For those wanting the real tactile feel of strings instead of buttons, an actual Fender guitar that is compatible with the game will be available earlier next year, if you are willing to drop more than $300 on it. For thrifty players, the Pro Drum option is both the cheapest and deepest option available.
By adding three cymbals to the existing kit, the note highway will differentiate between toms and cymbals. The difficulty scales well compared to the original drum set, and there is something very satisfying about hitting two cymbals to create a tremendous crash instead of the dull thud of the drums.
In addition, every song in the Rock Band back catalog supports Pro Drums out of the box. Songs that may have become stale on the drums feel brand new again with this mode.
For those who are not interested in these advanced modes, there are still significant improvements throughout the interface, particularly if you get a large group together to play Rock Band.
The greatest improvement is that you no longer have to back out of the song selection screen to add or subtract members from your band. Each player now has their own menu that can be opened with the start menu, which allows for a player to drop out or join in. Going further than this, if you are in the middle of a song and someone wants to join on drums in the middle, all they have to do is press start and select a difficulty, and within moments they will be in the song.
In a move that may seem strange for a video game, the overall difficulty within the Career mode has also been eased up. If you want to play and beat the game with No Fail Mode on, the game will not penalize you for this, though the traditional option remains for purists.
Rather than difficult set lists that you have to soldier through, you are given a choice of three different options at each stage of the Road Challenges. These replace the traditional World Tour mode largely for the better.
It is difficult to convey just how much easier it is to pick up and play with these new modes. If you are playing with a friend and you want to change instruments on every single song, a once tedious process has now been streamlined with a few button presses. It makes the game play experience a lot more fluid as opposed to previous iterations.
Aesthetically, many of the visual improvements will seem familiar to those who have played the band-centric games Harmonix has released in the past year, including The Beatles and Green Day: Rock Band.
Three part harmonies are also finally supported, and while earlier downloadable content does not support this mode (nor do old songs support the keyboard), Harmonix has stated that they will be bringing these functions to older songs in the future.
If you have made an earlier investment in Rock Band at any stage, any songs you have exported carry over seamlessly into Rock Band 3. If you own Rock Band 2, you can permanently export the vast majority of the songs for $10, which doubles your available songs alone.
If you imported Rock Band songs into Rock Band 2, then most of those songs will appear as well.
To aid in swelling song sizes, there have also been significant improvements in sorting them. If you want to only see songs with keyboard parts from the 1990’s that have three-part harmony, you can easily do this.
On top of these technical achievements, this latest and greatest iteration of Rock Band remains as fun to play as past versions, with all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses.
The experience scales beautifully from beginner to expert, even for the vocalists, who can now turn on pitch correction for a little aid in sounding better. If you have tone deaf friends like mine, you will be happy for this option.
The song selection again runs the gamut from the 1960’s to the present, and you will almost certainly be surprised at how much fun certain songs are to play or sing.
Harmonix is a company founded by musicians, and it shows in the instruments they have produced as well as the song selection they have chosen.
In short, if you appreciate the beauty of good or bad karaoke, or have enjoyed Rock Band in the past, this is the definitive version, with the added bonus of learning new instruments (and how to play the real ones) being the icing on this cake. With the depth offered by this iteration, there are few better values in gaming today.