When I was in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument, so I picked up a trumpet and joined band class. I’m afraid my curiosity didn’t last long — as I soon learned, instruments were expensive, demanding, and oftentimes unsanitary (any instrument that periodically requires you to empty a “spit valve” should send up a red flag). Hygiene issues aside, the main reason I didn’t stick with the trumpet was that learning how to actually play the damn thing was too much work. I didn’t want to take the time to sit in the basement and practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” every night — I had video games to play. If only there had been a video game that could have taught me how to play music…
Such video games may not have existed when I was in grade school, but here in the year 2010, video games can teach you how to speak a foreign language, prepare delicious meals or even perform surgery utilizing techniques used by real doctors in Japan, so it shouldn’t be surprising that games which let players live out their latent rock star fantasies have been welcomed with open arms and virtual lighters held aloft. In the third installment of its groundbreaking Rock Band series, developer Harmonix seriously ups the ante by throwing keyboards and a host of other new features into the fray. Slam on the jump to find out whether Rock Band 3 is the series’ triumphant comeback tour, or merely faded glory.
One of Rock Band 3‘s most publicized new features is its “pro mode”, an option which adds several layers of immersion (and difficulty) to the act of playing guitar, drums or keys — provided you have the appropriate peripheral. It could be argued that in a very meta way, the nonexistent pro mode for bass is the most realistic of all in that by leaving out virtual bassists, Harmonix is accurately simulating the total lack of respect that real bassists must learn to accept. But what exactly does pro mode add to the playing experience?
For the purposes of this review, I tried out the drums on pro mode. The big difference between classic and pro drums (other than your wallet suddenly feeling about $40 lighter) is that the new peripheral add-on attaches three cymbals to the existing Rock Band 2 drum kit. The increased number of inputs allows Harmonix to chart the drum tracks much more accurately, with each pad or cymbal corresponding almost 1:1 with its counterpart on a real drum set (the lack of charting for the hi-hat pedal is a shame, but it’s pretty much the only big omission at this point). I’ve been hooked on the drums ever since I tried them out in RB1, which actually inspired me to buy a real drum set (that I play rather poorly), so I was eager to see how pro drums would play out.
Which brings me to the peripheral itself. Construction-wise, the add-on feels pretty sturdy, which is important because your cymbals are going to take a lot of abuse. The cymbal pads themselves are quiet, yet responsive. You barely have to tap them in order to register a hit, yet they remain fully capable of withstanding a beating from your dumbass friend who thinks he’s the drummer from Slipknot. Unfortunately, the infrastructure supporting the cymbals is not quite as sturdy–my hi-hat’s stand kept slipping down over time and needed readjustment after nearly every song. The other thing that bothered me about the cymbals was that the placement of the hi-hat cymbal to the right of the snare pad made playing songs like “Everlong” or “Run to the Hills” all but impossible. All in all, it’s not a terrible peripheral, but drumming enthusiasts will probably want to spring for a third-party set, or even a full electronic drum set.
And now, as a special treat for readers who made it this far, I would like to welcome my distinguished colleague, the estimable Dustin Stevens, as he discusses the game’s new keyboard support. You can’t see it here, but Dustin was totally wearing his trademark keytar and shades when he wrote this. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
Arguably the most anticipated new feature in Rock Band 3 is the inclusion of keyboards. The good news is that the hardware is solid and playing keyboard-rich songs is just as much fun as anything else in Rock Band. The equipment itself feels just like a real keyboard (and, in fact, can be used as a MIDI keyboard if you’re into that), so if you were worried it would be cheap and toy-like, fear not. The game has a decent learning curve for newbies and keyboard professionals alike: normal mode uses five fingers, while Pro Mode keys use both hands and requires you to move them back and forth a bit, as indicated by arrows on the screen. When playing a song with a sweet piano or keyboard part, you’ll have a good time.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of bad news as well. As of this writing, only 66 songs out of the 300+ in my library support the keyboard… and about half of those songs consist of pressing one key every twenty seconds or so. The player on keys can also tap along to the guitar or bass part… unless you already have a guitarist and bassist playing. If you have two guitars going on a song with no keyboard support, then not only can the keyboardist not play, but that player has to “drop out” from the game and “drop in” again after the song is over. This is a pain in the ass. So you can imagine that the keyboard will spend a lot of time in the corner during your Rock Band party.
I’ll also mention that a friend of mine who plays piano professionally had a hard time figuring out where to put his hands on the keyboard in Pro Mode: the two octaves on the controller have to simulate the eight octaves on a real piano, so there’s some confusion over which of the sixteen keys on the instrument relate to the ten lanes on the screen. After six or seven songs, we discovered the problem: the game uses color-coded lanes to match the color-coded sections on the keyboard. My friend is color blind. As far as we can tell, there is no way around this problem. All in all, the keyboard is a cool idea that is tragically underused. Hopefully future DLC will make the instrument more playable, and a software update will fix the drop-in/drop-out problem.
Many thanks to Dustin, who saved me $80 (the keyboard ain’t cheap) and made this review easier by writing part of it for me. He’s a champ. Anyway, while the new pro modes and keyboard are certainly interesting, they’re far from the only improvements in Rock Band 3.
It might not sound super exciting on paper, but one of the game’s best elements is the completely redesigned and streamlined menu system. Each player can now seamlessly turn on a controller and jump into a song, swap characters, or even switch which gamer profile is associated with each controller without having to go through the tedious task of signing people in and out. Anyone who’s ever played musical chairs with instruments when trying to play Rock Band with friends will immediately appreciate this feature. Another welcome revision is a completely redesigned song selection screen that allows you to sort and filter your catalog in pretty much any way you could ever want. This is particularly useful for those whose libraries have blossomed over the years thanks to DLC and the ability to import tracks from past iterations.
Even the obligatory career mode has undergone a significant redesign. Your band is still trying to earn fans and achieve international stardom and rock immortality, but you can tackle that task from a couple of different angles this time around. Fans are awarded for the completion of “goals” (think mini achievements), many of which can even be earned just screwing around with your friends in quickplay mode.
You still have the option of doing the traditional road challenges, though. Rather than receiving money and fans after completing setlists, players now strive to earn as many stars and “spades” as possible on every song in order to reach a target amount that will complete one of the road challenge goals. Spades are a new mechanic that are doled out if the player accomplishes certain random secondary objectives during the course of a song, such as deploying overdrive for a certain amount of time, playing a section of the song perfectly, or… well, that’s about it, really. There are only a handful of simple objectives that the game cycles through, none of which really transcends “gimmick” status. More appreciated is the ability to choose between three different setlists when playing at a venue for a road challenge. The game will generally offer you a pretty generous mix of pre-made, random, and custom setlists — and I have to admit I was rather irrationally excited the first time I was offered the option of making a custom emo setlist.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Rock Band 3 will largely depend upon your investment in it. If you just pick up the game without grabbing any of the new peripherals, then you’re going to find a slightly more refined Rock Band 2. However, those willing to invest the time (and money) required to master the keyboard and the new pro modes will enjoy a music gaming experience that far outstrips anything the genre has offered to date. So dust off your battle-worn plastic instruments and round up the usual suspects — it’s time to get the band back together again.
Things We Liked: Pro mode makes playing songs seem even more realistic (and challenging). The keyboard is a welcome addition that was sorely missing in a number of classic songs. Pro drums are backwards compatible with the full Rock Band library. All instruments mode supports up to seven (!) players at once.
Things We Disliked: Enjoying some of the game’s best new features requires significant investment. Pre-RB3 songs don’t have keyboard or pro guitar parts unless they’re repurchased after Harmonix releases updated versions of them. The setlist (just my opinion, but if you disagree, you have bad taste in music).
Target Audience: Rock Band series faithfuls who should honestly just buy a real instrument at this point. Keytar aficionados. Anyone morbidly curious as to the effects of introducing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with all instrument and no fail modes enabled to a party full of drunk theater students.
(Rock Band 3 – Developers: Harmonix. Publishers: MTV Games, Electronic Arts. Available for PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 – Xbox version reviewed. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)