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Rock Band 3 Makes A Killer First Impression

With more realistic instruments and a sharp redesign, Harmonix's next release might just save the music game genre from itself.

I don't think anyone's really sure about the future of the music game genre. When sales started to slip last year, things started looking incredibly over-saturated. This year, some publishers feel like they're retreating to familiar territory and hoping it all works itself out. But that's not the vibe you get from Harmonix Music Systems after you get a look at its next major release, Rock Band 3. There's a sort of "all or nothing" vibe to the game, and I was left with the distinct impression that the next Rock Band will either reinvigorate the genre or completely obliterate it. But at least Harmonix will rip it all apart on its own terms with an ambitious new set of optional hardware that lets players who crave a more realistic experience go absolutely overboard in incredibly exciting new ways.

The effects strip on the neck is the keyboard version of the whammy bar. 
The majority of the new hardware is being built by Mad Catz this time around. While I still remember the peripheral-focused company's shaky past, it's done all right by Street Fighter IV players for the past couple of years, and after gripping a prototype of the new keyboard controller for myself, it feels like a sturdy item. On top of that, it doubles as a keytar with a short neck--complete with effects strip--and pegs for attaching a strap. If you want to utilize the keyboard in non-Rock Band scenarios, it also has a MIDI out port. Sadly, the keyboard was duct-taped down to a stand when I saw it, dashing my keytar dreams before they were allowed to take flight.
  
  
By default, you'll use five keys on the keyboard, starting at middle C, to play the game. It's not unlike playing bass or guitar except there's nothing to strum. Adding keyboard parts to the songs opens up a wide new variety of music to the game, and some of the song selections for RB3 definitely have piano and synth parts in mind. For songs that don't have any keys to play, you can opt to play guitar or bass parts on the keyboard controller. Similarly, if you don't have the scratch to pick up a keyboard, you can play keyboard parts on guitar or bass. Of course, there are more than five keys on that keyboard. It covers a full two octaves. And if you turn on "pro mode," you'll have to play a lot more than just five keys.

The Mad Catz pro guitar has a ton of little buttons on it. Didn't get to try it in game, but I held one and it at least felt nice. 
Pro mode is the term the developers are using to differentiate a new upper tier of gameplay in Rock Band 3. It's designed to be more realistic and, by design, it ends up being a lot harder than what you're probably used to. When you enable it on the keyboard, the display changes to show more keys, forcing you to essentially play accurate keyboard parts on its highest setting. The keyboard will be available on its own for $79.99, or in a bundle with the game for $129.99.

Vocals get optional three-part harmonies, like Beatles and Green Day had, and by default, the drums in Rock Band 3 are unchanged. But remember those cymbal attachments that were sold alongside previous Rock Band kits? In the drummer's take on pro mode, some gems go between their regular style and tiny cymbals. This tells you when you'll hit the pads down below and when you'll go up top to hit one of your three cymbals. Interestingly, the expanded drum parts are backwards compatible, so much of the existing Rock Band DLC and on-disc tracks from the previous games will automatically feature the proper pro drum data. The cymbals on the Ion Drum Rocker will also work for pro drums.

Bass parts seem to be getting short shrift at the moment, as the version I saw didn't have pro bass in it. The over-the-top nature of pro guitar went a long way, though. Pro guitar will require an entirely different controller, one that's more like a real guitar. Mad Catz is making a MIDI guitar that has six strings at the bottom and a series of buttons that go all the way up the neck of the guitar, six per fret. Like the keytar, the guitar also has a MIDI out port on it. The guitar will sell for $149.99 and should be available at launch. MTV has also announced a deal with Fender to produce a real, amp-ready guitar that also doubles as a pro mode guitar controller. The "Squier By Fender Stratocaster" is a full-sized guitar. Pricing and availability of the Fender "controller" isn't available at this time.

Here's pro mode keys, drums, and guitar. 
So now we have two "real guitar" rhythm games coming out this year. Though I've only seen the PowerGig guitar, the biggest difference so far seems to be about the approach. While PowerGig's developers seem to shy away from being referred to as a teaching tool and sounds like it'll focus on power chords on its higher difficulty settings, Rock Band 3's expert-level pro guitar parts are said to be designed with authenticity in mind. In effect, if you're playing pro guitar on its highest setting, you're playing something that closely resembles that song's actual guitar part. To convey the information about how to actually play those parts, the note highways deliver shapes with numbers in them. The shapes will somehow tell you how and where to hold your hand on the neck of the guitar. Of course, you'll be able to play pro guitar on easy difficulty, giving you a whole new ramp to ascend. As a part of that process, you'll be able to enter the game's training mode, which allows you to take the songs down to 50 percent of normal speed and practice them until you get it down.

All of the pro mode stuff is a lot to take in, and it feels like the sort of thing that'll be best for actual musicians and the aspirational types that want to get their learn on. So it's a good thing that all of the old ways to play Rock Band are still intact. In fact, the entire software side of things has been redesigned with a focus on getting a group together and enjoying some songs a lot easier. This is done via something Harmonix is calling the "overshell," and it's basically a set of pop-out, per-player menus that you let you adjust your personal difficulty, pick your instrument, and turn on lefty flip while other players are still picking songs and moving about the rest of the game. It's designed to solve the drunken "wait, no, you hit the green button, now no one touch anything while I pick the song" moments that have turned many a Rock Band night into alcohol-fueled violence. Hmm. Maybe that's just me that gets violent.

This MIDI box lets you connect your existing MIDI drums or keyboards to your console. Crazy. 
Things like the world tour mode have been integrated more firmly into the core of the game, so the backgrounds of menus show your band making their way from gig to gig, all while you're still selecting songs and such. There's a new challenge system at work with over 700 things to accomplish, as well as the ability to build your own custom playlists. These playlists can be saved for easy access to your favorite songs, and you can also use them to challenge your friends to leaderboard battles. This stuff will be tied into social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. Visually, the game appears to be a step up from its predecessor, with a lot of crazy, colorful effects. Don't forget, with the addition of the keyboard, there are also now up to five different parts sharing the screen at any given time, and a potential total of seven players playing at once.

Though the whole idea for Rock Band since its original release has been that it's more of a platform unto itself than a series of individual games, the additions in Rock Band 3 appear to be totally worthy of an all-new piece of software. It'll also be compatible with all of your existing exported or downloaded Rock Band tracks, though older tracks won't suddenly receive vocal harmonies, keyboards, or pro guitar parts. Also, it's worth noting that due to changes in the file formats Harmonix is using for downloadable content, song packs released after RB3's release won't work in Rock Band 2, effectively putting an end to continued support for the first two games in the series. That seems like a very small bump in the road when taken alongside the large-sized leap that Rock Band 3 appears to be taking. It's due out on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii this holiday season. A DS version is also in development, but... well... I bet that one won't support pro guitar. No details on the handheld version have been made available at this time. 
 
[UPDATE 6/12/10]: Updated this story to note that pro bass will be in the final product, but wasn't in the version we were shown. Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
267 Comments
Posted by Jeff

I don't think anyone's really sure about the future of the music game genre. When sales started to slip last year, things started looking incredibly over-saturated. This year, some publishers feel like they're retreating to familiar territory and hoping it all works itself out. But that's not the vibe you get from Harmonix Music Systems after you get a look at its next major release, Rock Band 3. There's a sort of "all or nothing" vibe to the game, and I was left with the distinct impression that the next Rock Band will either reinvigorate the genre or completely obliterate it. But at least Harmonix will rip it all apart on its own terms with an ambitious new set of optional hardware that lets players who crave a more realistic experience go absolutely overboard in incredibly exciting new ways.

The effects strip on the neck is the keyboard version of the whammy bar. 
The majority of the new hardware is being built by Mad Catz this time around. While I still remember the peripheral-focused company's shaky past, it's done all right by Street Fighter IV players for the past couple of years, and after gripping a prototype of the new keyboard controller for myself, it feels like a sturdy item. On top of that, it doubles as a keytar with a short neck--complete with effects strip--and pegs for attaching a strap. If you want to utilize the keyboard in non-Rock Band scenarios, it also has a MIDI out port. Sadly, the keyboard was duct-taped down to a stand when I saw it, dashing my keytar dreams before they were allowed to take flight.
  
  
By default, you'll use five keys on the keyboard, starting at middle C, to play the game. It's not unlike playing bass or guitar except there's nothing to strum. Adding keyboard parts to the songs opens up a wide new variety of music to the game, and some of the song selections for RB3 definitely have piano and synth parts in mind. For songs that don't have any keys to play, you can opt to play guitar or bass parts on the keyboard controller. Similarly, if you don't have the scratch to pick up a keyboard, you can play keyboard parts on guitar or bass. Of course, there are more than five keys on that keyboard. It covers a full two octaves. And if you turn on "pro mode," you'll have to play a lot more than just five keys.

The Mad Catz pro guitar has a ton of little buttons on it. Didn't get to try it in game, but I held one and it at least felt nice. 
Pro mode is the term the developers are using to differentiate a new upper tier of gameplay in Rock Band 3. It's designed to be more realistic and, by design, it ends up being a lot harder than what you're probably used to. When you enable it on the keyboard, the display changes to show more keys, forcing you to essentially play accurate keyboard parts on its highest setting. The keyboard will be available on its own for $79.99, or in a bundle with the game for $129.99.

Vocals get optional three-part harmonies, like Beatles and Green Day had, and by default, the drums in Rock Band 3 are unchanged. But remember those cymbal attachments that were sold alongside previous Rock Band kits? In the drummer's take on pro mode, some gems go between their regular style and tiny cymbals. This tells you when you'll hit the pads down below and when you'll go up top to hit one of your three cymbals. Interestingly, the expanded drum parts are backwards compatible, so much of the existing Rock Band DLC and on-disc tracks from the previous games will automatically feature the proper pro drum data. The cymbals on the Ion Drum Rocker will also work for pro drums.

Bass parts seem to be getting short shrift at the moment, as the version I saw didn't have pro bass in it. The over-the-top nature of pro guitar went a long way, though. Pro guitar will require an entirely different controller, one that's more like a real guitar. Mad Catz is making a MIDI guitar that has six strings at the bottom and a series of buttons that go all the way up the neck of the guitar, six per fret. Like the keytar, the guitar also has a MIDI out port on it. The guitar will sell for $149.99 and should be available at launch. MTV has also announced a deal with Fender to produce a real, amp-ready guitar that also doubles as a pro mode guitar controller. The "Squier By Fender Stratocaster" is a full-sized guitar. Pricing and availability of the Fender "controller" isn't available at this time.

Here's pro mode keys, drums, and guitar. 
So now we have two "real guitar" rhythm games coming out this year. Though I've only seen the PowerGig guitar, the biggest difference so far seems to be about the approach. While PowerGig's developers seem to shy away from being referred to as a teaching tool and sounds like it'll focus on power chords on its higher difficulty settings, Rock Band 3's expert-level pro guitar parts are said to be designed with authenticity in mind. In effect, if you're playing pro guitar on its highest setting, you're playing something that closely resembles that song's actual guitar part. To convey the information about how to actually play those parts, the note highways deliver shapes with numbers in them. The shapes will somehow tell you how and where to hold your hand on the neck of the guitar. Of course, you'll be able to play pro guitar on easy difficulty, giving you a whole new ramp to ascend. As a part of that process, you'll be able to enter the game's training mode, which allows you to take the songs down to 50 percent of normal speed and practice them until you get it down.

All of the pro mode stuff is a lot to take in, and it feels like the sort of thing that'll be best for actual musicians and the aspirational types that want to get their learn on. So it's a good thing that all of the old ways to play Rock Band are still intact. In fact, the entire software side of things has been redesigned with a focus on getting a group together and enjoying some songs a lot easier. This is done via something Harmonix is calling the "overshell," and it's basically a set of pop-out, per-player menus that you let you adjust your personal difficulty, pick your instrument, and turn on lefty flip while other players are still picking songs and moving about the rest of the game. It's designed to solve the drunken "wait, no, you hit the green button, now no one touch anything while I pick the song" moments that have turned many a Rock Band night into alcohol-fueled violence. Hmm. Maybe that's just me that gets violent.

This MIDI box lets you connect your existing MIDI drums or keyboards to your console. Crazy. 
Things like the world tour mode have been integrated more firmly into the core of the game, so the backgrounds of menus show your band making their way from gig to gig, all while you're still selecting songs and such. There's a new challenge system at work with over 700 things to accomplish, as well as the ability to build your own custom playlists. These playlists can be saved for easy access to your favorite songs, and you can also use them to challenge your friends to leaderboard battles. This stuff will be tied into social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. Visually, the game appears to be a step up from its predecessor, with a lot of crazy, colorful effects. Don't forget, with the addition of the keyboard, there are also now up to five different parts sharing the screen at any given time, and a potential total of seven players playing at once.

Though the whole idea for Rock Band since its original release has been that it's more of a platform unto itself than a series of individual games, the additions in Rock Band 3 appear to be totally worthy of an all-new piece of software. It'll also be compatible with all of your existing exported or downloaded Rock Band tracks, though older tracks won't suddenly receive vocal harmonies, keyboards, or pro guitar parts. Also, it's worth noting that due to changes in the file formats Harmonix is using for downloadable content, song packs released after RB3's release won't work in Rock Band 2, effectively putting an end to continued support for the first two games in the series. That seems like a very small bump in the road when taken alongside the large-sized leap that Rock Band 3 appears to be taking. It's due out on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii this holiday season. A DS version is also in development, but... well... I bet that one won't support pro guitar. No details on the handheld version have been made available at this time. 
 
[UPDATE 6/12/10]: Updated this story to note that pro bass will be in the final product, but wasn't in the version we were shown.
Staff
Posted by TheYear20XX

I'm so so excited for this.

Edited by Bobdaman18

u sob...
Posted by JacobFromMT

so close, fuck

Posted by Joeku

Pumped.
 
PUMPED.

Edited by OllyOxenFree

Wow.  They really revamped it.

Posted by carlthenimrod

I'm on-board as long as all my old stuff works.

Posted by Bobbywich

Impressive

Posted by Dysnomia

Midi Box? FUCK YES. Now I can use my dad's electronic drums instead of those stock shitty ones...

Posted by TobyD81
Seriously excited about this, especially pro guitar. Finally I might learn some skills I can use in real life. Can't wait.
Posted by Phished0ne

am i the only one that is pissed that rock band 3 puts an end to rock band 2 dlc....i dont plan on picking this up right away, espeically considering the price tag on keyboard+software.

Posted by PorkLord

Love the keyboard.

Posted by heat

Jesus.

Posted by tyxja

Dude. Awesome.

Posted by Dany

Damn, they really did alot to this. Compared to Powergig, this one actually looks like it makes stride to resemble real instruments

Posted by ApolloJ85

Man oh man oh man. I hope Harmonix bothers to release this in the Australian market instead of leaving me with crappy Guitar Hero, like they have since forever.

Posted by Octaslash

I'll be able to use my own keyboard? That is crazy awesome. I'm never going to buy a plastic instrument again. Now I'm just wondering how much the MIDI box will cost.

Posted by kwyee

Wow Harmonix have actually made me excited about rhythm games again.

Posted by tamtamg

 Will they have a midi adapter to plug in a regular guitar? The caption on the midi adapter in the article is for drums and keyboard only. I'd love to rock out RB:3 on my Telecaster.

Posted by Shuborno

Very nice.  Kudos to Harmonix for taking it in this direction.

Posted by VoshiNova

Holy shit, that's actually pretty rad.

Posted by monster9999

I'm already predicting a five star review from Ryan, if green day can squeeze in with a four this will be a five and an inevitable purchase for me

Posted by Red

As someone who absolutely loves music, and has always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, this looks perfect.

Posted by tineyoghurt

Wow, that was a lot of new thingies. I like that all the new peripherals have MIDI out, so that amateur musicians as myself can get some cheap keytars.

Posted by Devil240Z

wow that actually makes me interested in music games again. pro guitar and keyboard sound great. 

Posted by TheWoj

This is everything I wanted out of the next main Rock Band game, so I have a lot of high hopes. As someone who still plays RB2 on a regular basis, these are the kinds of changes that needed to happen, and with HMX steering the ship, I can assume it will be great.

Posted by CowboyBebopper

As soon as I hear real price points then I'll get excited...

Posted by iAmJohn

Fuck...

Posted by MAN_FLANNEL

Looks pretty shitty for left handed duders. 

Posted by rhfb

I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it I want it.
 
 
YOOOOOOOOOOOU CANT HAVE IT (yet)

Posted by clubsandwich

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY FUCK YEAH! :D

Posted by Grimi

How does Harmonix do it? I was super excited for Rock Band 1 then somehow got REALLY excited for Rock Band 2 and I thought there was no way Rock Band 3 could get me excited but now I'm SUPER pumped for this and playing the new keyboard and some drums on pro. Can't wait!

Posted by DukesT3

goddammit.. i'll probably buy the bundle.. again. everytime i say I'm done, the instruments look better and more durable or whatever. oh well. my girlfriend will pay for half this time!

Posted by Jeff
@Octaslash: $39.99
Staff
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Wow, that looks pretty sweet.  Might have to finally invest into a Rock Band game when this one hits.  Well, more than likely, I'll wait for an Amazon sale or something, but still... should take the plunge sometime.
Moderator
Posted by Landon
@Jeff said:

 Sadly, the keyboard was duct-taped down to a stand when I saw it, dashing my keytar dreams before they were allowed to take flight. "  "

Poor Jeff.
Posted by TwoOneFive

just want to scream a randy style WOOAAAHHHHHHHH

Posted by zitosilva

Well, I guess this is the only remaining parth for the genre, right?
 
Still, I wonder if this'll still have tha same appeal to the public. I mean, sure, you may still be able to play it as you did with the old games if you turn off all this pro things, but still... there's something about it that scares me. I'm looking at these new instruments and I'm scared, because I do want to play RB 3, but I know I'll never be able to even scratch anything related with pro modes.
 
I don't think any of this is bad, but I guess it's a sign that these products are no longer what I'm looking for..

Posted by jonnyboy

Jesus this game is missing the point. I didn't play RB:Beatles to because I dream to play Beatles songs, I can already do that, I played the Beatles Game because I want to imagine I'm IN the Beatles. Adding this layer of simulation just takes away from that fantasy.  These games are supposed to be escapism for me, I don't want to shred like Mustaine, I want to be Mustaine if only for 4 and a half minutes.

Posted by HeyMykie

this game is gonna be kinda awesome actually....

Posted by masternater27

I can't believe that my midi keyboard will work with it already haha.

Posted by punkxblaze

This is why I still tolerate Rock Band and fucking abhor Guitar Hero. Rockband be changin' shit up, yo.

Posted by Ratfoot

Well done Harmonix you have brought me from having no interest to needing this game now. Can't wait to hook up my electric grand piano with that MIDI converter.

Posted by angelfan91

Damn, I want a box set with wireless pro guitar and wireless keyboard.  That's the only way I buy a box set.
Posted by Nadafinga

Man, keyboard + game is $130? that's a lot, I was hoping it would be around $100-$110. But to play Bohemian Rhapsody, I'm in.

Posted by Doogie2K

My only question is, will we finally be able to play the synth intro to "Baba O'Riley"? If yes...sigh, I think I'm sold. I'm a fucking moron, but I'm sold.

Posted by orshick

Wow. This is exactly what I wanted out of a music game. And I was so ready to discount the rhythm game genre entirely, but now it looks like I might have to get this. Just for the pro mode.

Posted by ZettaSlow

THE GUITAR IS A MUSTANG 
 
THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER

Posted by Jadeskye

Holy fuck. okay i take back what i said yesterday. More rockband please!

Posted by GradiusCat

What would happen if say I plug in Ableton Live thru the Midi Box?