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Rock Band 3 Review

5
  • X360

Harmonix brings the thrill back to rhythm games with a title that reminds you why your living room is cluttered with plastic controllers in the first place.


 We're gettin' the band back together.
I hope you'll pardon me as I wax nostalgic here for a minute. As someone who's been enjoying rhythm games since they were little more than an exotic novelty for importers of Japanese video game delights, it's been an interesting journey these past 10 years watching the genre evolve into a full-blown cultural phenomenon, doing its share to put video games into the hands of people who would otherwise have no interest in the pastime. Harmonix was one of the first--if not the very first--Western developer to take on the genre with its spacey, techno-driven Frequency and Amplitude titles, both of which I was a passionate fan of. But even when I bullied my way into a cramped E3 backroom for an early look at the first Guitar Hero game, as giddy as I was to see someone bring some proper rock-'n-roll sensibilities to what I recognized as an extension of what Konami had started with the GuitarFreaks series in Japan, I never imagined anyone without an already-established interest in this niche would see the appeal of picking up one of these bright-buttoned plastic guitars.

And yet here we are. Still, I think it's fair to say that the fierce competition between Activision and Harmonix these past four years has been good for the evolution of the genre, but has also left some folks feeling a certain sense of rhythmic fatigue. Today, even as an ardent fan of the genre, I have significant doubts about its continued longevity, never mind its role as a savior of the struggling music industry. I give this lengthy preamble here, not just for my personal nostalgia's sake, but  to let you know what was swirling through my head as I first put Rock Band 3, Harmonix's latest and most heedlessly ambitious title, into my Xbox 360. This is still an iterative experience in a lot of significant ways, but Harmonix has, if you'll pardon my French, gone completely, utterly balls-out, delivering an experience that keys directly into the ways people actually play Rock Band, while also making what I have a hard time imagining as anything other than the final instrumental addition to the hardware lineup, and expanding on the core conceit in ways that address the perennial, and perhaps, misguided critique that rhythm game players should just pick up some real musical instruments, for God’s sake. Frankly, the only real slight I have against Rock Band 3, and part of the reason for this brief history of rhythm games, is that I come away feeling like I’ve experienced the end game for the genre, as I'm having an exceptionally hard time figuring out where it can all go from here.

 If this looks too familiar, look a little closer.
For now, let's just talk about where it's at. Rock Band 3 finds all of the basics from Rock Band 2 in place, with a career mode that lets you form a virtual band and take them on the road as they go from playing local bars to trotting the globe in private jets to play sold-out arenas. It might seem like a minor point, but the knowing way that Rock Band has approached the weird, wearying trials of the touring rock band, and the tone that 3 maintains, has always been a key part of the Rock Band experience for me. Playing Rock Band is all about emulating the sense of musical performance, and the tone enhances that. You can also just play any of the songs in your Rock Band library--which, if you choose to pay the $5-$10 import fees for past Rock Band games, can include songs from Rock Band, Rock Band 2, LEGO Rock Band, and Green Day: Rock Band, plus any DLC you've picked up along the way--in a quick play format, as well as build custom playlists. You can also take it online.

None of this is new, but what's significant is how it's all structured, as there's no longer any real distinction between progress your band makes in the tour mode or in random play. It all goes in the same bucket, which, in a way, kind of strips much of the gameiness out of the package, or at least keeps it from distorting the way you'd prefer to approach the game. There's a series of road challenges for the tour experience, with each challenge mapping to a specific regional, national, or international tour for your band. Part of what I really appreciate about the road challenges is that, while each stop comes with a predefined setlist, you're also always presented with alternate options such as playing random or custom setlists from specific eras, genres, or combinations thereof. Not once did I feel like I was facing a bunch of songs that I had no interest in playing, which is a huge step for such a mode.

At first blush, the lack of stuff like explicit, instrument-specific careers made Rock Band 3 seem a little spare to me. But all that stuff is still there, it's just organized into a generalized set of goals that encourages much more à la carte consumption. There are goals for band achievements and specific instrument achievements, goals based on performance in specific sets of songs. There are even sets of goals specific to downloadable songs, and the songs you can import from past Rock Band games. It provides all the sorts of objectives you'd expect and then some, so if you want those sorts of directives to help shape where you spend your time with Rock Band 3, they're there. They just don't get in the way when you just wanna get some friends together and rock out.

 Don't wanna play drums? Don't have to!
Speaking of which, if you've ever played Rock Band with a group, you're familiar with the dilemma of running into songs that no one wants to play on a specific instrument, and Rock Band 3 makes it much simpler for players to just drop in and drop out or adjust the difficulty level they're playing at. This system also makes it much, much easier for the solo player to hop from one instrument to another, without having to do lots of arduous profile swapping. Granted, some of this stuff was introduced in Guitar Hero a few iterations ago, but they're notable additions here regardless.

Completing your goals, in turn, increases your fanbase, unlocking bigger and better road challenges, as well as awarding you with new instruments and wardrobe to deck out your band in, eliminating the cash economy of Rock Band 2. Character creation runs just as deep here as it did in Rock Band 2, and while there's a significant amount of shared wardrobe and hairstyles, the underlying look of the characters has been altered. For lack of a better word, they look a little harder--still caricatured, but not quite as cartoony, and the overall look of the game just generally has more grit to it. Navigating the wardrobe for these ruffians and ne'erdowells has been streamlined, and while it's all still sorted into a series of different styles, it's easier to just page through, say, all of the shirts you might have available.

For the hardware, there are three, significant new pieces to consider. Most accessibly, and perhaps because of this, most importantly, is the keytar controller. This new controller features an abbreviated set of ebonies and ivories, a small touch-ribbon for some mild effects-bending, and a button for activating overdrive. It can be held like a keytar, from a standing position with the strap slung over your shoulder, though when first getting to know the instrument, I found it much easier to play from a seated position. Though there are two octaves worth of keys on the controller, for regular Rock Band play, you need only worry about five specific ivory keys near the middle. (We'll get into the pro mode business in a minute.) Aside from the fact that you're using your right hand instead of your left to follow the notes, this five-note configuration makes it very analogous to guitar notation in Rock Band, to the point that, should you find a song that has no specific keyboard charting, you can simply choose a guitar or bass part to play instead. Though you're not strumming anything with your off hand, there's a weight to the keys that makes it a little more physically demanding on your fingers. The fact that there are keys surrounding the five you're trying to hit, rather than the five isolated buttons found on the neck of a guitar controller, can make it harder to move the position of your hand and play by feel. Still, I regularly found myself choosing to play guitar and bass parts with the keytar controller, even when I had a capable guitar controller sitting right next to me, simply because there's something about the keys that makes it feel more like a musical instrument.

 Finally, those piano lessons are paying off.
The keytar controller also comes with a pro mode option, easily the most ambitious feature in Rock Band 3, as well as one that's aimed squarely at the most hardcore and musically adventurous players out there. While Rock Band has always been about interpolating the act of playing a musical instrument into something that just evokes the feeling of playing that instrument, pro mode strips away that pretense, putting every last key to use. There are also pro mode options for the drums, which require you to purchase a set of additional cymbals to attach to a standard set of Rock Band drums, as well as a pro mode for guitar. There will be two hardware options for the pro mode guitar, though neither is available at launch. There's a MadCatz-produced controller whose neck features narrow, individual buttons for each fret and string placement, as well as five short strings at the bottom for picking and strumming, in addition to an actual, MIDI-enabled Fender Mustang guitar built to interface with Rock Band 3. The price tag for the pro mode guitars is just as daunting as the actual challenge of playing these songs note-for-note, starting at around $150.

There's the full easy-to-expert gradation in difficulty within the pro mode, as well as a series of patient tutorials that introduce basic musical concepts like scales and chords and so on. As someone who's been playing this style of rhythm game for a long, long time, I'd settled into the difficulty settings I'm comfortable with a while ago, but pro mode reveals a whole new set of challenges to undertake. At its highest end, the difficulty seems insurmountable to me, someone with little in the way of actual musical skill, but it still starts off approachable enough.

The actual on-disc music of Rock Band 3 seems largely informed by the hardware additions, the keytar specifically. Songs like The Doors' "Break On Through," Dire Straits' "Walk of Life," J. Geils Band's "Centerfold," Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love," and Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" are just fun songs, but they seem particularly notable because of their prominent keys. Still, it's a varied soundtrack without feeling schizophrenic, and while there are definitely songs geared more towards some instruments than others--INXS's "Need You Tonight" is a fine jam, but there's barely enough keyboard parts to justify paying attention--everyone gets their fair due.

So with Rock Band 3, Harmonix has introduced the keyboard, the last of the common rock instruments, as well as a set of instruments that eliminate the distinction between playing a game and playing an actual instrument, wrapping it all up in a package that makes itself almost entirely passive to the way you want to play Rock Band 3. Like I said at the top, I'm not sure where else there is to go, but I don't really care. I'm having too much fun right now.
132 Comments
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Posted by pwnasaurus

still dont get the whole rythm game thang
Posted by JokerSmilez

So close... :P 

Posted by norton123

Fantastic to see Rock Band still has it. 

Posted by one_2nd

if this wasn't so expensive I would highly consider getting it. 

Posted by canucks23

Harmonix game gets 5 stars... suprise suprise

Posted by MegaGoat
@canucks23 said:
" Harmonix game gets 5 stars... suprise suprise "
Bought and paid for
Posted by WileyS

In mere hours, I too will finally have Rock Band 3

Posted by LethalKi11ler

Never been more excited about a rhythm game

Posted by RsistncE

LO....oh, wait. WUT

Posted by SgtReznor

reading this review makes me hard

Posted by Daveyo520

JJ is going to be happy.

Posted by bucky

CONFLICT OF INTEREST SINCE RYAN AND JOHN DRAKE ARE LOVERS

Posted by DemiGodRaven

So excited to walk across the parking lot tomorrow and buy this after work. I love the fact that I get off at 10 and Gamestop opens at 10.

Posted by TwoOneFive

damn i cant wait to see youtube videos of dudes shredding on that crazy guitar

Posted by Echo

Now all I need is a console and some friends ):

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

15 comments in the time it took to load the page... v.v

Posted by Stahlbrand

Alright!  So looking forward to this.
 
Too bad it seem us Canadians are getting a little screwjob on instruments AS ALWAYS.

Posted by Blair

I'm so close to pulling the trigger on a music game but the peripherals are just too cumbersome to keep around.
 
I'm glad the game reviewed so well, though.  John Drake deserves this.

Posted by Kajaah117

The training mode teaches you music theory! Music theory!!! I don't think it gets much better than that.  
 
This game is the ultimate mix of entertainment/instruction. The Rock Band series inspired me to pick up a few instruments as well as some books about basic theory, but now it's both the inspiration and the teacher. Amazing work, Harmonix. This series has changed my life.

Posted by FCKSNAP
@bucky said:
" CONFLICT OF INTEREST SINCE RYAN AND JOHN DRAKE ARE LOVERS "
I wonder how Jeff is taking this bombshell piece of news.
Posted by Jeffmoocow

Seriously cannot wait to play this game.

Posted by Afroman269

Wonderful review. I really hope this game reignites the genre. They put too much hard effort into making this game solid, I just hope it doesn't end being the last big hurrah...

Posted by sizu

Can't wait to pick this up when it hits the shelves on Friday. 
 
Really looking forward to playing The Doors tracks.  Man, I love me some Doors.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

"The world wasn't ready for an Asian man on keytar..."

Posted by Red

Seems perfect. It's got streamlined features for when I'm playing with my stupid friends, and could maybe get me good enough at Piano so I could play a few songs at parties. 
 
 
Oresome.

Posted by Doctorchimp

Ryan how many times are you gonna let Drake put a gun to your head while you type?' 
 
Just kidding, it's good to see these rhythm games are going out with a bang....yeah you heard me...

Posted by Rasgueado

I'm glad it's good. I really want them to be able to make standard guitar synth's work with the game. Being teased with this feature that *almost* works with my hardware is torturous... especially when the solution is to buy something branded Squier. That solution doesn't work for me at this point in my life... nooooo way.

Posted by Tr4gic_H3r0

It's only a matter of hours until I can get my mitts on this game. Can't come soon enough!

Edited by Aegon
@Snapstacle said:
" @bucky said:
" CONFLICT OF INTEREST SINCE RYAN AND JOHN DRAKE ARE LOVERS "
I wonder how Jeff is taking this bombshell piece of news. "

Check Jeff's twitter.
Posted by mercutio123

Excellent review as always and just what i wanted to hear :D

Posted by claudius

This game is probably the game I've been the most excited for all year. As someone who is attempting to learn to play the guitar now, pro guitar mode is the feature I'm the most pumped for, but I think that I'll just wait for the Squier to come out before I get into it.

Posted by lokilaufey

I've never been one for music games with them damn peripherals, had the first Guitar Hero once and only played it five times. But I'm legitimately interested it this one. Seems like Harmonix is really perfecting this, and they've got and added the keyboard...an instrument I actually give a crap about and would have fun playing whether in or out of  a music game.

Posted by NathHaw
@H2Oyea said:
" @Snapstacle said:
" @bucky said:
" CONFLICT OF INTEREST SINCE RYAN AND JOHN DRAKE ARE LOVERS "
I wonder how Jeff is taking this bombshell piece of news. "
Check Jeff's twitter. "
Edited by AnEternalEnigma

It needs to be noted that there are 14 songs from Rock Band 2 that will not export into Rock Band 3: 
 

  • Abnormality - "Visions"
  • ACDC - "Let There Be Rock"
  • Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
  • Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
  • Breaking Wheel - "Shoulder to the Plow"
  • Journey - "Any Way You Want It"
  • Libyans - "Welcome to the Neighborhood"
  • The Main Drag - "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter"
  • Metallica - "Battery"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Give It Away"
  • Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
  • Speck - "Conventional Lover"
  • The Sterns - "Supreme Girl"
  • That Handsome Devil - "Rob the Prez-O-Dent"
Posted by scarace360

Cant wait to play this.

Posted by TheTramp

HARMONIX PAID OFF GIANT BOMB WITH FREE COPIES OF ROCK BAND 3!  And this of course is such a good bribe because they like the game so much.  So win-win.

Posted by FCKSNAP
@Bloviator: @H2Oyea: Thanks, never thought of checking there minutes after posting! ;P
Posted by Killroycantkill
@AnEternalEnigma said:
" It needs to be noted that there are 14 songs from Rock Band 2 that will not export into Rock Band 3: 
 
  • Abnormality - "Visions"
  • ACDC - "Let There Be Rock"
  • Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
  • Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
  • Breaking Wheel - "Shoulder to the Plow"
  • Journey - "Any Way You Want It"
  • Libyans - "Welcome to the Neighborhood"
  • The Main Drag - "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter"
  • Metallica - "Battery"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Give It Away"
  • Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
  • Speck - "Conventional Lover"
  • The Sterns - "Supreme Girl"
  • That Handsome Devil - "Rob the Prez-O-Dent"
"
Wow! There are a lot of songs in there I love to play. Visions, Battery, Give It Away, Rob The Prez-O-Dent. That's SUPER lame! 
 
PS: Great Review
Posted by bucky
@Bloviator: @Snapstacle:  I'm famous!
Posted by Praab_NZ

Hooray for Rockband and hooray for Harmonix, thanks ryan.
Posted by alexfase

Awesome

Posted by GS_Dan
@AnEternalEnigma said:
" It needs to be noted that there are 14 songs from Rock Band 2 that will not export into Rock Band 3: 
 
  • Abnormality - "Visions"
  • ACDC - "Let There Be Rock"
  • Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
  • Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
  • Breaking Wheel - "Shoulder to the Plow"
  • Journey - "Any Way You Want It"
  • Libyans - "Welcome to the Neighborhood"
  • The Main Drag - "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter"
  • Metallica - "Battery"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Give It Away"
  • Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
  • Speck - "Conventional Lover"
  • The Sterns - "Supreme Girl"
  • That Handsome Devil - "Rob the Prez-O-Dent"
"
Sauce?
Posted by ZombiePie

I present to the Giant Bomb community of at least one case where John Drake was "pleasuring" an ALEX NAVARRO" 

  
CONFLICT OF INTEREST ON GIANTBOMB....I SAY YES!!!!
Moderator Online
Posted by kitsune_conundrum

wouldn't it be great if alex was reviewing this.

Posted by Wrighteous86
@AnEternalEnigma said:
" It needs to be noted that there are 14 songs from Rock Band 2 that will not export into Rock Band 3: 
 
  • Abnormality - "Visions"
  • ACDC - "Let There Be Rock"
  • Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
  • Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
  • Breaking Wheel - "Shoulder to the Plow"
  • Journey - "Any Way You Want It"
  • Libyans - "Welcome to the Neighborhood"
  • The Main Drag - "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter"
  • Metallica - "Battery"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Give It Away"
  • Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
  • Speck - "Conventional Lover"
  • The Sterns - "Supreme Girl"
  • That Handsome Devil - "Rob the Prez-O-Dent"
"
Will only really miss "Any Way You Want It".
 
The only thing this game is missing is Beatles export, and I'm sure that's not for lack of trying.  Maybe someday... sigh.
Posted by None

I'm really considering jumping back to the GH / RB jazz all over again with this one. But if there's a keytar, will there be any Crazy Dogs songs?

Posted by hagridore
@AnEternalEnigma: Losing Journey sucks. Weird that Harmonix bands are on that list.
Posted by ShaunassNZ
@Wrighteous86 said:
" @AnEternalEnigma said:
" It needs to be noted that there are 14 songs from Rock Band 2 that will not export into Rock Band 3: 
 
  • Abnormality - "Visions"
  • ACDC - "Let There Be Rock"
  • Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
  • Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
  • Breaking Wheel - "Shoulder to the Plow"
  • Journey - "Any Way You Want It"
  • Libyans - "Welcome to the Neighborhood"
  • The Main Drag - "A Jagged Gorgeous Winter"
  • Metallica - "Battery"
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Give It Away"
  • Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
  • Speck - "Conventional Lover"
  • The Sterns - "Supreme Girl"
  • That Handsome Devil - "Rob the Prez-O-Dent"
"
Will only really miss "Any Way You Want It".  The only thing this game is missing is Beatles export, and I'm sure that's not for lack of trying.  Maybe someday... sigh. "
I'll miss anyway you want it and Spoonman.
Posted by Brackynews
@ZombiePie:  NO CONFLICT. I AM INTERESTED.  >_>
 
I will read the review tomorrow (word count much?), but oddly the two words that jumped out at me right away were "import fees".
Maybe I'm just nostalgic for the days when that meant giving cash to the post office, and not patching my save files.
Still, SOLD!
Posted by TheJudge

I will be getting this game for sure. Love the rock band series.

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