Rock Band 3 Review
Ever the innovator in the rhythm game genre, Harmonix- the folks behind Frequency, Amplitude, the original Guitar Hero titles and, of course, the Rock Band franchise- are back with their biggest and boldest title yet. But with the genre in steep decline, it’s entirely possible that Rock Band 3 will be Harmonix’s swan song. If that’s true, at least they’re going out with a hell of a bang.
The biggest step forward in plastic living room rock since the original Rock Band, the third main title in the series has more new features than you can shake a great big drumstick at. As we’ve all come to expect, with the new game comes a plethora of new songs to play. It’s safe to say that Rock band 3 has one of- if not the- best setlists so far in the genre. Big hitters such as The Who, The Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Yes, Deep Purple, Foreigner, Queen and The Cure are all present, as well as an excellent selection from bands such as The Police, Dio, Tears for Fears, The Flaming Lips and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Nearly all of the songs are great fun to play, with only a few receiving a well deserved eye roll (Amy Winehouse? Really?). It’s also very likely you’ll find song’s you aren’t familiar with but will grow to love (many of the lesser known female fronted bands are fantastic). The songs you have already downloaded or imported from the other Rock Band titles (including Rock Band 2, Lego and Green Day) will -nearly- all function in the new game, meaning that there are over 2000 songs available for plastic rockers to jam to.
Besides the new tracklist, the biggest addition is the inclusion of a whole new instrument. The keyboard is a great new piece of kit and is a completely different experience to play. Instead of the familiar 5 coloured gems flying down the screen, the keyboard’s ‘Pro mode’ makes use of the kit’s full 2 octave range, charting the actual notes needed to play the song on a real instrument. While slightly limited (the two octave range limits most charts to only one hand, although that’s all that many really need) and devastatingly difficult at first, the amount of satisfaction gained from progressing increases twofold in the knowledge that these skills could be applicable in something in real life. While learning to play can be tedious, Harmonix have made it as painless as possible by providing thorough tutorials both for the instrument and each individual song.
Of course, the new instrument would be nothing without songs to play with it, and fortunately Rock Band 3 has some great keyboard selections. Unfortunately while nearly all of them have keyboard parts, a few of the ones which do are still fairly dull to play, purely due to the nature of the instrument. This has already been rectified by the release of some fantastic post-launch downloadable content including The Doors, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd and New Order, so keys fanatics shouldn’t feel too left out.
Another major new feature which has shaken up the genre is the Pro guitar- that is, the introduction of new peripherals which actually replicated the motions of playing real guitar or bass. Two instruments will be available for this mode- a plastic Mustang made by Mad Catz- which features over 100 fret buttons and six short strings- and an actual Squier made by Fender- a fully functional electric guitar. In the game, the use of both peripherals will have you replicating the real guitar fingerwork which can be directly applied to a real instrument, which is fairly staggering. However, with the Mustang being both highly priced (£120 is more than enough to net you a legit stringed guitar) and in short demand and Fender’s effort not being sold until the Spring, it’s unlikely that many players will be able to experience this revolutionary step forward.
Drummers and vocalists need not feel left out, however. Drummers arguably get the best treatment out of all instruments, thanks to the introduction of Pro drums. With the addition of a cymbal set to your existing Rock Band kit (or a new MIDI adapter should you already own real E-Drums) the game will prompt you to strike them rather than the pads, making for a far more authentic experience. Even better, nearly all of the previously released songs in the Rock band library (some Rock band Network ones are woolly) have the Pro drums track already written. The improvement Pro mode offers is so great that you’ll never want to play standard drums again- it brings the experience even closer to true drumming and I love it.
Vocals now support up to three microphones, with support for harmonies when appropriate in the new songs. While the previously released songs have no harmonies (with the exception of the Green Day and Pearl Jam packs) all three microphones will still work, which is still great fun. The introduction of harmonies and keyboard allows for up to 7 people to play at once, which is both awesome and ridiculous. If you foresee such a gathering being a regular occurrence, you should really look at investing in a large TV as we found sub 32” sets to be impossible to play pro keys with 6 other players.
The huge song library and increased player count has led to the necessary development of a more streamlined experience, thanks to what harmonix have dubbed “the Overshell”. This allows players to drop in and out and adjust their settings at any time, even mid song. Being able to change difficulty without being forced to restart is a fantastic feature and the ability to drop out of a song should something come up is also extremely useful. In Rock Band 2 every time a new player joined the whole group had to more or less back out all of the way to the main menu, which proved extremely tedious. This new system solves all the interface problems you never knew the prior games had and makes playing the game with a large group of friends far easier. The old menu system feels antiquated in comparison.
The ‘career mode’ has been streamlined too, although many players will have mixed opinions on the changes. Instead of the old World Tour mode, in which the band travelled the globe and chose which countries and sets to play in, these new ‘Band Challenges’ set the players in pre-determined gigs in which the actual songs to play are slightly more customisable and sets bite-sized. While the Band Challenge might be six songs long, for example, it would be split up into three sets of two songs. For each of these sets players can choose between three different themes- for example, players might choose for the game to choose random eighties songs from the library for the first set, random long songs for the second and the final two songs might simply be chosen by the players themselves. This means that each band challenge can be completed multiple times and unless the players choose the same songs, it won’t get stale. Further adding to the variety during the band challenges is the ‘spade’ system- a series of goals which are randomly changed after each set. During one set players might have to fill the overdrive meter as many times as possible, whilst in another all players might have to nail a song section without too many slip-ups. These certainly give the challenges more variety are are fun to play. Some players might have issues with the number of challenges (I completed them all in two solid evenings worth of playing, while I never completed all of Rock Band 2’s World Tour), but they’re varied enough to be repeated multiple times.
Progress in your band’s career is also earned during Quickplay sessions, meaning it feels like your band is constantly developing. Tied into the gameplay are a huge amount of bonus achievement like goals, which challenge you to complete certain tasks. For instance, the game rewards you for hitting all of the kick pedal notes in an expert song on drums, or getting at least 87% in all guitar solos. Fans and clothing unlocks are now tied to these goals so they are actually rewarding and many of the goals have their own online leaderboards.
As is now the norm for the series, all modes are compatible with online play, with the new Career system proving ideal for online sessions due to its half-hour bursts of gameplay. That said, the online isn’t perfect. Several times I ran into the issue of a player choosing several of his own songs (which didn’t appeal to the other players) and dropping out before they were even played. The other players were then forced to either play his songs or drop out. Not ideal.
But despite these nitpicks, it cannot be said enough how much I love Rock band 3. It has become the nigh-on perfect package for music lovers, high score chasers and party gamers. The massive accomplishments Harmonix has made in not only developing the pro guitar, drums, harmonies and keys systems, but also tied it into an insane library of music with a completely revamped front end and community features- I haven’t even mentioned the new stat tracking on RockBand.com- cannot be understated. Even with Harmonix’s new found independence, it might be the last time we see a music game with such a huge amount of content. Rock band 3 is not to be missed.