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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 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.
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.
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.
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+