I don’t usually enjoy going to preview events for music games. Usually, I walk in, sit down and you watch the developer band play a thoughtless and grating song selection as I sit impatiently until they’re done playing music that I simply don’t enjoy. That wasn’t the case when I went to MTV’s venue for the evening to showcase Rock Band 3. Once everyone was done filtering into the lobby, we were invited into the main stage, and as I walked in, I was immediately swayed by an inspired musical selection: The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News. I was immediately captivated.
One thing Harmonix made clear is that the music is the priority. Sure, gameplay is important, but the gameplay in a music game doesn’t mean much if the music itself is no good. Luckily, Rock Band 3 lives up to Harmonix's ambitions, with over 80 new songs ranging from the aforementioned Huey Lewis and the News track to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Night Ranger’s Sister Christian straight on through to more contemporary tunes from the likes of Spacehog or Phoenix, offering a huge variety of music to choose from. Added to that is the fact that you’ll be able to download almost all of the previous Rock Band songs. That “almost” wasn’t elaborated as far as which songs won’t be available for Rock Band 3, but if I were to guess, I’d wager the songs from The Beatles: Rock Band are excluded from the festivities, an unfortunate, but understandable concession.
Some refinements to this iteration help overcome some of the tedious bits of previous installments. One small element is the introduction of vignettes rather than loading screens. Instead of staring at a static image while the game loads, you’ll be able to watch your band make its way to the show. It’s not the most impressive element included in the game, but it’s certainly appreciated. Another ingredient is the fact that additional players can jump in or out of the game on the fly, even going so far as changing the play style (difficulty, lefty vs. righty, etc.) without having to go back to some multiplayer setup screen. Granted, this is something that other games have done before, but it’s definitely a welcome addition to Rock Band.
Other improvements have been made to the game, such as rewarding skill on an instrument by giving you extra in-game items when you hit certain benchmarks, or a refined music filter system which allows you to sort songs by game, genre, length, or even by the ratings you assign to the different songs, helping to make sure players get as much out of the game as possible. You’ll also be able to create your own set lists on the web, allowing you to set up battles, or challenge friends via the Rock Band site, or even social media outlets like Facebook or Twitter, bringing an extra emphasis to the game’s community.
That’s it for the little inclusions – now for the big changes. Firstly, a cue has been taken from The Beatles: Rock Band, as you’re now able to have up to seven players at a given time – four instruments and three singers. Another cue from The Beatles is that harmonies have also been included in the game, allowing you to really fall in sync with the other vocalists in your virtual band. Again, it’s been done before in last year’s game, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.
And yes, the rumors are true. A keyboard has been included in the game, but it’s not as hokey as you may think. It works quite well as the keyboard peripheral is an actual MIDI keyboard with about 25 keys. The visual cues in-game are very similar to the other instruments, as you’ll still have five lanes, each corresponding to a colored button on the controller. Perhaps the best thing is that the keyboard controller can also be used when playing bass or guitar instruments, or if you don’t want to buy the new piece of equipment, you’ll still be able use the guitar controller for the keyboard sections, which is an extremely clever move.
When looking at the keyboard, I was a bit confused – as I said before, it’s a full MIDI keyboard with many more keys than you’ll need in Rock Band. Well, that’s where the new mode, “Rock Band Pro” comes into play. With this new mode, Harmonix really wants to give you some basic building blocks that have the potential to turn into proper skill with real instruments. Granted, you won’t be playing the Hollywood Bowl with your mad Rock Band skills, but if you were sitting around a fire and wanted to make some noise with a guitar, you’ll be able to learn these musical ABCs in the Pro mode. The Pro mode has a different set of visual cues altogether, creating a more realistic replication of playing an instrument. Rather than five lanes to tap buttons, you’ll have six, and not only that, you’ll be given on-screen prompts when its time to move your hands up or down an instrument, with the lanes shifting over to the left or right, showing precisely which keys you’ll need to be pressing, even while moving around the instrument.
While going over the basics with, say, the keyboard, you’ll learn simple hand placement and what notes do what, which will eventually lead into far more complex tunes that you’ll be able to take back and play on a real piano. In the case of the guitar, you’ll go over chords and proper hand placement, allowing you to see how your hands should be shaped, which strings to place your fingers on, and how to properly strum a guitar. It would be bizarre if you had to learn chords or how to strum or pluck strings on a regular Rock Band controller. Well, that’s why Harmonix has made the Rock Band Pro Mustang Guitar. Modeled after a Fender Mustang, this new controller has a button for every string and every fret on the neck, allowing you to accurately learn how to play the guitar. And rather than the generic up/down stick to strum, this new guitar has six actual strings as an input device, so you’ll be able to get a proper tactile feel for everything you’re doing in the game that can translate into ability on a real instrument.
Rock Band 3 is really shaping up to be much more than the usual “more of the same” approach we see so often in sequels. The brilliant roster of songs helps make a more approachable game. The ability to play with up to seven players is something that will more than likely be a huge hit at many a party. The new keyboard peripheral creates a slew of possibilities of what to expect out of a music game. And the new Rock Band Pro mode (along with the new Mustang guitar) really fosters a love of music that few other games are capable of. Rock Band 3 is primed to be an evolution of music games in a way nobody else has done. It’s the real deal.