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Rock Band 3 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 10/27/2010

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At GDC and E3 this year, developers behind music games showed off what they had to offer for gamers who have shown themselves to be increasingly sick of plastic controllers and fake drum sets. Some developers made the safe bet to just offer good music and impressive star power; others wanted to innovate, but just wouldn't fully commit to the added difficulty of putting real instruments in the game.

And then Harmonix showed off Rock Band 3. The curtain opened and Harmonix belted out an amazing version of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" with a real guitar, keyboard, an impressively complex drum set, bass, and three people singing at once. It's only a middling-to-good 80s song, but these guys belted it out with an energy that some of us music lovers have lost after years of enduring plastic controller malfunctions and tired setlists. Simply put, Harmonix once again made it easy to see the future of music games.

Rock Band 3 is possibly the most innovative music game we've seen yet, because it gets us so much closer to playing real instruments than anything else, all while continuing to ease people into the experience. Sure, all of the first two games' functionality is there, and the track list - which now has expanded to over 2,000 songs across all of the Rock Band franchise - is absolutely massive. Harmonix understood exactly what gamers wanted out of the next iteration of the cheap plastic instrument genre, and they have delivered all of it.

Starting things off in RB3 is a new interface that is slick, fast, and gets you into playing the music faster. Completing songs in Quickplay mode can now help out your band's career progress, and players can skip songs, change difficulty, and more right from inside a song while in Quickplay mode. Choosing tracks has been made much easier, especially for those with hundreds of them in their list, as there are now a ton of methods to sort and filter the songs you want to play. Rating your songs with one to five "lighters" also allows those songs to percolate the top in random setlists you create, and you can create and save your own setlists to play back whenever you want.

And if the only thing Harmonix did on the hardware front was add a keyboard, that'd be enough for most people to consider RB3 a success, but there's also a new Pro mode added to the three other instruments along with vocal harmonies for the songs that had multiple singers. Let's start with the keyboard, though: the official one from peripheral maker MadCatz covers two octaves, so it's not a huge beast of a peripheral, but it does feel solid and it works both in regular mode on all difficulties as well as the new Pro mode, too. If you're finding yourself feeling left out of the old tracks which have no keyboard support, it can be strapped around your shoulders like a guitar controller and made to play guitar or bass portions, keytar-style, if you like. And if MadCatz' solution is simply not hardcore enough, Harmonix will also eventually be selling a MIDI adapter to allow you to turn compatible instruments (electronic drum sets as well as keyboards) into game controllers.

What has impressed many people the most is the upcoming Fender guitar that doubles as both a full-size and high-quality instrument as well as a game controller - and unlike that other music game this year that has a supposed real guitar, this one works as both simultaneously. The note highway transforms into something seemingly alien as it teaches you real guitar with actual notes and chords, and Expert Pro guitar is so accurate (and in many songs, difficult) that playing the game and plugging your guitar into a real amplifier to pump out some sound will have you actually sounding like the guitar portion in the game. Unfortunately, this is all based on the E3 showing of the device, as it's still not available in stores yet, but this is a revolutionary transformation of what Harmonix started years ago when they created Guitar Hero.

For now, most of these new features only work with the 83 songs on the RB3 disc; I don't think they've made a final decision yet on whether they'll go back and add keyboard sections, Pro guitar/bass, or vocal harmonies to past songs in the RB catalog. There's a big mess of licensing that'd have to happen, as well as the question of whether they'd charge money to go back through these old tracks, doing a bunch of work to bring them up to date, and whether people would actually feel ripped off in paying for them - possibly for the second time.

Now, for the drummers out there, you'll be happy to hear that unlike with the other Pro mode instruments, all of the data required to enable Pro drums was included in all RB songs right from the start, so you can already play Pro drums on every song in the catalog. In Pro mode, your four pads are augmented by up to three cymbals (you can turn each one on and off depending on the hardware you've got) and you'll have to hit those pads separately from the drums. That can mean having a full eight things to hit when you include the bass pedal, and it's a very natural-feeling challenge that's added - and the nice part is that Pro mode for all instruments is a separate modifier from the difficulty, so you can stay in Pro mode even as you're still learning how to play. New trainers have been added to teach people Pro modes, too, and give a quick and dirty music lesson when appropriate at the same time.

The music on the RB3 disc has some great stuff, and I think most people will agree that it's the strongest on-disc track list to date for this franchise. The mix of 80s keyboard-enabled songs along with classics like "Bohemian Rhapsody" as well as some fantastic modern favorites really brings things together, and of course the DLC songs will continue, and from here on out, they'll be 100% compatible with all of Rock Band 3's features.

While Harmonix is asking people to spend money on new hardware to get most of the new features, the ability to bring a full seven (!) people in to play together at once is simply amazing in a party scenario. Combine that with some super-convenient features to adjust difficulty or enable no-fail mode right from the pause menu, and we've got a winner here for party game of the year. Budding real-world musicians will likely enjoy the move towards real musicianship, and those looking to learn how to play actual music will learn that much more from Harmonix. Rock Band 3 is a knockout in just about every way it can be. If you enjoyed anything from Harmonix in the past, you owe it to yourself to rush out and buy this. Oh, and I recommend the ION Drums if you want to get serious as a drummer - they're worth every penny.

Overall: 10 out of 10



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