Review: Rock Band 3

When Harmonix told us that we'd "be surprised by how big Rock Band 3 is", we were all skeptical, yet we were ready to be blown away. While we knew a little bit about what Rock Band 3 was going to accomplish, we had no idea as to what we were in for. With the announcement that the game would not only perfect the formula that has made them one of the heavyweights in the gaming world, but also actually take strides to teach players how to play real instruments, we realized the magnitude of what this game could mean.

The first thing you have to look at with a game such as Rock Band 3 is the massive list of improvements and additions that the game has over its predecessor, Rock Band 2. Rock Band 3 takes the core gameplay elements of Rock Band 2, which many feel to be the top in the genre, and adds one of the most robust list of features ever seen in any sequel of any genre. The additions range from small to enormous and impact the player's experience exponentially.

The biggest, and most heralded additions are obviously the new instruments and the impressive Pro-Mode. This time around, instead of simply keeping the instruments locked at vocals, guitar, bass and drums, Harmonix has filled a much-needed gap with the addition of the keyboard. The five instrument scheme works amazingly within the Rock Band formula and the keyboard peripheral is made of very high quality. With the keyboard, players can use the realistic keys to play in normal mode, which consists of the classic five colors found on other instruments, or they can play it in Pro-Mode, which assigns nearly every key a scrolling indicator that makes the player actually work to learn to play the keyboard as an instrument.

Pro-Mode isn't limited to the keyboard, however. Pro-Mode also works for every instrument in the game. For Pro-Drums, you attach cymbals to your Rock Band 2 or 3 drum kit. Then, once you select how many cymbals you have attached (anywhere from one to three), you'll be forced to not only hit the cymbal when it's time to hit the cymbal, but you'll be required to hit the correct cymbal. The way the game indicates this is instead of scrolling rectangular notes at you, cymbal hits will show as circular. This definitely takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you will find that Harmonix has completely revitalized the fun of drumming. As someone who lost interest in Rock Band drumming several years ago, I've now found that drumming is in tight competition for my favorite instrument in the platform.

If drums and keyboards aren't really your thing, but you still want to learn a thing or two from this game, you can purchase a Pro-Guitar and learn how to play the various Rock Band 3 songs on guitar and bass. The great thing about Pro-Guitar and Pro-Bass is that they are actually played on guitars that have real frets and use all six strings. For Pro-Guitar the game will replace the five colored rectangles with six strings that have a special tablature language that signals what fret and string must be pressed and plucked for individual notes and different shapes that show what chords must be played in the higher difficulties.

There will be two models of Pro-Guitars released for Rock Band 3. The first guitar, the Fender Mustang, consists of partial strings where you strum and uses touch-pad technology on the frets. This will, more or less, simply simulate playing a real guitar, while the Fender Squier, which comes out in 2011, will be a real guitar that is functional within the game. Unfortunately, neither Pro-Guitar controller has been released yet, so we have been unable to use this features as of yet.

For you vocalists, you aren't completely left out in the dark. Though there may not be an official "Pro-Mode" for vocals, there have been a few significant upgrades which will make the experience much better. The biggest addition is certainly the harmonies, which have been brought over from The Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band. While it still remains that all three mics used in the harmonies must be on the same machine due to the slight lag that is created through playing online. This may seem like a minor detail, but there are very few casual players that have three mics lying around, as well as two friends that would want to harmonize with them. The other improvement that vocals has seen is the fact that the "shaky-arrow" glitch, which made the vocal arrow shake and fall outside of the vocal bars, has been fixed and is no longer an issue.

Outside of the really innovative Pro-Modes, there lies the classic mode, which made Rock Band famous in the first place. While this mode is largely the same as what we played through in Rock Band 2 from a gameplay standpoint, the layout of which you select your playstyle has been vastly improved. You can choose to "Play Now", which lets you opt to play through quickplay or complete several road challenges to increase your stardom, or go on to the career mode, which will allow you to progress through hundreds of goals separated across the five instruments and their Pro-Mode counterparts. As mentioned before, the entire setup and menu system is very intuitive and feels miles beyond anything we've seen on either the Guitar Hero or Rock Band side prior to this game's release.

Before you get to rocking, however, you need to create your characters and edit your band. The logo designer is pretty much the same as we saw in Rock Band 2, only with different designs. Once you have a logo and a name for your band, you can choose to create characters to put in the band. The character creator has progressed from Rock Band 2 as much as any other feature of the game has. Now, instead of simply choosing a face, skin tone and body type, you can go into a full-on edit mode where you can stretch and warp the face in nearly any way you see fit, much like we've seen in sports titles and Guitar Hero titles.

Once you create your character, you can dress them up in any accessories or clothing items you want. They did go a questionable route of including shirts from bands like The Doors and The Who, which you must pay $1 of real money to be made available for your character to wear, but you don't have to go that route if you don't want to. If you don't feel like going through the character creation process for four members of the band, you can always appoint stand-ins from the ready-made characters that we've come to know from the previous Rock Band titles. The only issue here is that there is no way to easily define what character plays what instrument, so if you want one guy to play guitar while your character sings, you have to jump through various hoops to achieve that.

Once you're ready to rock, you can navigate through the aforementioned menus to select the song, goal, or road challenge that you want to play. The best part about these three modes in this game is the fact that they are all integrated into progressing your band through their careers. This is something new to the genre. Before, if you wanted to gain more fans for your band, you had to play through World Tour mode, or if you wanted to achieve goals, you played different goals in career mode. Now, you can achieve goals and gain fans all at the same time. Even in Quickplay, you will gain fans for performances. This idea really meshes with the idea that you are here to "start a band and rock the world". As you progress through gaining more fans, you'll see cutscenes of your band. They start simple with your band sitting in a diner and deciding on a name, and work their way up to getting ready to run onto stage at a huge music festival. These also really add to the overall feeling of the game itself.

The most simple mode is Quickplay. All you do here is go through and play the songs you want to play. It's as simple as that, but Harmonix has taken this simple idea and created an enjoyably simple experience. Now, if you're a DLC hoarder, you don't have to go through the over 2,000 available tracks to find the one you're looking for. Now, you can sort by nearly any method you can think of. You can sort by song name or artist name like in Rock Band 2, but now you can sort by multiple options at a time. So if you want to only find country songs that you've gotten four stars on guitar and start with the letter "L", you can find that song immediately. There's even a new feature that allows you to rate any song, including on-disc tracks, so you can sort songs on songs that you really like. If that sounds like too much of a hassle, you can create a playlist and save it, so if you and you're friends like to play the same ten songs every time you get together, Harmonix has got you covered here.

With the Road Challenges, you will work you're way from being a locally touring band to touring the world by playing different sets at different establishments. These sets range from a pre-determined list of three tracks from a particular artist that you have in your library, to you playing to the interests of the crowd at that bar, club or venue. Either way, you'll always have a choice of whether you want to choose a custom set of classic rock songs, a three-set of Blink 182 songs or a random three-set of Nu Metal tunes. Another thing that Road Challenges implements is a system that awards "Spades" in addition to stars on songs. Spades are bonus currency that unlocks more venues to play and extra challenges. They aren't earned simply by playing well, however. You'll be given a random task at the beginning of the set, such as activating overdrive as many times as possible, or getting as many streaks as possible, or even nailing individual sections of the songs while you play through them. As you earn more spades, you'll unlock new tours that you can take. Touring will see you selecting a tour route and going across the country or even the world on those routes. Harmonix did an excellent job of creating a addictive feeling of being rewarded through this mode.

The final main mode is the career mode, which is essentially turned into the "My Goals" mode. In this, you'll be given hundreds of goals that are both general and instrument-specific. Some are tied to achievements and trophies, while others are simply tasks to shoot for within the game itself. The title does an amazing job of tracking your stats and accomplishments and lets you know exactly how far or close you are to achieving each and every goal set forth. This mode makes you incredibly prone to the "just one more hour" syndrome that every game, music or otherwise, should strive for. You can't begin to count the number of times you're ready to quit, but you see how close you are to achieving a goal, so you play another set. Each time you achieve a goal, you'll also unlock new customization items, as well as earn more fans. Goals aren't just tied to this mode, however. As mentioned earlier, everything is highly integrated, so if you achieve a goal in Quickplay, you'll be notified and it will be crossed off the list in your "My Goals" section.

Of course, every music game ever created is made or broken by the group of songs available. Lucky for Harmonix and lucky for us, the game with the most features ever seen in a music game also has the most robust library of songs. There are 83 diverse tunes on the disc with hundreds of tracks that can be imported if you are an owner of previous Rock Band titles, and a DLC library that stretches beyond the 2,000 song mark. With the recent release of The Doors' Greatest Hits and the promise of greatest hits releases from huge artists like Bon Jovi and Billy Joel, Harmonix shows absolutely no sign of slowing down or shying away from the model that has made them thrive in the music genre.

There is one thing that must be realized for anyone that is reading this and is thinking about delving into the Rock Band series for the first time due to the praise that this title is receiving. All of this entertainment comes at a very high price. If you are starting from scratch and want to get the full experience, you can expect to pay well over $1,000 in order to get all of the instruments, the game, and a decent amount of downloadable content. This is a very steep price for new players to the series and something that is definitely a commitment that many people will need to shy away from in this economic climate. Luckily, there is enough to do on just one instrument to justify the purchase of the game with just one instrument to start out.

Rock Band 3 is by no means a perfect game, but it really gets closer than anything we've ever seen in any genre. The graphics are improved over the previous title, the feature list is almost as robust as the song list, and incredible strides have been made to improve the series over the last two years. If every series took the Rock Band approach and improved their series by this much with every sequel, the gaming world would be a much better place. Rock Band 3 is, without a doubt, the best and most complete music game we've ever seen and will certainly be looked back upon as the game that turned the music genre away from the abyss of normalcy and the business-as-usual mentality.