Let’s not waste anyone’s time: Rock Band 3 unequivocally ranks among the best rhythm games ever. It may in fact be the best, for one simple reason: this "game" is secretly a simulator.
For the uninitiated, here’s a brief explanation. Rock Band used to be about people getting together to pretend to make music using fake instruments. Rock Band 3 can be that same experience if you want it to be—it’s called “Standard” mode—but there are a few substantial game-changers: there’s now support for vocal harmonies and a piano peripheral, but most notably there’s a completely new Pro mode that radically redefines the Rock Band experience.
While “Standard” Rock Band is a game, Pro mode is more of a music simulator, featuring its own Easy to Expert difficulty scale as well as some special peripherals. If there’s anything to criticize about all this, it’s that the guitar Pro peripherals will cost you an arm and a leg. The cheaper of the two Pro guitars, MadCatz’s 102-button Fender Mustang, will run you $150 USD. Set to release on March 1, 2011, the more expensive model, Fender’s Squier Stratocaster, is an actual $280 electric guitar built to function with Rock Band 3 Pro mode.
Since we’re not made of money, we unfortunately weren’t able to test out Rock Band 3’s Pro guitar for ourselves, but a guitarist friend that does own one demonstrated to me that it functions excellently as a music teacher. Watching him play the game via video chat, I asked him to select a song he’d never played before. He picked (the exceptional) “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1” by The Flaming Lips. He began on Pro Medium, played it twice, bumped it up to Hard, played it two more times, then tried Expert, running through it three last times (each time, he promised, was the last—what a liar). He then picked up his acoustic guitar and played the song for me in its entirety, pausing only once as he tried to remember the correct chord. In about 45 minutes, Rock Band 3 taught him a new song.
Rock Band 3’s Pro drums are a modification of the original peripheral, requiring a three-piece cymbal expansion kit (though just one or two will also function in Pro mode). At a far more affordable $40 USD (drum kit not included), we were able to pony up the cash and modify our existing Rock Band 2 drum kit to support Rock Band 3 Pro drums. The disc-shaped gems (as opposed to square-ish gems) that fly down the lanes while playing Pro drums indicate cymbal crashes, meaning you should hit the blue, yellow, or green cymbal rather than the corresponding drum pad. As the most “realistic” instrument in past Rock Bands, the drums feel even better here. The increase in inputs allows a much closer simulation of a real drum kit, and definitely reintroduces some challenge for those of us who can sail through tough songs like “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters on Standard Expert with ease. Best of all for drum players, Harmonix has always recorded use of a “crash” versus regular drum inputs, making Pro drums completely backwards compatible—consequently making Rock Band 3 a veritable drummer’s heaven.
The new instrument in Rock Band 3, the keyboard, retails for $80 USD and supports Pro mode off the bat. It’s bound to become a fan favorite—we love it, that’s for sure. Unlike the other instruments, keyboard can be quite relaxing; you can lean back, plunk it in your lap, and just play along (though if you want, you can stand up, strap it on, and play some keytar).
Standard mode uses five consecutive white keys, which, in regular Rock Band fashion, fill five colored lanes. You tap along, often holding two or three keys down for chords. You focus on things like holding all the overlapping notes then tapping quickly along, activating overdrive and building up to that 8x combo. It’s arcade Rock Band through and through, but captures the feel of the piano as much as the original Guitar Hero captured a small part of guitar. Dexterous guitar players may find that they’re able to jump right into Hard or Expert piano songs on Standard keyboard.
Pro, of course, is a whole different affair. Playing the 25-key peripheral, filled with sharps as there are on a regular piano, feels, well, a lot like playing a regular piano. Learning from the game, though, feels quite different. Rock Band 3 offers a visual style of teaching, one based on hand-eye coordination and spacing just as much as on sound and flow. It’s difficult to begin a song on more than Pro Medium, which spans 10 keys—Hard and Expert can slide to accommodate all 25. It’s easiest to pick a single song and learn it inside out; memory plays a decidedly assistive role in hand spacing. Learning that song—be it John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Phish’s “Llama, etc.—translates directly into real piano skills. If you’re finding it all too overwhelming and frustrating, the extremely flexible Practice mode will let you break it all down and build it back up.
The rest of the game is just as slick. The 83-song setlist is brilliant, filled with classics never before seen in games (Bob Marley -“Get Up, Stand Up”), Guitar Hero fan favorites (Queens of the Stone Age – "No One Knows"), all sorts of indie gems, and everything in-between. There are nearly 2,000 songs to download from the Rock Band Store, and the Rock Band 1 and 2 setlists are exportable from the discs for a small fee (primarily to cover new licensing fees). The game’s Road Challenges somewhat replace the career mode of old; career becomes more of a metagame idea than a specific mode—and it’s a hell of a lot more fun for it. The game’s graphics are stylized and sharp, the animations are smoother, the HUDs are neater; dropping in and out whenever is not only easy, it’s almost encouraged. It all just flows oh-so-smoothly. And lets not forget that the game now supports vocal harmonies, like in Beatles: Rock Band, and noticeably enhanced pitch correction.
Rock Band 3 is broader and better than its predecessors in all areas. It’s an arcade game for your drunk buddies, a toy for the nephews and grandmas, a new learning experience for the budding musician, and a sim for the established musician. In some emergency scenario where your Grandma shows up with your nephew Little Jimmy when you’re learning a new song on Pro Keyboard and your two inebriated mates are wailing away on the Standard Medium guitar and drums, you can get Jimmy on Easy bass and Grandma on No-Fail vocals and have a blast. Rock Band 3 is exactly what you want it to be—unless you want to play Pro guitar and don’t have $150 dollars. Quite honestly, that’s the one thing holding it back at all; most people will never play the feature of the game that’ll turn them into real Guitar Heroes.