Alex Rigopulos eyes are locked on the stage. He nods rhythmically to the music and smiles. The suit he wore during lunch earlier that day has been replaced with jeans and a white t-shirt. He seems more at ease. Middle East is a club in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, is the venue for Harmonix Night, a gig where only bands from the Rock Band developer are on stage. The genres are as varied as in a Rock Band game, and the locale is suitably worn down. I make my way towards the bar, hands the Harmonix boss a cold one, thank him for a series of excellent games and beg for Beatles anecdotes.
"Let's see... When I was the most stressed with The Beatles: Rock Band I had a meeting with Paul McCartney in my office. He handed a me a bit of lavender for me to sniff when things got the most hectic. It had a calming effect according to Paul. And I could use that", Alex says and smiles.
It's a piece of nerdy music and games trivia. But just as Alex told me before the release of the first Rock Band title - that's exactly what Harmonix are - music nerds. The greater part of the employees are in a band, their headquarters is filled music documentaries on DVD, and everyone seems to have their own opinion on what the perfect playlist driving to work is made up of. And this is also the reason why Harmonix have been so successful.
The day before Harmonix Night I visited the studio to give Rock Band 3 a proper test. It's ridiculously ambitious. Real guitars, keyboard, and advanced educational modes - it's for real this time and come late October you won't have to hear that whining chorus who keeps telling us "to get a real guitar instead".
I recollect the back of the box of the first Guitar Hero. "Kiss your air guitar goodbye!" We said our farewells to rocking out in front of the mirror and welcomed a new phenomenal toy that found its way into living rooms all over the world. They took a chance. Or a "leap of faith" as Harmonix themselves put it. And they made another leap when they wanted us to buy plastic instruments for an entire band with Rock Band.
Harmonix Music Systems reside on 625 Massachusetts Avenue, and it's easy to miss. An unassuming logo adorns the front door, squeezed in between a Starbucks and a few yards of brick wall. Next to the lobby area there is an enormous collection of DVD films, and games - both Harmonix own games and games from other developers. I spot copies of Frequency and Amplitude, all Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles, a couple of Donkey Konga drums, and action games of all kinds. There are movies like Spinal Tap, Beatles documentaries and concert movies.
"Everyone who works here can borrow what they want from these shelves, it's one of the perks for working here", I'm told by an employee at Harmonix.
I'm taken to Star Chamber, the giant gaming room where Rock Band 3 will be put to the test. It reminds me of a recording studio with guitar racks filled with plastic guitars, a metal locker with consoles and some kind of black pixel art on one of the walls.
"This is where we hang out after work to play Rock Band 3. Sometimes we go here after a night out on the town", project lead Daniel Sussmann tells me as he points towards the red leather couch I'm sitting in, "Some of us play until we fall asleep and end up spending the night on that couch."
I hope that's all it's used for, sleeping, but before my mind drifts away Rock Band 3 comes on and my attention is drawn to the giant Pioneer screen. The Doors' Break on Through (to the Other Side) has been given the honour of being played during the intro sequence that is made up of a nice montage of a roof top gig at night.
When times come for hands-on I first give the two new guitar models a go. One is made out of plastic, the other one is the real deal. The Fender Mustang replica has an insane tally of 102 plastic buttons, and the Fender Squier Stratocaster is equipped with six real strings, and the option of plugging in an amplifier. These are used in the new pro mode of Rock Band 3 where we need to master the entire neck of the guitar instead of just five coloured buttons.
The pro mode is difficult. A real challenge even on easy. I get flashbacks to my first sessions with the original Guitar Hero when my eyes wandered back and forth between guitar and screen. On screen a symbol and a number races towards me and I'm asked to hit the third string on the fourth fret. The medium difficulty introduces chords, these are represented visually by shapes that shows you how to hold your hands.
What impresses me the most is how smoothly my finger movements on the strings are translated to a number on screen. I always know where my fingers are and I can easily adjust if I happen to make a mistake. An educational touch is that the chord is identified on the side of the screen. The new guitars come across as incredibly luxurious, and the experience is grander than what it used to be.
In an odd moment of patriotic pride Roxette's "The Look" comes on, and this is when that great band feeling sets in. With the exception of the (air) drummer, every band member gets to shine, in the opening riff, the keyboard sections and the harmonic vocals. This is not a song I would keep on my iPod, but as a fake band experience it could become a favourite of mine.
Harmonix are very proud of the song list, and many at the developer consider it the greatest one to date. Grains of salt aside, when everything from The Cure, Tokio Hotel, Dio, Ozzy, Bowie and Him are in there it feels rather complete. And add to that a library of around 2000 songs waiting for us online.
The keyboard is also very entertaining and it has allowed Harmonix more freedom when picking songs from different genres and decades. Whether it's the psychedelic sounds of The Doors in the 60's or the synthesizers of The Cure during the 80's it's a pleasure to man the keyboard. It has a range of two octaves, and there is a button for overdrive and one to jazz up the long notes. You can chose whether to just hit a note in the right colour, or actually play for the real.
There is a very pedagogic and extensive training mode for each instrument in Rock Band 3. If you want to take on Pro Keyboard it gives you basic tips like where to position your fingers, and how to strike a chord. Exercises are looped and you have the nailed them a few times before moving on to the next one. A bit fancier than your average piano teacher.
Much like the more relaxed game mode in Guitar Hero 5, Rock Band 3 will also include a party mode. In this mode players can jump in and out of a song at any time. The career mode has also been changed and will include tours that you can complete faster. There will also be unlockable meta achievements, game related of objectives of different kinds.
If you want to create a band member in your own image, or perhaps a freak of nature, then the new character creation tool will come as a pleasant surprise. There are lots of new options for customising your rocker. Big nose or long eared? Perhaps both. It's your choice.
It's not hyperbole to say that the music genre will go through a major change this fall. When Harmonix revealed that already released tracks from earlier Rock Band game may be recoded to support the pro guitar and keyboard, the possibilities appear infinite.
I leave Harmonix with 5 per cent aching hands, and 95 per cent love and with Bohemian fucking Rhapsody caught in my head. I want to improve my keyboard skills, learn to play the guitar for real and explore the rest of the track list. I want to try the new drums with an extra cymbal, and I want to sing more harmonies. Perhaps I'll buy some lavender. And most of all I want to tell all the people who told me to get a real guitar to go crawl into a hole. It's for real now.
The borders between music games and real music have been blurred further and once again Harmonix is leading the charge. After having tried Rock Band 3 I wonder if they are still about to make a "leap of faith", I would rather call it a "stage dive". The crowd is there, faithful after years of great games, and their arms are reaching up to catch Rock Band 3 before it hits the ground.
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