Harmonix have managed to pull a lot of things off with Rock Band 3. But one thing impresses me the most and that is how the we were to release a game that feels so fresh and exciting in a crowded genre. Ever since the breakthrough of Guitar Hero a mere handful of years ago (4,5 years ago in Europe), we have been overwhelmed with music games where we plucked familiar notes, worked long and hard to have the whole band agree on a song, and been forced to question the current day relevancy of Aerosmith and Green Day.
It's a playground for all, but the surface has started to feel more and more like quicksand. And it's only logical that it would be Harmonix who would take it to a new level.
After creating, or rather revolutioning a genre with Guitar Hero, the Boston based studio refined it with Rock Band, collected trophies with licensed music in The Beatles: Rock Band, and now they take it one step further towards realism.
The depth is the first thing that hits me with Rock Band 3. Ever since we were advised in Guitar Hero to "consider buying a real guitar", it has been an obvious ambition of the developer to share the joy of creating and performing real music. To make it more accessible and inviting, but making it complex enough for people who want to dig deeper. What other games can boast such depth and dedication to realism? Microsoft Flight Simulator perhaps. But that's not rock n' roll.
Rock Band 3 is an ambitious music coach. Even if most people won't care about how to hold a C minor, the opportunity to do so is there. A few menu choices away from the laid back party gaming of Friday nights there is a guide on how to create music on your own. Tremendous depth. The foundation is laid with the new instruments from Mad Catz, the keyboard and the guitars. The latter one comes in two models, a 102 button replica of a Fender Mustang, and a Fender Squier with real strings that can be plugged into an amplifier. An extra cymbal has been added to the drums, and they are very quiet and solid this time around.
All of this appeals to the music nerd in me, who sees some sort of romantic notion in every beat of the drum, power chord or primal scream mankind has perform since the word rock was given a second meaning. The may sound a bit intimidating, but keep in mind that the accessible party mode that everyone can join in on is still there. The easy mode is still there and basic motor skills and sense of rhythm are enough to make your way through the songs - and immerse yourself in the rock dream. And thank you, No Fail Mode. Thanks for being there.
The keyboard is a welcome addition that allows Harmonix to include other kind of songs. No matter if you prefer Lennon's Imagine, Roxette's The Look or everything The Doors' have to offer, you know that it's something new. At first you won't feel like a rockstar hammering away on your mini-keyboard, but you'll get into it soon.
The hardware is excellent, with large luxurious keys and a convincing sense of stability. You also get a lot of flexibility in how you use it, horizontally on legs or with a should strap like a keytar, or just simply in your lap. A quick motion with your left hand and you reach the overdrive button and the "filter", a lever that changes the sound on the longer notes. There is a MIDI output, and you can also use existing keyboards with the game.
The guitar comes in two new models, but your old ones are naturally also compatible with the game. As a dedicated user of plastic guitars, these have quickly become my favourites. The first impression, regardless of previous experience, is one of terror. To grip the 102 buttoned Mustang is overwhelming at first.
Personally I have only gotten to the medium level in the pro mode so far, where I pluck single notes and a few chords in Rock Band 3. The notes appear on screen with a number at the respective string and it's very easy to grasp. Even if the brain is cracking from all the information, such as placing your finger on the fourth fret of the third string, everything is very clear and logical.
When we start learning chords things get harder, but in a good way. Harmonix have created their own system of illustrating chords with shapes - symbols for different chords. You get a number where you put your first finger and the symbol shows you how to arrange the rest of the fingers. This takes a bit of memorising, but its definitely logical. However, it is a bit limiting that you can only perform a d-major in one way.
If this sounds to advanced for you, then that's fine. I love it. It puts high demands on me as a player, but the satisfaction it brings when I start hitting the notes is tremendous. Realising what it takes to nail simple chord shifts, has given me renewed respect for real life musicians. And it's an added bonus that I can pick up my regular guitar and use what I have just learn is an added bonus (it's not as easy or legal to hi-jack a Boeing after a round of Microsoft Flight Simulator).
The vocals can be enjoyed in three harmonies, something that was introduced in The Beatles: Rock Band, and this adds the already incredible lasting appeal of Rock Band 3. I'm still playing The Beatles: Rock Band to try and master the hardest harmonies and I have much more to work on with Rock Band 3 (not the least thanks to the live version of Beach Boys' Good Vibrations).
Everyone can sing, and just like in the previous Rock Band games, singing is an excellent way in for your friends who may not play games at all. During the Rock Band 3 sessions I've enjoyed so far, the "singer's choice" rule is standard, and we usually end up playing familiar tunes like "Living in America", "I Wanna be Sedated", "Break on Through" and "Bohemian Rhapsody". There is no escaping "Bohemian Rhapsody".
The 83 song strong tracklist is excellent, varied and evokes emotions. "Been Caught Stealing" makes us jump, the nanana of "Centerfold" makes us smile, the grand emptiness of "Space Oddity" and spikey guitars and hissing vocals of the "Beautiful People". Let's not forget about "Walkin' on the Sun", that makes various band mates of mine move their head like pigeons and pout their lips in a way I wish to forget.
If we leave the instruments behind and take a look at the software side of things there is plenty to be excited about. The tour mode is stripped down this time around, and instead of an epic world tour you take on various "road challenges", where you play a few songs at a time. Apart from stars, you also collect spades by completing challenges specific to certain instruments. We have seen this in the competing Guitar Hero franchise and the meta challenges includes activating overdrive a certain number of times.
Road Challenges and their bronze, silver and gold medals, is a smart solution and it allows bands who may only be able to play a couple of hours together a sense of accomplishment.
If you want to do everything in Rock Band 3 you are going to have to devote much of your next year as the game is absolutely bursting with content. Apart from achievements and trophies there are also hundred of goals to complete; everything from completing a keyboard song in pro mode to trivialities such as calibrating an instrument. These goals unlocks new instruments and clothes for your band. Good luck on "Obsessive Compulsive" by the way. The goal? "Hit every not in Rock Band 3".
Rock Band 3 features improved navigation and an improved overall experience. Streaks are easier to notice, after a failed song the band can choose to finish it, and so on. It's easier than ever to organise your library of songs and create playlists. Rock Band 3 also keeps track of your favourite songs. There are also separate menus for each band member in the bottom of the screen, a very good solution. You are just one button press away from jumping out of a song or changing the difficulty level when Dio kicks your butt with Rainbow in the Dark.
Harmonix have also made a big effort with the character editor in Rock Band 3 that lets you customise the look of your rocker. Personally I'm not one who easily gets sucked into this (coming up with clever band names is my thing), but the sheer effort made her is another testament to the fact that they have tried to create perfect music game.
And Rock Band 3 is more or less perfect - and definitely a milestone for the genre. The only minus I can find is the massive investment needed to experience the game at its full potential. But you still have the option of using your old instruments, and Rock Band 3 can give hundreds of hours of entertainment with just a guitar. The accessibility, the track archive, the ambition and the sheer entertainment value all tell us one thing: Rock Band 3 is the best music game to date. And the thought of where we might go next is breathtaking.