Rock Band 3
Rock Band 3 on Wii, PS3, DS and XBox 360 is a revolutionary step forward in both music gaming and music instruction
- Pro guitar and keyboards will turn gamers into real musicians -- really, set list is full of unexpectedly excellent instrumentation, keyboards are surprisingly fun (even in legacy mode), smart new additions to interface and career mode.
- Pro guitar trainer could be more user-friendly, pro guitar and keys could be prohibitively challenging for players with no music experience, set list may prove too varied for players interested in specific genres
The bar for music games has been irrefutably raised. Like magic, gamers can now be transformed into musicians... provided they don't run screaming for the hills at the first sight of a barre chord.
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I learned another song today. This makes four or five, at least, in the week or so I've been playing Rock Band 3. For those of you who have played a lot of music games, that may seem like incredibly slow progress. But the difference here is that once I've learned one of these songs well enough to make it through in the game, I can put down the plastic guitar, pick up my acoustic, and play the song for real.
This is Rock Band 3's Pro guitar mode, and I don't think it's overstating things to say that this is a revelation — a revolutionary step forward in both music gaming and music instruction.
But it's most definitely not for everyone.
Before I elaborate on that, though, let's talk a bit about the rest of the game. First off, the core five-button experience in Rock Band 3 is not markedly different from previous games. The interface has been prettied up considerably, yes, and the new, persistent career mode is a smart move, rewarding you for pretty much everything you do in the game. Things like drop-in/drop-out play, the ability to continue a song in training mode after failing out, and smart filters for rummaging through your song library, are welcome additions. But the core gameplay is pretty much what we've seen since the first Guitar Hero: entertaining, familiar, and heavily dependent on the player's appreciation of the included songs.
But the basic five-button play is the least significant part of Rock Band 3; the game includes more additions and refinements than we've seen in a music game to date. First up: keyboards. I'll admit that when I first heard about the addition of keyboards I wasn't terribly excited, but it turns out that playing keys, even in the five-button legacy mode, is a heck of a lot more entertaining than I thought it'd be. The experience for me was an awful lot like the first time I played Guitar Hero: it inspires the feeling of really playing an instrument, even though it's dramatically simplified. Not every song is as strong as notable hits like Night Ranger's "Sister Christian", but overall, keys get more than enough love to justify picking up the specialized controller, even if the thought doesn't excite you off the bat.
The implementation of the keyboard and Pro Guitar obviously affected the game's setlist, and to get full mileage you do need to invest in both. It may seem unfair, but it's ultimately worth if you take your Rock Band seriously. When I first saw the finalized list, it seemed a bit underwhelming and disjointed in terms of genre, quality, and popularity of artists. But having sampled the majority of the playlist with keyboards and Pro Guitar, I can understand why most of these songs made it onto the disc. They may not be the most shred-tastic on guitar, or the most challenging on drums, but every song I've tried hides at least one truly entertaining section that takes full advantage of the new additions. From the surprisingly active keys in "Fly Like an Eagle" to the almost jazzy guitar in "The Power of Love," I was repeatedly blindsided by unexpectedly awesome instrumentation.
Which brings us back to Pro mode. I'm doing my best not to hyperbolise, so let's just say that Pro mode is the feature that makes Rock Band 3 very significant. To be able to work your way from fingering single notes all the way up to pounding through complex chord changes is an amazing feat, and the game handles the added complexity admirably, both in terms of game design and controller design. Every song includes a trainer, which smartly highlights particularly challenging passages in each song.
But that leads in to my biggest complaint about Rock Band 3. It's definitely a great idea to include these training features for budding musicians but the way the features are implemented needed more thought. In the default training mode, if you miss a single note, the playback comes to a halt until you find the right note or chord. It may sound like a small qualm, but I found that it absolutely destroyed the flow of the actual experience; it also took twice as many run-throughs to properly learn each section. Fortunately, it's possible to turn off the feature that stops the action anytime you hit a bum note, but then you also lose some of the benefits of the training mode, like the diagram that shows where your fingers should be on the guitar neck. In short, I feel like song training needed better focus testing.
The thing that makes this more than an idle complaint is the fact that the game requires substantial precision on guitar. It's not as bad as it could be — for example, if you're strumming a chord, the game generally won't penalise you for hitting strings that aren't technically part of the chord — but aside from that, you have to be extremely accurate. If you so much as brush an extra string when trying to hit a single note, the game seems to consider this a "miss." (This was an especially significant problem on the pre-release Mustang controller I used, which had a tendency to register two strings being strummed even when I was very careful to pluck only one. Hopefully this is a construction issue that's been ironed out for retail models.)
Now, if you think about it, there's really no way the game could ignore things like this and still be reasonably accurate. I don't have a problem with the decision to do it this way. What I'm saying is that the game requires precision that may prove much more challenging than you might expect, even to those with some familiarity with guitar. This is what I was alluding to earlier: There are going to be players for whom Pro mode is simply too difficult, at least without months of working up to it.
The upside of this is that it gives Rock Band 3 substantially more depth and replay value than any previous music game. On guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, you have eight levels of difficulty: Easy to Expert, in both legacy and Pro modes. And getting to the top tier of Pro Expert on either guitar or keys will take a hell of a lot of practice.
And that brings us back to Rock Band 3's strongest trait: By the end of this process — provided you have the dedication to stick with it — you will have learned to play a real instrument, dammit! And you'll have fun doing it! After all these years of musicians turning their noses up at music games, music gamers can say to them: "Look: We are among you. We have become you." This is a video game that will release at least a few more real musicians into the world, and the significance of this can't be overstated.
This is the game for all of you who have a dusty guitar sitting in the back of a closet somewhere that you're totally gonna learn to play someday. This is for you steering-wheel drummers and you tabletop keyboardists. Rock Band 3 is the best way I know of to take music game skills and turn them into real-world skills. It'll require plenty of work on your part, sure. All your skills picked up in your years of music gaming won't help you much here; if games are your only experience playing music, you'll be starting from square one, learning how to play all over again. That's definitely going to turn some folks away.
But nothing worth doing is easy... or else everybody would be doing it.
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