Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360) review
"One of the biggest complaints about simulated rock has been that jamming with plastic instruments just isn’t the same as playing a real instrument. For me, that’s missing the point; these sorts of games have always been more about having pure and utter fun. But Harmonix has spent the last two years addressing this, and while the basic premise of Rock Band 3 has a familiar feel to it--play a bunch of songs until you become a superstar--it's also the most innovative and complete rhythm game yet."
One of the biggest complaints about simulated rock has been that jamming with plastic instruments just isn’t the same as playing a real instrument. For me, that’s missing the point; these sorts of games have always been more about having pure and utter fun. But Harmonix has spent the last two years addressing this, and while the basic premise of Rock Band 3 has a familiar feel to it--play a bunch of songs until you become a superstar--it's also the most innovative and complete rhythm game yet.
The first thing of note is that Rock Band 3 introduces the keyboard, which plays somewhat familiarly: gems of five different colours scroll down the screen, and you have to hit the right notes in time to build up your multiplier and score points. However, instead of pushing down the strum bar or smacking a drum pad, you’re pressing down the relevant keys with your right hand. The peripheral itself is impressive. Barring the fact that it only spans two octaves, it is an accurate representation of the real thing, meaning your real skills translate well into the game. As someone who’s had a few years of experience with the piano, I had no trouble playing through all but one of the songs on the highest difficulty, first go. For beginners intimidated by Expert’s note-for-note charting, Rock Band 3 eases you in the same way as it did with the guitar and drums. The four difficulty levels provide a suitable learning curve, with the easiest displaying only a small fraction of notes for you to hit.
The setlist lends itself rather well to the keyboard, though I was disappointed that only 66 of the 83 songs in the game had a keyboard part--and out of those, there were some duds. I would’ve expected the keyboard to be more prominently featured, given that you have to shell out quite a bit for the ivories. Nevertheless, I had a blast going through the songs, from Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice” to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”. The keys aren’t exclusive to imitating piano notes; organs (Devo’s “Whip It”), synth (Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”), and even brass parts (Chicago’s insanely fun “25 or 6 to 4”) are charted. Oh, and there’s John Lennon’s “Imagine”. And yes, playing it is totally awesome. As a neat bonus, you can also rock out guitar and bass parts on the keyboard; in particular, bass parts were a great substitute if you’re playing a song without keys in a band. It gets even cooler if your Rock Band downloadable content collection includes tracks with synth charted as guitar. Maybe you have some Lady Gaga or La Roux on your hard drive.
But if you’re dead serious about wanting to play the real deal, Rock Band 3 lets you do that. The keyboard’s Pro mode uses the entire two octaves and asks you to play the exact same notes as the keyboardist does in the songs. Gone are the coloured gems; in come white and black keys. You’re playing the real parts. You can actually go to a real piano and replicate the melodies.
That said, it’s not without its problems. With the learning curve much harsher with 25 possible keys to use, my main issue is that the interface doesn’t give you enough time to read and prepare for the next batch of notes. On the harder difficulties, three- or four-key chords are a nightmare, and even if you manage to hit the first note in a section, you might have used the wrong finger, thus spending the next couple of seconds trying to correct your position while missing notes. Going into a song cold is tough without flailing about on the keyboard. In that respect, the song trainer is essential in that it breaks down key sections and lets you practise them over and over again. But again, it’s not perfect. You have to work out hand positions for yourself. This can be problematic if you’re not experienced with the keys. For instance, one section of Tegan and Sara’s “The Con” starts with an E-flat. It might look like you should be hitting it with your thumb, but really, using your index finger for that note and then hitting the next by moving your thumb underneath is the best solution. Rock Band 3 does try to teach you a bit of theory through a series of lessons, but it’s not quite the substitute for real lessons.
While I had to rely on memorising hand positions to perform well on Expert, once you nail a song, it’s incredibly satisfying musically (you’re playing the real deal) and from a gaming perspective (it’s 25 keys as opposed to five). It just takes a lot of effort. If you’re somebody who never bothered going into practice mode in previous Rock Band games because “it felt like work”, the Pro Keys aren’t for you. And yes, playing “Imagine” in Pro is totally awesome.
The other instruments also come with a Pro or expanded mode. By purchasing a three-set cymbals expansion, the Pro Drums mode replaces gems with cymbal icons for cymbal hits. The hi-hat, ride, and crash cymbals are all represented, and even better, nearly all of your exports and downloadable content works with Pro Drums. I’m not a great drummer, but the cymbals made drumming much more enjoyable. It feels more right when you’re smashing that crash cymbal instead of that lame green pad.
For the vocals, Rock Band 3 borrows harmonies from The Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band, and if you dug them in those games, you’ll have a great time with Rock Band 3. There are plenty of excellent harmony songs, including “The Con”, Roxette’s “The Look”, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Unlike Pro Drums, though, almost none of the pre-Rock Band 3 songs support keyboard, harmonies, or Pro Guitar and Bass (the main exception being that the Green Day exports do have harmonies charted). Though I’ve not had a chance to try out Pro Guitar, to play it, you need either a 102-button Mustang controller or a six-string Squier that doubles as a real guitar, as you strum the same notes as the guitarist on the song.
For those who aren’t looking to invest in the new keyboard or any of the Pro modes and simply want to enjoy the standard modes, Rock Band 3 still offers 83 new songs that for the most part I enjoyed. There’s a slightly heavier focus on classic rock compared to past Rock Bands (The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, T. Rex), but most genres are represented in some form, including pop-rock (Paramore), metal (Dio), and alternative (Stone Temple Pilots). The setlist--which also includes Tears for Fears, The Beach Boys, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”--is well-rounded and allows each instrument to shine. Personally, I’m delighted that there’s a few good indie rock tracks, particularly from Metric and Rilo Kiley, as well as a song from Phoenix. And of course, the music library you’ve built up from previous games is compatible with Rock Band 3. In fact, a large library is handy when tackling random setlists in the career, as you won’t be playing the same on-disc songs all the time.
The song selection screen has also drastically improved, with a massive array of sorting and filtering options for those with hundreds or thousands of tracks. Characters have a grittier look to them and, accompanied with much better facial customisation options, my primary character feels more personal and ‘me’. Elsewhere, profile-swapping is a godsend if you play multiple instruments, and players can now change difficulties and drop in or out on the fly. A lot of refinement has clearly gone into Rock Band 3, though it introduces a couple of new niggling flaws. Score duels have been taken out completely, a shame considering sing-offs were a popular diversion at my household, and the All Instruments Mode, the only way you can have all five parts playing together, ended up being severely disappointing as the vocalist didn’t get rated on their performances. All of my friends agreed that the vocals lost their meaning in this mode, and we reverted back to a four-piece band instead, getting rid of the bass part.
There’s no disputing that the gap between simulation and the real deal has closed significantly. More than ever, people can transfer their musical gaming skills onto the real thing; for Harmonix to take this step instead of being satisfied and smug doing the same thing each year deserves a lot of commendation. And despite already having more than 2,000 songs available on the Rock Band platform, they are continuing to support the franchise with substantial weekly downloadable content. By today’s standards, Rock Band 3 is quite possibly the best in its genre.
Freelance review by Freelance Contributor (November 08, 2010)
This contribution was provided by a writer who is no longer active on the site.
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