Rock Band 3 is a great step forward for the music game genre, but it's also a pricey and ultimately disappointing one.
Well, yes and no.
Rock Band 3 is the poster-child of ambition. It's clear that the folks at Harmonix want to bridge the gap between listening to music and actually PLAYING the music. Thus is the creation of Pro Mode, Rock Band 3's smart-aleck answer to everyone who denounced the series and told gamers to play a real instrument (I'm looking at you, Jack White). The Pro Mode is essentially a harder difficulty, but with a few new twists, many of them relying on expensive new peripherals and some frustratingly intricate tutorials.
First, it's the keyboard. Rock Band 3 can be either bought as a stand-alone game, or bundled with a keyboard controller. The keyboard has more than one octave, a touch pad (essentially a whammy bar for keyboardists), and an overdrive button on the handle. It's built well and even has a MIDI port. The keyboard also takes advantage of both the regular mode and the Pro Mode. When playing the regular mode, only five keys are used, similar to the solo buttons on the Rock Band guitar controller. Press and play. The Pro Mode steps things up significantly, forcing the player to use all of the keys. This is a great idea, but really comes crashing down once you jump into the tutorials for Pro Keys. The tutorials teach the player octaves, arpeggios, and the like, but don't instruct very well when it comes to hand position. The easiest way to really play Pro Keys well is simply repeated practice instead of proper technique. The keyboard is a fun investment and adds a new dimension to the Rock Band experience, but it's a shame that the instructional support is so erratic and confusing.
Along with the keyboard Pro Mode, drums, guitars, and vocals have stepped up as well. Drums can now be equipped with cymbals for more challenging rolls, and the new guitar controllers aim to teach players how to play guitar for real instead of using simply five buttons. The problem? These are expensive investments. The Pro guitar controller costs $150, so unless you desperately want to try it out, you're better off saving your money for downloadable content. The cymbals are cheaper, especially if you already have a drum set, but still are pricey. Finally, up to three microphones can be used for vocal harmonies as seen in The Beatles: Rock Band (though if you want all instruments playing, you'll need to set vocals to "Karaoke Mode," eliminating scoring from vocalists). Rock Band 3 is a financially demanding game, but if you have the cash, go ahead and try out the new instruments.
The setlist in Rock Band 3 is one of the most severe issues that I had with the game. There just aren't many really fun songs to play. Yes, you have some big-name artists like At the Drive-in, Slipknot, Dio, and even Amy Winehouse, but you won't find many huge hits like those seen in Rock Band 2 unless you're a big fan of classic rock. Those songs that do deliver as "hits" have already been used in other music games, like Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." In addition to that, the music doesn't have much balance when it comes to decades. The 90's in particular are criminally ignored, focusing more on songs from the 70's and 80's decades. This isn't awful, but some more balance would've been appreciated. To make matters worse, not all of the songs support keyboards, which is inexcusable considering how much Rock Band 3 promotes the new keyboard controller (instead, the keyboard can be used to play guitar or bass parts). Fortunately, older DLC is supported across all modes (though you won't find Pro Mode or keyboard support in DLC that was released before Rock Band 3, at least not yet). In a nutshell, I'd say that the setlist is more skewed towards the "real-instrument lessons" than purely song quality. The songs are suitable as practice for the Pro Mode, but as far as being fun to play as a regular band with traditional Rock Band instruments, they are severely lacking.
If I have to give Rock Band 3 one serious thumbs-up, it's to the interface. Thanks to a handy drop-in-drop-out system, joining the game is never a chore. Turn on your controller, select a profile, customize your settings, and you're good. The ability for each player to select their settings is a good improvement, making the entire interface smoother and easier to set up. In addition to that, a set of Achievement-like "goals" are available. These goals range from nailing a perfect solo, unleashing overdrive a certain number of times, or more obscure objectives like singing all of the Lady Gaga songs in your library (talk about a challenge). Completing goals earns fans for your band to open new challenges, regardless of what mode you're playing in. The seamless integration of goals and challenges irons the wrinkles of past games. The new Road Challenge mode lets a band complete setlists to earn more fans and items for their band members. It's a modest change, but remains fun. Despite the issues with price and setlist quality, Rock Band 3 stands tall with an improved interface, making the rock experience all the more enjoyable.
Downloadable content has been a staple in Rock Band since the very beginning, and the introduction of Pro Mode, new peripherals, and vocal harmonies offers new opportunities for dedicated players. Though Harmonix will more than likely have to raise the price for Pro Guitar support, the new instruments offer chances for designers to try out creative methods. The Rock Band Store and Rock Band Network continue to get massive support, churning out new songs every week. It can't be denied that Harmonix is committed to providing new content for rockers, and the fact that they've been so consistent in their delivery has to be commended.
Rock Band 3 is modestly better looking than its predecessor, but doesn't push the envelope too much. The lighting effects and character animations are good. You'll be seeing a lot of them, though, considering that load times have been replaced with short visual vignettes of your band on the road. The soundtrack is as great-sounding as ever, with plenty of master tracks and a huge amount of content. The presentation has had some minor upgrades, but don't expect any tremendous changes to how the game looks or sounds.
+ Streamlined interface makes diving into a jam session easy and hassle-free
+ Varied collection of music to rock out to
+ New instruments offer new challenges and ways to play
+ Consistently updated DLC count continues to grow and mature
- If you want the full experience, expect to pay a lot of money
- Soundtrack relies too much on Pro Mode playability instead of great-sounding rock tracks
- Pro Mode Tutorials are unintuitive and hard to learn from
I've never felt more conflicted about a game the way I have for Rock Band 3. It makes some enormous and ambitious strides towards crushing the barrier between playing music and playing a music video game, but it's these strides that end up hurting the final product. The keyboard is fun to use, but a hassle to learn. The soundtrack is a mixed bag of enjoyable rock anthems and obscure indie offerings, but ultimately supports the Pro Mode students more than rockers looking for a fun experience. But despite these crushing flaws, these flaws that have built Rock Band 3's reputation, I couldn't help but find myself swinging the guitar controller during the solos, pounding on the drums, or singing my lungs out. It just goes to show that the Rock Band experience isn't dead, and continues to empower gamers and music lovers alike. Still, Harmonix's ambitions are a double-edged sword, fueling the teachings of more complicated instrumentation, but alienating those who've stuck by the series since the beginning.
All in all, if you have the funds, go ahead and get the extra peripherals; they really are what Rock Band 3's about. Everyone else should still check out Rock Band 3, though. It's a solid and content-filled rhythm game that just buckles under its own ambitions, and considering Harmonix's record with producing stellar music games, Rock Band 3 could very well be their biggest and most critical misfire.