Rock Band 3 Hands-On

New peripherals, features, and a goal to disrupt the music games business: Harmonix is nothing if not ambitious with its upcoming rhythm game.

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Let's face it: Rhythm games don't really hold the allure that they did a couple of years ago. Both The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 failed to live up to expectations from a sales standpoint, leading many to wonder if the bloom is permanently off the fake band video game rose. Nonetheless, developer Harmonix is still firmly committed to the genre as well as its Rock Band franchise--so much so that at a presentation introducing the game to the press last month in Los Angeles, Harmonix producers claimed this game will be a "disruptive title" in the music category. The jury is still out on that claim, but from the looks of things, it's clear that Harmonix has put a lot of thought into the features for Rock Band 3.

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Perhaps the most noticeable addition to the game is the keyboard peripheral, which is, obviously, used for songs that include piano or keyboard parts. While the keyboard peripheral isn't specifically required for the game--you'll be able to play the keyboard parts in a song with a guitar, if you like--playing an actual keyboard on songs like Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" or Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" (two of the 20 or so songs featured during the Rock Band 3 demo) was a kick. While the keyboard is limited in size--two octaves, to be precise--it should be noted that the peripheral itself is a proper instrument (complete with an MIDI output), which has some larger implications for the game that we'll address a bit later.

As with the rest of the Rock Band instruments, playing keyboards is easy on the lower difficulty settings, provided you've got the right-hand position. After placing your right thumb on the equivalent of "middle C" on the keyboard, the note highway gems are tied to the five subsequent white keys, and as with the guitar parts, you'll sometimes be pressing two or three notes together to form chords. Our limited facility with the keyboards kept us from trying any parts above medium difficulty with any sort of success, but it's clear that some parts will be tricky from the get-go.

To demonstrate the keyboards in action, as well as the harmony vocals that have been brought into the game from The Beatles: Rock Band, a group of Harmonix producers took the stage to play Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Judging by its inclusion in the next Guitar Hero game, as well as in Power Gig: Rise of the SixString, this makes it the must-have song for 2010's crop of music games. The on-stage group members gave it their best with Freddie Mercury's multilayered vocals and complex arrangements, and the result was a strong, if not necessarily note-perfect, effort. Vocal harmonies will be all over Rock Band 3, and several of the songs that were playable in the demo version featured those harmonies, including "Sister Christian," "Here I Go Again," "Power of Love" by Huey Lewis & The News, and "Walkin' on the Sun" by Smash Mouth, among others.

Those new songs will be a handful of the more than 80 tunes that will be included on the Rock Band 3 disc, and those 80 songs will add to Rock Band's increasingly huge content library, which is well over 1,000 songs strong now (and quite a bit more if you count the work coming out of the Rock Band Network). That much content can make for an organizational nightmare (we've all scrolled and scrolled when searching through our RB catalogs, looking for the next song to play), which is a fact that Harmonix developers are taking into consideration with improved filters and set list tools that should make those songs easier to find. For example, you'll be able use filters to show only new songs or only songs that are of a certain length (to prevent that annoying guy at your Rock Band party from selecting the epic "Green Grass and High Tides," only to fail once the guitar solos begin). You'll also be able to rate songs so that they appear more or less often when playing random set lists, as well as save and share set lists with your friends. Taking that idea one step further, you'll be able to create custom battles in Rock Band 3 and share them with your friends.

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Road challenges are a new feature in Rock Band 3--described by Harmonix's Dan Teasdale as "Band World Tour" crossed with "Mario Party." The core experience is still the same as Band World Tour--heading on tour with your bandmates to play shows and earn as many fans as possible. The twist here is that different gigs will have different circumstances and requirements to succeed. For example, at one gig, the audience might have been "treated" to a terrible opening act, and it will up to your group to win the audience back by using lots of overdrive during your songs. At another show, the audience might be filled with pencil-necked rock critics, and you'll need to play more accurately than you might have otherwise to please that tough crowd.

In addition to the challenges, the game will feature lots of goals surrounding a player's skill on the instruments. That's part of the approach in Rock Band 3's Career mode--the goals measure your skill on each of the instruments in the game, and you'll have an awareness of your relative skill on all the instruments as you go. Every goal you complete in the game will earn you fans, and those fans will earn you new items for your band…things like your van, which will further expand your touring capability.

Harmonix developers have something special in mind for the truly hardcore Rock Band fans this time around. If expert difficulty has become passe for you, you'll have an entirely new level of skill to choose from--known as Pro mode--which will be tied to the guitar, drum, and keyboard parts in the game. When playing Pro mode, you'll have relative levels of skill as well, but the ultimate goal is to better translate the gameplay conceits of note highways and gems into real musical terms. The easiest explanation for Pro mode comes with the drums; if you have a Rock Band set that includes cymbals, you'll see different-shaped gems coming down the highway that will indicate cymbal crashes.

On keyboards, playing in Pro mode shows a very different note highway, one that indicates every key on the keyboard peripheral. Though the parts start easier on the basic Pro level, by the time you ramp it up to the highest difficulty level, you're playing the actual keyboard parts as they are played in the song. The limited range of the keyboard means you probably won't get many two-handed parts going, but that doesn't take away from the technical difficulty of the notes you do have. Because there are so many keys to be represented and the note highway can only display so many notes, you'll see arrows onscreen that will indicate the screen needs to shift left or right to show notes that are higher or lower than your current position. It makes for a sometimes inelegant display, but those who dive into Pro keyboard mode will probably acclimate to it.

As with the keyboard, playing Pro mode on guitar will be much closer to playing a real guitar, and Mad Catz is releasing a specialized controller you'll need to play this mode. With 17 frets, six string controllers, and 102 buttons on the neck, it's tailor-made for Pro mode guitar and will let you play full chords across the neck, as well as the insane solos note-for-note just like a real guitarist. Once again, the note highway changes significantly for this mode, showing different gem shapes to indicate chords. At expert level on Pro mode, you're playing the exact same notes that Randy Rhodes belted out during his face-melting solo in "Crazy Train." As a result, this mode won't be for everyone. However, for those looking to find a bridge between fake guitar in Rock Band and picking up an axe and hacking out some tunes, Pro mode just might serve that purpose.

Whether Pro mode is as disruptive to the music game business as Harmonix claims remains to be seen, but it's nice to see the company looking to encourage more in the way of real musicianship with Rock Band 3. There's more to learn about the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo--including a hands-on with that Mad Catz guitar and Pro mode gameplay--and we'll be following the game throughout the rest of the year leading up to its release this fall.

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