Three years after Rock Band blazed a new trail in the rhythm game genre, Rock Band 3 takes the art of living-room rock to new heights. A new keyboard peripheral joins guitars, drums, and microphones, providing a great new way to play along. And if you want to take your musical skills beyond the fake plastic stage, the new Pro modes and instrument training sessions can help you on your way. Though these impressive instructive modes require pricey extra peripherals, you don't need to pay a premium to enjoy Rock Band 3. It's easier than ever to have an awesome time playing your plastic instruments and singing your heart out, thanks to the ingenious menus, the rewarding goal system, and the diverse 83-song setlist. Rock Band 3 builds on all the things that made its predecessors great and introduces some engrossing new elements, making it the most robust rhythm game on consoles today.
One of the best ways to enjoy Rock Band 3 is the same way you've been enjoying Rock Band for years--get a bunch of friends together and rock out using two guitars, a drum set, and up to three microphones (thanks to the inclusion of vocal harmonies). Though only four profiles can be signed in at once, up to seven people can play at the same time using the aforementioned instruments and the new keyboard peripheral. Playing songs in Quickplay is an easy way to get things rocking, and it's now even easier thanks to new song sorting options, built-in setlists from developer Harmonix, and the ability to download user-created setlists. You can also take on one of the many Road Challenges, which are like segmented versions of the World Tour that appeared in previous Rock Band games. These short tours string together a few setlists and feature bonus goals that give you extra credit for feats like deploying overdrive or accumulating long note streaks. Road Challenges nicely harness the progression-oriented appeal of a career mode and neatly avoid the rigidity of previous World Tours, creating a great blend of structure and flexibility.
Regardless of which mode you are playing, your performance earns you progress toward a bevy of overarching goals that reward you for a wide variety of accomplishments. Some are simple, like visiting the downloadable music store, and others are more challenging, like playing a 500-note streak. Some can be accomplished in the span of one song (hit 100 percent of the notes in a solo), while others take much longer (earn a career score of 5 million points). Completing goals can earn you fans for your band and gear for your character, as well as bragging rights on the online leaderboards. Almost every performance can earn you some sort of progress, and it's pleasantly satisfying to finish a setlist and watch the fans roll in.
Aside from refining and improving the familiar Rock Band experience, Rock Band 3 supports a new instrument peripheral to bolster your band. The sold-separately keyboard ($79.99, or in a bundle with the game for $129.99) gives you a chance to tickle the ivories along with some excellent songs and offers two distinct ways to play. In straightforward Keys mode, you use only five white keys, and the note highway looks just like that of a guitar or bass. This mode is a great way to cut loose on the keyboard, especially if you've attached a strap in order to rock out keytar-style. The one-button-per-finger ratio also makes it arguably the easiest instrumental entry point into the series for those who haven't cut their teeth on a guitar or drum set.
If you want to take on a more serious challenge, you can also play the keyboard in Pro mode. Here, you use both white and black keys across the 25-key peripheral to play parts that more closely mimic what it is like to actually play a given song. Just like when you play another instrument, Pro Keys has a difficulty scale that allows you to ease into it. There are also extensive lessons that cater to all levels of players, teaching things ranging from simple scales all the way up through chords and arpeggios. The lessons are clearly and logically delivered, offering novice keyboardists plenty of room to work on their skills. Those with experience playing actual keyboards or pianos are also advised to check out some of the lessons in order to familiarize themselves with the way Rock Band 3 handles the instrument. Though the vertically scrolling note highway does a good job of visually representing the notes, it is unlike any other music reading experience you are likely to have had. Furthermore, you may have to resist your hand positioning instincts in order to get comfortable with the keyboard. Yet though Pro Keys probably won't earn you a spot in a real band, it cultivates dexterity and musical sensibility in a concrete, transferrable way that was previously accessible only for Rock Band drummers. And once you get the hang of it, it makes rocking out feel a whole lot cooler.
There is also a Pro Drums mode that incorporates cymbals that you can attach to your drum set. These offer the opportunity to play the already-legit drums in a more engaging, challenging, and legitimate way, but you have to buy the cymbals ($39.99) if you want to indulge your inner Neil Peart. The peripheral required for Pro Guitar also involves a hefty additional investment, but the excellent training lessons will help teach you dexterity and core concepts that apply to real-world guitar playing. Actual guitarists face a similar learning curve to actual keyboardists because they must get accustomed to reading musical notation the Rock Band 3 way and, at least until the compatible stringed guitar is released, contend with a not-quite-the-real-thing peripheral. The expensive guitar peripheral ($149.99) replaces strings with more than 100 tiny plastic buttons, and it can be tricky to find your place in the sea of little nubs. Still, it allows you to play Rock Band using actual guitar fingerings, and the note highway does an impressive job of communicating a lot of information in an intelligible way.
Though these Pro modes come with an extra cover charge, they offer something truly unique in the realm of rhythm games: a way to turn time spent with Rock Band into skills that can help you learn to play an actual instrument. Practicing chords over and over again may not be as unabashedly fun as ripping into an intense solo with only five fret buttons to worry about, but the thrill of building some musical skills definitely provides some strong satisfaction. Yet even if you don't invest in the brave new world of Pro mode, Rock Band 3 is still an excellent game that provides the best platform yet for plastic living-room rock. A slick menu system ties it all together, making it easy to swap around difficulty levels, instruments, and even profiles without having to back out to the main menu. It seamlessly incorporates all your downloaded or imported tracks, and pipes in leaderboard info to fuel the competitive fire within. Rock Band 3 not only introduces new and exciting things to the world of rhythm games, but it does almost everything better than those that have come before it. When it comes to accessible, inventive, and immensely entertaining music video games, nobody does it better than Rock Band 3.