We're getting the band back together.
Oh, these rhythm games, they grow up so fast. It seems like just yesterday Guitar Hero was coming out on the market, quickly replacing DDR at the top of the rhythm game food chain, only to be (arguably) usurped by its upstart cousin, Rock Band, a few years later. Flash forward to the present day and the battle for whose plastic guitars will lie in the corner of your room continues in what I've dubbed the “karaoke wars”. Each franchise vying for your business with the next “wouldn't it be cool if we did this?” has finally led us to where we are now. Rock Band 3 takes the war to its next natural progression: Pro Keyboard and Pro Guitar/Bass.
[image1]Some would argue that this is innovation, but I would say that this is more a case of “where do we go from here?”, as just about every instrument that could be reasonably played has already been done. (Hence, no Tuba Hero or Brass Band games.) What else can they do other than this?
Well, it turns out they have found some ways to streamline the gaming experience beyond just adding more things with buttons to click on and vocal harmonies. Mainly in navigation features – playing with friends, dropping in and out, changing your character, and switching instruments have never been easier. If you're blowing it in the middle of a set, you can change your difficulty without restarting and getting the obligatory “awww, c'mon man” from all your pals.
Play modes have been boiled down to quickplay and career, and both will earn you rewards and unlockables. Starting a band with your friends (we called ourselves “Bacontastic”) or doing round robin jam sessions now requires very little effort. Career mode offers up a chance not only to five star songs, but also to earn an additional five “spades” for accomplishing bonus tasks, such as deploying overdrive with a full score multiplier or everyone in the band finishing a song section with no missed notes. It actually adds a lot of fun and challenge to the overall experience. Now you have even more ways to show what a leather-pants clad rock god you really are.
Character customization has gotten a few tweaks here and there as well, and you now have more control over what you and your bandmates look like. It's still not the most in-depth system like you would find in something like Madden or Smackdown vs. RAW, but you do have slightly more control over facial features than you used to.
[image2]The real innovation come from the new Pro Key and Pro Guitar/Bass. While there is a “classic” mode for the keyboard that has you playing only the five original colors on pre-determined keys, it's nowhere near as enjoyable as Pro Keys, which utilizes all 25 black and white keys on the new peripheral. On top of that, there's a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) port on the side of it which allows it to be used as an honest-to-god 100% fully functional musical instrument.
Does that mean playing Pro-mode will turn you into the next Harold Faltermeyer or Falco? Probably not. But it could be helpful for those who need to put some polish on their right-handed fingering positions. (Feel free to insert the joke you just told yourself in your head about fingering positions.)
The concept of actually using Rock Band 3 as a learning tool is questionable at best, though. And the mode has one inherent flaw: Black keys are way too small and hard to recognize on what is already an extremely cluttered on-screen note track. Chords are even harder to read and decipher in a quick manner, making the difficulty between easy and medium tough to manage in any sort of reasonable manner.
Pro Guitar is exactly what it sounds like: six strings and a full fret board allowing for an authentic musical experience. They made one mistake, though, in setting all the tutorials for Pro Guitar without fully numbered chords on the note track. The speed of the scrolling notes is also quite fast to recognize what you're doing on the first try. Fortunately, there is an option to add all the numbers, which does remove a ton of obscurity for beginners. Without turning it on, you are forced to learn various chords with only the number of the root note shown, which is great in the long run, especially if you want to actually learn guitar, but might be a bit too much for noobs.
[image3]I also recommend forking over the money on the actual Fender Stratocaster over the mid-tier Fender Mustang plastic controller with plastic buttons on the fret board and chintzy plastic, unresponsive “string” controls on the body. The Fender control is both a real guitar and a controller, and you'll feel less gipped if the plastic string on the Mustang breaks which needs an entirely new controller, especially when the actual strings on the Stratocaster can be easily replaced if you break them.
The only thing I'm left wondering is where Harmonix can go from here with the series having pretty much crammed everything you'd want out of the series. Who knows, maybe we'll start to see sheet music or perhaps even the much prodded cowbell controller.