The very best thing about Rock Band 3 – and it’s a game that’s every bit as polished, inviting and engaging as any music game ever made, ever – is the addition of the new keyboard. To anyone unfamiliar with Harmonix’s work thus far, it may seem like the last tick on a peripherals checklist, one last stop away from the point at which the band game genre dies forever – an eventuality predicted by every other industry analyst over the past few months. But Harmonix have never released a game that hasn’t been staunchly progressive some way, with even their Beatles and Green Day spin-offs carefully implementing some of the new elements that have perpetually helped the series to maintain its exhuberant freshness.
The overwhelming laziness of some of Rock Band’s competitors may or may not have exhausted audience appetite for the whole music game genre, but if you’ve ever loved a Rock Band game before, you simply cannot miss this third outing. Rock Band 2 was originally spoken about as if it was destined to be a platform; an entirely open-ended entity whose shelf life was fundamentally prolonged via a steady stream of excellent DLC. Although this has been proven not to be the case – as new authoring standards mean that the new DLC won’t be fully compatible with older iterations – Rock Band 3 is so much better than its predecessor that it’s impossible to gripe about that smallest of broken promises too much.
Menu systems have been very cleverly tidied up, and the vast number of options have been filtered into two different sub-menus – one on a vertical axis and one horizontal – with each one accessible via a different button. Some very slick little cutscenes have been added too, and they’re used to perfectly mask the gaps between songs. But perhaps best of all, when you fail a song during career mode now, you are no longer senselessly punished for it. In Rock Band 1 and 2, failing a song during a career mode set list would instantly shunt you back to the main menu, where you’d be forced to start the entire set from scratch. When this happened during an especially lengthy or crucial gig the experience was downright agonising, and selecting a difficulty tier before each track saw you trying to weigh up your own enjoyment versus the slight possibility of failing out.
In Rock Band 3, if you fail a song you’ll lose all of your points for that song (along with the challenge rewards that go along with them) but after that you can re-join the song from exactly where you left off, albeit in no-fail mode. You won’t earn any points for that song (even on your return) but as soon as it’s over, the set list resumes and you can continue on your journey without having to start the whole thing all over again. Another similarly smart new addition is the challenge point system, which sees you earning a separate set of skill-points which are then pooled together after each song. These points are won by following a specific objective within each track, and it’s usually something very straightforward like having to deploy a couple of lengthy bursts of overdrive as opposed to several short and swift ones. It’s a very cool system, and one that adds an extra layer to the gameplay without ever overwhelming your primary objective of finishing each tune with five regular, performance-based stars.
These superb alterations aside, the majority of Rock Band 3’s core gameplay remains as peppy and warmly familiar as ever, but the new Pro instruments are set to take things to an entirely different level. If you’re a long-term fan of these games, chances are that you’ve been quizzed by a friend at some point – a musician, almost certainly – about what’s stopping you from learning an actual musical instrument instead of just playing Rock Band. It’s a question that completely misunderstands Rock Band’s status as nothing more than a rambunctious party game and social activity (and admittedly, we have yet to get any hands-on time with the imminent Pro Guitar peripheral) but lengthy hands-on time with the Pro Keyboard has been more than enough to convince us that any snarky pals that you may have can now be told, comprehensively, to shut it.
So, does the actually keyboard work? And is it as enjoyable as all of the other original instruments? Boy, is it ever. If you were ever lucky enough to play Harmonix’s first two (controller-based) games on the Playstation 2– the wonderful Frequency and its equally special follow-up Amplitude – the flavour here is much the same. It’s as easy to pick up and play as any other RB instrument, and for the get-go is every bit as compelling. But… once you’ve mastered it – and it shouldn’t take hardened players very long at all to do this – you can move on to the game’s Pro Keys mode, which purports to be as close to actually playing along with an actual keyboard as possible. The tutorial is marvellously practical, never pushy, and allows you to tackle it entirely at your own leisure. Learning to use Pro Keys mode on the keyboard is no picnic – and a little bit of experimentation will reveal that it’s almost exactly the same as playing the actual music – so Harmonix give you a few tiny tips (that include pointing out where it’s best to place your fingers) and then let you go your own way.
But it’s essentially teaching you how to play the piano, and it’s presented in such a way that it’ll appeal to the kind of people who wouldn’t normally dream of doing it in the real world. For that alone, and even if it wasn’t such a stellar production already, it deserves some serious kudos. It would be a genuinely horrendous shame if Rock Band 3 didn’t find the sizeable success that it deserves, and during our extensive play-time, it even managed win over a couple of people who’d steadfastly announced many moons ago that they had no interest in playing a peripheral-led music game such as this ever again. Although the new keyboard is not essential to your enjoyment of it, you’re truly missing out if you don’t invest, and though prohibitively expensive, the upcoming Pro Guitar could cement Rock Band 3 as the platform that’ll keep on giving for many, many years to come. Here’s hoping.
Watch the Rock Band 3 trailer here: