Well that was worth the wait. Rock Band 2 was released over two years ago now â unless you live here in New Zealand, of course â so its inevitable sequel has had plenty of time to be highly anticipated. Combine that with the music game sales that are currently in freefall, and you have a situation where Rock Band 3 needs to be an absolutely amazing title in order to be considered a success.
Can you guess what Iâm about to say now? Thatâs right: it succeeds, at least when it comes to the game itself. How it'll do at retail is anyoneâs guess.
Now, this game is big, and there are several key parts to it. Besides the keyboard peripheral, we were unable to get our hands on the new hardware, which means we couldnât judge the new Pro modes for drums or guitar. To that end, this review will focus on the main game experience itself. As soon as we can give the new instruments a good thrashing, weâll post a follow-up review with our thoughts.
Iâm gonna rock ân roll all nightâŚ
The big bullet point features will be explored shortly, but first I wanted to heap praise on the most basic of things: the track list. Maybe Harmonix just read my mind, but the hugely-eclectic-yet-still-somehow-awesome lineup of songs matches my tastes almost perfectly. Youâve got Dire Straits and The Who mixing it up with Rilo Kiley and Faith No More, with a light sprinkle of The Flaming Lipsâ âYoshimi Battles the Pink Robotsâ. Oh, and also: âFreebirdâ.
The 80+ songs on the disc are a good starting point, but I would seriously recommend getting more. Hopefully by now you already have previous Rock Band titles, in which case you can export their songs for a small fee.
RB3 is tailor-made to support large song collections (I think we have about 430 now?) and is all the better for it. Its predecessors were a bastard to navigate if you had a decent collection, but you can now set a ton of filters to sort through songs as you please. Itâs perhaps not as quick as I might have liked, but being able to only find keyboard-supported songs with three-part vocal harmonies is a godsend.
Youâre the piano man
The big new addition to the game is obviously the keyboard. Now you can have a tinkle on the old ivories in about 65 of the songs on the Rock Band 3 disc.
The hardware is basically a little keyboard. Itâs two octaves wide, but is in nearly every other respect a real MIDI keyboard that you can handily add a strap to and turn it into a keytar. The build quality is surprisingly good â itâs got a very solid feel to it, although I wouldnât recommend throwing it about the room.
Now, Iâm pretty proficient at all the Rock Band instruments, which comes from far too much play time. So it was very weird playing a new addition where I sucked. On the other hand, playing even simple chords was much, much more fun than I had anticipated. I had a huge cheesy grin on my face while I blasted through Walk of Life, Midlife Crisis, and other keyboard-enabled songs. Seriously, Iâve no idea why itâs as fun as it is, but itâs more than welcome in the ever-growing collection of plastic instruments in our house.
In normal mode, you only use five keys, in much the same way as a guitar. Unlike the guitar, however, you can have a finger on every key all at the same time â so if youâre used to shifting your hand up and down a fretboard, you will need to recondition yourself here.
Switching to Pro keys is where things get a little crazier. I played John Lennonâs âImagineâ on Pro Medium, and while I struggled initially, I did end up playing it pretty well, without going to a single tutorial. I suspect that after running through some more practice modes, Iâll switch to Pro mode more often. But in the meantime, be encouraged by the fact that the keys are a lot of fun on any setting.
Some witty song line that references the interface
One disappointment I have is that the core gameplay remains largely untouched. Then I sit and wonder, âhow on earth would I improve it myself?â I canât come up with anything other than a vague âImprove interaction between vocals and rest of bandâ.
Instead, Harmonix has improved everything around the core experience. This, somehow, makes the actually game playing feel a lot fresher and more fun. Letâs break it downâŚ
First up is the Overshell. All this means is that every player has their own menu that they can interact with at any time. Sounds like a small thing, but choosing your own game settings etc without breaking the flow of things is amazing. Itâs now extremely fast to get going on a song or setlist (helped out by much faster loading times) which is as it should be.
Just as importantly, people can now drop in or out at any time during a song. They can also change their difficulty on the fly, toggle âNo Failâ mode, or even change instrument. Every time you unpause after making a change, the game rewinds by a couple of seconds, allowing you to slip back in easily without dropping a note.
There are dozens of these thoughtful interface upgrades throughout RB3, and they make the entire experience seamless, fast, and â crucially â easy to navigate when intoxicated.
Play the game
Hereâs an impressive feat: RB3 actually made me give a damn about anything other than Quickplay mode. Instead of one overarching career mode, you have hundreds of setlist compilations you can tackle at any time. Theyâre quick and easy to get in or out of whenever you are in the mood â unless you choose some of the longer setlists, of course.
Regardless of what mode you play, youâll earn fans, which in turn unlocks new items to dress your characters in, and new cutscenes featuring your band members getting drunk at a rooftop party and so on.
The reason this stuff works is because it permeates absolutely everything you do in the game. This isnât so good in a party setting because it makes everyone suddenly want to spend a thousand years making their own characters, but otherwise itâs great â Harmonix has obviously looked at the achievements phenomena and decided they wanted some of that.
âŚAnd party every day
With keyboards and the addition of three-part vocal harmonies (finally!) you can now rock out (in a fake, plastic-y way) with up to seven people at once. This is fantastic (you should hear our epic renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody) but it isnât perfect.
To play with the full lineup, you need to turn on All Instruments Mode. However, in this mode vocals arenât scored at all and are locked on Easy, which is a shame. It has something to do with a limited number of profile sign-ins being allowed at one time, which sounds a bit suspect to me.
This doesnât hamper things when youâve got lots of mates around, however. One thing to note: with vocals on top and four lines of instruments below, youâre going to want a big TV to see anything. I donât even want to think about how this might look on an old CRT. Anyone brave enough to try that? Shout out in the comments.
This is radio nowhere
The Rock Band Store is similarly improved, and much faster to load and navigate this time round. As I said, itâs highly recommended that you flesh out your song collection, but it will put a dent in your wallet. Interestingly, ârecommendedâ songs appear among your normal collection â when you click on them, it asks if you want to purchase them in the store. Potentially a nice feature, but Iâm very glad you can disable it.
One thing that really sucks: the new store puts Rock Band Network songs front and centre among ânormalâ songs. The only problem is that we arenât allowed to access them in New Zealand. This is most likely due to the fact that no Microsoft XNA-based products (such as RBN-authored songs or Xbox Live Indie Games) are licensed to be sold in the region. And that in turn may have something to do needing to get stuff rated. Who knows!?
Regardless, weâre missing out on some great stuff. Itâs ironic that us New Zealanders canât play any Flight of the Conchords tracks.
Iâve taken my bows
Do I sound overly gushing? Tough, this game deserves it. Without a doubt, itâs the quintessential music game. Yes, if you go hard out it can be an expensive experience, but the nice thing about Rock Band 3 is that it scales. Got old instruments? Just buy the software. Then down the line you can consider grabbing the keyboard. Feel like learning a real instrument? That in turn will cost you moreâŚ but then, so would a real instrument. RB3 can be whatever you want it to be â and impressively, it remains fun in any configuration.
I donât know how this game will do in the sales charts, but personally itâs turned me from a music-game-weary cynic into a fresh-faced jammer once again. Iâm not sure how long that will last, but for now Iâm loving it.