I sort of play one instrument; the banjo. It's not very glamorous. People never say âWow, he really rocks the banjo,â because you can't say that without sounding like a bit of a pillock. Sometimes, I tell someone I play the banjo and they say, âOh, I love the banjo!â and then, with their mouth, make noises approximating the famous tune Duelling Banjos, which they assume is the only banjo song ever written.
Games like Rock Band are made for guys like me, who sort-of play an instrument.
But what happens when you strip away the faux-instruments from one of the most popular music games around? What happens when you take it out of the living room and make it a game for handheld systems? Does it hold up? Or would you rather be playing a banjo?
The handheld rock/rhythm game format isn't new. Rock Band Unplugged appeared for the PSP, and the Rock Band franchise has been to the DS before, in LEGO Rock Band. As such, there's a simple interface that transfers the button/strum or coloured drum bash combo into a non-complex four button tap-fest. At first, I expected this to be humdrum at best, but after some time at the controls I am happy to report that Rock Band 3 on DS is a solid little game, with real depth and a neat package of songs to play through. Granted, the genre becomes vastly different when you don't have a guitar shaped controller or real mic to scream Hillbilly Deluxe into, but that doesn't make the game a washout by any means.
Anyone remotely familiar with the series will recognize the fretboard speeding its way towards you on screen, with coloured blobs corresponding to buttons on the DS. You simply tap the button at the right time, and the note is played. Where this game really differs from its in-home sibling is that you're responsible for all instruments at once. Yes. When you're playing by yourself, you have to stay in mantrol of the bass, guitar, drums, keys and vocals. There are only four fretboards on screen at once, so the one on the far right can be a wildcard - depending on the song you're playing. As you hit the notes, moving from phase to phase, you'll get natural lulls in which you can hit the L or R button to cycle across to a new instrument. As in all games of this ilk, the more notes you hit and the swifter and sharper you are at linking the sounds together, the more points you get.
Even on the DS, the career mode is well put together and varied. It can be a bit confusing to work out what you're supposed to do next from the menu screen, with an interface that relies heavily on icons (not all of which make sense). It will take some time to get used to how the menu system works, but it's not such a big deal â more a minor annoyance than anything. You can customise your band, of course, including its name. I used the random name generator and came up with Wildly Aggressive Quiche. Styling options are many, which is cool, although it will depend very much on whether you care about this aspect of the gameplay in the first place as to whether you get a lot out of it.
There are four difficulties spread across all game modes (there's a quickplay option if you're not keen on the whole band thing) and they really do alter the game experience. Easy is, well, just that. But Normal is quite a big step up. Hard and Expert modes are devilish, and I am going to go out on a limb and say you need almost as much coordination here as you do on big boy Rock Band. Just because the movements are smaller doesn't mean the pathways in your brain are any less cluttered with empty bottles, wallet chains and CBGBs t-shirts. If you're a completist, then you'll get a lot of gameplay out of Rock Band 3 DS...
...even though there's only just over 30 songs! It's a very small list, although very good: Midlife Crisis by Faith No More; some Queen, Whitesnake and White Stripes, Rilo Kiley. It feels very well rounded, anyway, so you can always appreciate that - even if it's not to your musical tastes.
Faithfully reproduced as they are, the sound (very unfortunately) doesn't do them quite enough justice. As you flit from instrument to instrument, some of the sound effects drown out the song, and the volume on a DS doesn't quite go high enough to make this a non-issue. I thought perhaps headphones would fix this, but no. Again, once you get used to the way the game works, some of this is mitigated by simply being good enough to make sure the song flows really well. Still, it's a shame as quality music is really what a game like this should do best.
You don't need to get too hung up on graphics here, and because the band action happens on the top screen with the fretboards on the bottom, you'll never really notice how your bandmates look anyway. If you take your eyes off even for a second, it may sometimes be curtains. That said, the customisation means you can give them the look and feel you want, and as far as the DS's capabilities go, the visuals are pretty sound.
Decent tutorials, competitive multiplayer and two additional modes (party shuffle and road challenges) make this a tidy little package. But let me deliver this little gem: it's actually really fun. It's not the easiest game ever, but once you start peeling back its layers and practising more, you'll find yourself wanting to go deeper and deeper.
It's not the sort of game you pick up for a laugh now and again â MTV Games have really done the best possible job with the technology, so that means despite the loss of instruments, the game remains relevant, on-genre, on-system and worthwhile. You can spend time with Rock Band 3 on DS.
Making what is a highly successful music driven rhythm game into a rhythm driven music game might seem like a potentially dangerous idea. But it works.