in Review

The Rock of Life

Rock Band 3

With Rock Band 3, Harmonix has reached the logical conclusion for music games. Guitar Hero popularized the genre, Rock Band made it a party game, Rock Band 2 showed how one game could be a platform for content. Now they introduce keyboards and a pro mode to teach gamers how to really play their instruments. While I probably won’t ever actually get to play with the special Rock Band guitar or drums, I am certain that those modes are as competent as everything else in this package, which is easily the greatest music game of all time.

Not that the title was hard to win, since in my mind the previous holder was Rock Band 2 (yes, The Beatles: Rock Band was very special too). The way Harmonix has kept the Rock Band platform interesting with DLC while Neversoft has destroyed the Guitar Hero franchise like a 1,000 lbs pumpkin smashing a car, meant that basically they had to not fuck up Rock Band 3 to make it great. And they did.

You’ll notice things are different right from the get-go. The opening video, usually an exciting CG venture in these games, is this time real life people jamming out in some city. The game’s interface, usually very clean, has sacrificed some of its sleekness to offer more options. Players can now drop in and out whenever they want (even in the middle of songs) and it is super easy to move what instrument your profile is signed in on or change your character. The process of playing music has never been simpler, and that streamlining makes this the ideal party game.

Since the first game you’ve always been able to make your own band, but your group has a bigger presence this time around. The members are usually chilling in the background while you mess with options and of course they still are the ones playing the music under the clutter of four instrument tracks and vocals. This gives you the sense that you are always playing as your band, like everything you do counts toward something – and it does. The other two games had discreet tour and quick play modes, where quick play didn’t count toward anything but high scores. In Rock Band 3 there still is a tour mode, but you’ll only have to play a few gigs until you finish a tour. The real focus is on challenges, which you can complete at any time. This was an extremely intelligent design decision, basically giving players the career mode if they wanted, but also making it so it never feels like your time is wasted.

Besides the pro modes (and vocal harmonies, which aren’t really new) the biggest new addition is the keyboard. The device itself is great, two full octaves of keys that feel like proper keyboard keys that you can wear like a keytar or just sit with it on your lap. You can play using just five keys, which is a lot like playing guitar or bass, or you can play in pro mode, in which you have to use all the keys, which is a lot like actually playing piano. The regular stuff is easy enough to get into, but playing on pro is quite the challenge. I could see people using the game to develop the basic skills to get into playing the real instrument.

So there are 83 songs on the disc. It’s a pretty crazy mix of songs, with really the only unifying theme being that a lot of them seem to have been chosen because of they’re keyboard part. Which is good, since none of the existing DLC supports keyboards yet, although supposedly you will be able to upgrade that at some point. I was able to find plenty of songs I love (seriously, “In a Big Country,” “Walk of Life,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Space Oddity,” I could go on) and even the stuff I don’t care so much for isn’t that bad. With a great mix on the disc, plus the ability to export most of the songs from Rock Bands 1 and 2, AC/DC, Lego and Green Day and the amazing selection of DLC plus the stuff on Rock Band Network, surely you’ll find more than enough to keep yourself entertained.

Seriously Harmonix, I don’t know where you guys go from here. I guess you could try more single band games, but I still think only The Beatles could really get away with that. Rock Band 3 is just too good. You’re done. Keep putting out DLC. We could still use some My Morning Jacket up in this business.