Time to ‘Rock’ and Roll

Last year, the “Rock Band” franchise took the year off, leaving only “The Beatles Rock Band” to be released from developer Harmonix. The developers of “Rock Band” were hard at work making a new experience for the inevitable “Rock Band 3” and needed the extra development time. Whereas “Guitar Hero 6,” released earlier this year, focused on a quest to save rock, “Rock Band 3” focuses on providing a new way to play music games with Pro mode.

The game has a very eclectic soundtrack of 83 songs. Songs range from surefire hits such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to other less obvious tracks such as Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark.” While the song list is great and varied, what makes “Rock Band 3” so special is the Pro-Mode version for each instrument.

All of the instruments – guitar, bass, drums, vocals and the new keyboard peripheral – each have an extra level of challenge in the new Pro mode. Aside from the keyboard peripheral, which is ready to go upon purchase, each of the instruments require more purchases in order to play Pro mode. Purchasing a new guitar, two more microphones for vocal harmonies and cymbals for the drums is a very expensive proposition.

The easiest two Pro modes to make an adjustment to are definitely drums and vocals. Drummers may actually already have the cymbal attachments, which would simply show up as extra notes to hit on the standard-note highway.

Vocals are a tad different but players of the “The Beatles Rock Band” will feel right at home. Once you have three microphones and three singers, you can play vocal harmonies in select songs. One vocalist can sing lead vocals while the other two become backup singers. This is good, but this extra fun is dependent on having other people to play with.

Guitar is where things get tricky. There are two options for Pro guitar or bass. The first is a guitar controller hybrid with an astounding 102 buttons to press, where the other is a real guitar that has some electronics in it to be compatible with “Rock Band.”

The only one that is currently available is the guitar controller hybrid, whereas the real guitar won’t arrive until March 1, 2011. The price for these items is a huge barrier to entry. The hybrid guitar costs $150 alone and the real guitar will cost $280. The simple answer is to avoid the hybrid controller entirely and wait for the real deal in March as the value is not there in the former.

Regardless of your choice of guitar, this Pro mode is very different. It looks similar to what one would read if they were playing a real guitar, though it’s presented in the familiar note-highway standard to music games. The game tasks you with hitting the real notes, and unlike the keyboard, you can play every note a guitar can play.

The information displaying what note to hit is confusing, but thankfully there are plenty of useful tutorials. It is possible to play the songs in-game, and if you have the real guitar, plug it into an amp and play the real song. This is Pro mode at its peak, but one will need extensive practice and a lot of money to afford it.

Finally, the keyboard is new to “Rock Band.” It comes with two full octaves worth of keys and a grand total of 25 keys to press. This is also a real Midi keyboard, but with extra buttons to serve as a game controller. The keys are pressure sensitive and feel solidly built. As someone who plays the piano, I can attest that this is the real deal.

There are a few differences, though. The keyboard focuses on playing the full right hand and none of the left. Also, when the notes are scrolling down, they don’t really give any guidance on where your hand should be, so a first play through a song is awkward and difficult. However, practice makes perfect, and the keyboard is well worth the investment.

Pro mode isn’t required, which means some songs don’t support all of the instruments. Pro guitar is the least supported, but even worse is that if a song doesn’t have vocal harmonies, you will not be able to play in the new seven-player mode. There is a new campaign for all of your songs and old equipment, but it’s hard not to feel like you are missing out.

Harmonix has successfully answered the challenge that music games do not teach you how to play real instruments. However, the extra levels of commitment of both time and money make “Rock Band 3” less approachable than their previous games.

“Rock Band 3” is fun, but the more willing you are to devote your time and money to this game, the more you will enjoy playing it.  The addition of new instruments is a definite enhancement to the franchise.

Rating: 4 out of 5