Impressions: Rock Band 3

Rock Band 2 is the one of the best rhythm games I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with over the years. Even when new installments of Guitar Hero or Singstar hit shelves, I couldn’t bring myself to get as excited as I do for simple DLC installments to the Rock Band Music Store. I’m a regular rhythm game connoisseur and have played more than my fair share of them in my lifetime, but for band-based realistic play, you just can’t beat the variety of songs, the different ways to play, and the attention to detail Harmonix has clearly put into its now flagship title.

Now, Rock Band 3 is here, and brings with it an entirely new way to play. While these games have always been about pretending to be rock stars, Harmonix has upped the ante with game modes and new peripherals to actually help teach wannabe musicians how to play and perform the music they’re pretending to play in-game. Unfortunately, the required plastic axes and keyboards are somewhat pricey. Fortunately, these augments are not required to enjoy a brand new overshell, jam-packed track list, and tightened and improved features that Rock Band fans will no doubt enjoy.

Whether you choose to play solo or with friends (two guitars, three microphones, drum set, keyboards, etc.), there’s plenty to do. Quickplay is a surefire way to jump straight into the action, with the mammoth 80+ song list immediately available to pick and choose from. This is one of the more complex set-lists I’ve seen in the series, including quirky hits such as The B-52s’ “Rock Lobster,” iconic standards such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and classic rock tunes like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” These genre-spanning songs ensure there’s something for everyone short from perusing the expansive online catalogue filled with individual songs and track packs. It doesn’t seem to suffer from the Rock Band track syndrome, offering popular bands but less-than-memorable selections, and for this I was thankful.

Quickplay may be a quick jump into the main game, but the real meat is found within the Road Challenges, mini-World Tour challenges in themselves that offer the feel of progression within a story mode, but in much smaller chunks. Rather than playing one song at a time or a quick list, you may choose from three pre-selected set-lists at each venue, each usually involving a “choose-your-own-song-list” from a specific year or genre. Of course the goal is to earn as many stars as you can, but additional challenges such as keeping perfect pitch or streaking as long as possible net you spades, which factor into your final score of the location. In this way, you’re still making progress even if you feel like you’re just messing around. You’ll score big, and unlock several of the mini-achievements found within the bowels of the game, the goals.

Goals range from the mind-numbingly difficult to hilariously easy ones and by reaching them you can add to your fan count, which leads to opening up brand new locales to strut your stuff. This kind of obvious progression feels good. Watching the cash, points, and fans roll in after what seems like a minimal amount of work keeps you wanting to come back, making Rock Band 3 perfect in large chunks or smaller doses.

The most obvious new addition to the game is that of the new Pro modes, which offer a brand new way to get into the music. Pro Keys, Pro Drums, and Pro Guitar require pricey peripherals if you aren’t keen on putting down the extra dollars, but do allow players to make real-world progress toward learning how to play some of their favorite songs. There are several different lessons available for the instrument of your choosing, so it’s not just one big jump into shark-infested waters at the onset. Unfortunately, as many players will find as a major hurdle, I was unable to procure and try one of these peripherals either.

The brand new menu system is slick and intuitive, and offers a way to change options and settings during a song or wherever you are in the actual game. It’s a kind of overshell that wastes much less time. When you’re signed in you can fine-tune the difficulty, suitable instruments, and who’s playing without having to back all the way out to the menu. It’s a vast improvement over the previous system, though I did have one qualm with the short animations accompanying menu selections. It did seem to bog the experience down, what with your crew packing up and hitting the road each time. It was cute the first time, but the subsequent ten really began to grate on the nerves.

The game still looks great though, retaining the fresh and cartoony feel of the previous games as well as the ability to customize and outfit your members as you see fit. Hundreds of clothing choices, makeup applications, hairstyles, and various other trinkets make their reappearance, this time sorted into new categories and bringing several new ways to accessorize with them. This is vital to making you the “real” front man of the outfit and keeping you in the moment, as that’s what these games are all about anyway, are they not?

Rock Band 3 is clearly Harmonix’s greatest and most ambitious attempt at bringing the music to fans and teaching eager players the basics in order to get them out in the world, playing the songs they loved and perhaps grew up with. An improved navigation system, entertaining set-list, and noticeable tweaks to the customization system team up to make this the best plastic instrument offering yet. The new instruments may be a bit on the pricey side, but at least they’re designed to help fans actually learn real music this time around, and not just timed button-presses. If Harmonix can (pardon the pun) tune up the small issues then, perhaps one day, Rock Band can be a tool with which music teachers can help students make their wishes come true.

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