Rock Band 3 review

by James on October 26, 2010

in Game Review Bits

Rock Band 3 - screen

Rock Band 3 Rock Band 3
Available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, DS
(reviewed on Xbox 360)

Release date: October 26, 2010
Game Developer: Harmonix
Game Publisher: MTV Games
Distributed by Electronic Arts
Learn more about it at: rockband.com


Rating:
4.5 out of 5

Review Summary:
Harmonix once again establishes its dominance of the music game genre with the release of Rock Band 3.  Blurring the line between a music game and music trainer, every player from the most hardcore to the most casual will find plenty to enjoy.  The newly added Pro Mode will be the first opportunity for some players to actually learn an instrument and with the deep training modes, they will be properly and comfortably be brought into the world of music.  Overall, Rock Band 3 is a huge leap forward in the evolution of the music game genre.

Rock Band 3 review

Harmonix has been making music games for quite a while beginning with Frequency in 2001. After spending a bit of time with Rock Band 3, I can honestly say that Harmonix does not just make games anymore, they make interactive experiences. Rock Band 3 is the penultimate music experience and it is accessible to absolutely everyone. Most players will be perfectly content in completing the Career mode with a group of friends, but a portion of truly hardcore fans will use Rock Band 3 as a fine introduction to the world of music.

Rock Band 3 - Overshell screen

From the moment the title screen loads, Rock Band 3’s changes are readily apparent. One player can set up the game in either Quick Play or Career mode while other players can sign-in and change their options through a simple overlay at the bottom of the screen. Each player can select their own options such as difficulty, no fail mode, and choose their characters simultaneously without entering into a single game menu. Players can also use the overlay to switch instruments instead of having to use the guide button to sign in and out of individual profiles like in previous Rock Band game incarnations. The money system has been done away with and now players unlock clothing and instruments by completing career goals and earning stars through the different play modes.

Rock Band 3 - Character Creator screen

Customization is the name of the game for Rock Band 3 and players are given access to a wealth of options to make their own unique experience. Players can now edit the shape of their facial features as well as clothing and tattoos for their created characters. Band members are not tied to a specific instrument in Rock Band 3, so players can customize each character’s guitar, bass, drum set, keyboard and microphone. Once a band has been finalized, they appear in every portion of the game from the start menu to each cutscene in Career mode. Players can also rate each track in their Rock Band library on a 5-star scale and use these ratings to customize their chosen setlist. Even in Career mode, players can choose from three completely different options, ranging from a random genre or decade setlists, or even a custom Rock Band setlist from the original game. After a setlist starts, players can jump in just by pressing the start button on their controller. If a song is too difficult, a player can drop out from the start menu. Players can even change the difficulty of a song, but doing so requires restarting the song.

Rock Band 3 screen

For those familiar with previous Rock Band games, it may seem that Rock Band 3 is merely a refinement of the series with a few added features. The real highlight of the game is the new Pro Mode for every instrument. For those willing to dedicate themselves to practice, Pro Mode is endlessly playable and infinitely satisfying. For Pro Drumming, players have to specifically hit the noted drum pad or cymbal and use a second drum pedal as a Hi-Hat. For Keyboards, players simply have to play each specific note and chord for each of the 25 keys. For Pro Guitar and Bass, players have to fret each specific note, pluck each specific string and mute adjacent strings.

The only way to become proficient at any of the instruments in Pro Mode is to really spend the time learning each song in Rock Band 3’s deep and involving training system. There are over a dozen lengthy tutorials for each instrument in Pro Mode, starting with the most basic “pluck this string” and slowly advancing through chords and leads. Players can slow down lessons if they are having trouble, but they do need to be completed at their maximum speed to advance. About half of my total playtime with Rock Band 3 was spent completing the guitar tutorials and I still only finished about half of them. Get ready for months of work to become truly proficient at your chosen instrument.

Rock Band 3 - Pro Guitar training

I had an opportunity to use the new Fender Mustang Pro Guitar for this review. As a guitar player, I found it difficult to keep up with most songs on even the easiest difficulty. Real progress in Pro Mode requires real dedication. I’m sure with more time I would have become comfortable playing Pro Guitar. The real difficulty with using the Fender Mustang is how different it is from a real guitar. It is much smaller than a real guitar and the buttons and strings are all a uniform size. On a real guitar, you have to stretch your fingers much farther. The differences in string sizes and tensions make it easy to feel when you’re hitting a wrong note without having to look down at the neck of the guitar. Most real guitars also have inlays on the fretboard to aid in navigation. On the Fender Mustang, there are only fret markers on the side of the neck, but since the buttons and strings are not connected you cannot easily feel when you are plucking the wrong string.

Overall, the Fender Mustang is well made and will stand up to the expected abuse most Rock Band players will subject it to. The neck and headstock separate easily for travel and storage. The strings are replaceable as well. The guitar also features a MIDI jack that professional musicians will get the most use out of. Through MIDI, a musician can record tracks, trigger samples, or even transcribe sheet music with the proper equipment and software. Ultimately the Fender Mustang Guitar will appeal mostly to players who want to live their rock star fantasies through Rock Band 3, but have little interest in really learning guitar. For those who would prefer to learn guitar, you would be better off waiting until the eventual release of the Squier Rock Band 3 guitar. No plastic controller can replace the weight, feel, and resonance of a real guitar.

[See pictures of the Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar controller below, or here.]

Even with all the upgraded gameplay features and Pro instruments, Rock Band 3 would be nothing without a solid selection of songs. Sporting the diverse lineup of songs to date, there really is something to please everyone in Rock Band 3. My first playlist consisted of The Cure’s “Just like Heaven” and “Low Rider” by WAR. Eclectic choices to say the least, but they were absolutely a blast to play. It seems Harmonix has chosen songs that highlight a certain instrument and this leads to some tracks that lack a bit in playability. I love John Lennon as much as anyone but “Imagine” left the guitar player staring at an empty note track for the duration of the song. It does seem a bit strange to support seven players if about a quarter of the songs leave out one or two band members. Those looking for a real challenge will not be disappointed. Anthrax’s “Caught in a Mosh” and Phish’s “Llama” will give even the most decorated Rock Band player fits. For those who have other versions of Rock Band, most songs can be exported for use in Rock Band 3. Without importing my tracks from Rock Band 2, I have over 200 songs in my library. With some of the songs coming up for download in the near future, my library will most certainly grow. Older songs do not have Pro Guitar or Bass tracks available, but it has been reported that these options may become available for a small fee in the future.

Rock Band 3 screen

With updated and refined gameplay, Pro instruments, and backwards compatibility with previous Rock Band setlists, what is left for Harmonix to accomplish with the Rock Band series? As a gamer, I can’t see very much room for improvement, but as a musician there are plenty of things still to be done. While Rock Band 3 uses Pro Mode as a great way to teach you how to play guitar, it falls flat in teaching music theory. Chord names show up to the left of the guitar track, but unless you have familiarity with the guitar, they are meaningless. It is also a bit difficult to discern finger position during gameplay, since the only fret number that shows on the guitar track is the recommended placement of your first finger and not the others. Transposing chords and string bends are understandably absent but I’m hoping Rock Band 4 (or the next Rock Band game) can somehow incorporate these features.

Rock Band 3 is great fun and it is a great introduction to music for those who always wanted to play an instrument but for some reason never decided to take the plunge. With the depth of the Career mode and the constant stream of new material available through the Rock Band Network and Music Store, gamers will be playing this game for years to come. Harmonix was the first to the table within the music game genre and Rock Band 3 proves that they are still light years ahead of the rest. Now let’s see if I can finally nail the solo for “Crazy Train”…

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Thanks to Harmonix, MTV Games and Reverb for making this Rock Band 3 and Pro Guitar preview possible. For more details on the available Rock Band 3 games and gear, see here.


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