This review was originally published 01/21/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
This review is a bit belated. This is mostly due to the fact that I didn’t want to write a full analysis of the game until I had a chance to play the new PRO guitar mode, the controls for which weren’t available publicly until late December. So if you’re still on the fence about purchasing this game even though it’s been out since October, I hope this review helps.
Three new controllers for PRO Mode (top to bottom):
Fender Mustang controller (available late November 2010) has 102 buttons to simulate the lower 17 frets.
Fender Stratocaster Midi guitar (available spring 2011) is a console-agnostic, fully-functioning, 6-stringed guitar equipped with pressure sensors in the neck for finger-placement detection.
MadCatz Keytar (available at game release, but sold separately) is a two-octave midi keyboard that can be used to play keys, guitar, or bass parts of songs.
Analysts and sales numbers may be suggesting that the music-rhythm genre is dying, but Harmonix isn’t letting that stop them from trying to innovate. Rock Band 3 is a very ambitious project that adds a whole new instrument (the keyboard) and attempts to incorporate REAL INSTRUMENTS into the gameplay. I am thrilled to say that both of these new marquee features work excellently!
The game’s menus and interface have also been streamlined to include more filters for selecting songs and new menu widgets for each player that they can open and close anytime they want to change settings, drop in or out, customize their characters, and so forth. Speaking of character customization, you now have much more options for creating your characters’ faces by mixing, matching, and editing different parts of the face (similar to the customization options allowed in The Sims).
I bet you all want to know about how the new PRO Mode feature works, so I won’t waste anymore time, and I’ll dive right into this ground-breaking new feature:
All the songs on-disc come with full support for PRO Mode Guitar, Drums, and Keys (unless the applicable instrument has no part to play in the song). Most of the existing songs from RB1, RB2, and Green Day, and all the old DLC are importable and all come with PRO Drum support (but not PRO Guitar or Keys). The song selection is a varied and eclectic collection ranging from John Lennon’s "Imagine" to Deep Purple’s "Smoke on the Water" to the Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations" to Rammstein’s "Du Hast,", and this song collection does a fantastic job of introducing and showcasing the new instrument and PRO Modes. There also seems to be some improvement to the way that the game’s vocal harmonies work. Pitch correction has been added and tracking seems much smoother and I didn’t notice as much of the irritating "locking" onto a different harmony part that I experienced with Beatles Rock Band (although it does still happen occasionally).
So how does it play?
The new Keyboard and PRO Guitars are practically real instruments, which completely changes the dynamic of the game. Instead of just pushing 5 colored buttons, you are reading real guitar tablature and watching a diagram of the entire two-octave keyboard. The drums use rectangular gems to indicate a drum pad and circular gems (which my friends and I have named "nipple gems") to indicate that a cymbal is supposed to be hit. The keyboard peripheral is a one-handed "keytar" controller that can be used to play keyboard, guitar, or bass parts (although only the keyboard part can be played in PRO Mode).
When playing PRO Mode with the keyboard, the game literally shows a diagram of the entire keyboard with white and black notes. The keyboard can be quite tricky, especially when it starts throwing "hammer-ons" at you, in which you have to hold one key and then press and hold another (creating a chord one note at a time). A friend of mine who actually plays the keyboard actually found it to be impossible to play, however, because she is used to being able to watch her hands, and not being able to do that (because she has to look at the screen) made it frustratingly difficult for her. I’ve also heard some complaints that the keyboard controller’s buttons are sometimes too sensitive and simply grazing an adjacent key will register as a hit and ruin somebody’s streak. But other than that, my friends and I have been loving the new keyboard controller.
UPDATE August 17, 2013: using MIDI keyboards
In addition to the keyboard controller described here, the game also supports any MIDI-capable keyboard (and drum) using the same MIDI adapter that is required for the Squier Stratocaster guitar. The game only recognizes the second and third octaves (and the fourth "C"). I used color-coded sticky tabs to map the notes on a MIDI keyboard to the colors given on the keytar controller.
The new PRO Guitar is also quite fun to play. At the time of this writing, only the Mustang controller (with the 102 buttons along the neck) is available, but a real, six-stringed Fender Squier Stratocaster is supposed to be due out in spring which I can’t wait to get my hands on. PRO Guitar basically just shows vertically-scrolling guitar tablature, with six columns representing the six strings and a numbered gem indicating which fret number to hold down. Chords have an interesting notation, however, which is kind of difficult to get used to for players familiar with tablature. Chords in the game are denoted by a "shape" rather than the fret numbers for each note in the chord. The game shows the fret number of the lowest (left-most on the game screen) note in the chord and then shows a curved line that denotes the relative distance from the numbered base note. It’s confusing at first, but once you get used to it and start to memorize all the shapes, it becomes much easier to read the chords on-the-fly when playing the game. Of course, if you prefer, the game does have an option to show the full chord numberings.
Could still use some tuning
I only have two major complaints with the new PRO Guitar mode in the game. First of all is that some songs don’t seem to be 100% accurate. The intro to Bon Jovi’s "Wanted Dead or Alive" is a great example. Watch the intro in this video (starts at 30 seconds and ends at around 1 minute), then compare that to the tab given on sites such as Songsterr.com. This is probably the result of an attempt by Harmonix to combine multiple guitar parts into one note track, and my complaint is probably very nitpicky, but for an actual aspiring guitarist who wants to learn these songs in real life, it might be discouraging to find that the tab you look up online may be very different than the notes you play in Rock Band.
PRO guitar tracks in the game sometimes differ from the real tableture.
My other PRO Guitar Mode complaint is the lack of support within the game and on the controllers for some advanced guitar techniques. Yes, the game does support hammer-ons and pull-offs still, and they did add sliding. But the game has no support for string bending and the controllers don’t even have whammy bars, which can make playing those long-sustained notes kind of boring since you can’t embellish them with the whammy bar anymore.
Additionally, a minor nitpicky complaint with the Mustang controller is that all the buttons pretend that the six strings are all the same thickness, which takes away some valuable tactile feedback for those of you who are already familiar with how to play a real guitar, and could cause more mess-ups than you’d like. The six-stringed Mustang also may not be very comfortable for bass players (especially if you play finger-style), so I really hope that Harmonix will release a PRO Bass controller that is compatible with the game. But overall, the new PRO Guitar Mode is a HUGE step up from the simple five-colored-buttons of the previous games, and whenever I have friends over to play Rock Band, you bet everybody is fighting over who gets to play with the Mustang controller!
UPDATE August 17, 2013: opinions on Squier Stratocaster
After several delays, the MIDI Squier Stratocaster guitar was released in the middle of 2011. The MIDI adapter and guitar were sold separately, and they were both pricey and difficult to get a hold of (I had several pre-orders simultaneously in case any of them didn't deliver). When I finally did get a hold of it, it was an impressive piece of hardware at the time, and I really loved playing it! It was expensive though. The guitar itself is console-agnostic, but you still have to buy a MIDI adapter for your specific console.
The neck of the instrument is equipped with a pressure sensor that detects your finger placement on the fretboard so that the game can show you which notes you are holding on the screen. This is a really nice feature that can be very beneficial to new players! Unfortunately, the sensors and additional electronics add quite a bit of weight to the instrument, and it becomes uncomfortably heavy after a few songs. I recommend buying a nice, padded strap in order to save your shoulder from a lot of pain.
Since the sensors detect finger-placement, and the game doesn't support string bending, the guitar's frets have odd texture strips between the strings. These seem to be designed to prevent the player from bending the string (accidentally?) and registering the wrong note. But this makes the guitar impractical to use as a stand-alone instrument, so if you were hoping to buy this Strat as your first guitar in order to learn the instrument, you might want to consider a different alternative: maybe go for the cheaper Mustang controller and buy yourself a real guitar.
At the time of its release, however, this instrument was the most bad-ass piece of music gaming hardware available. Unfortunately for Harmonix, Ubisoft soon released its incredible Rocksmith game which has a simple MIDI adapter cable that can connect to virtually any real guitar for use in the game. This makes Rocksmith a much better investment for learning or practicing guitar, since you can use any guitar that you want. Rocksmith, however, is a single-player teaching aid, and not a real game, so if you want to have music-gaming parties, then Rock Band 3 is still the way to go!
These PRO Modes work great, and the game comes packaged with some very useful tutorials and training modes to help you practice using them. And you’ll NEED practice. Sight-reading tablature is very difficult, and unless you already know the guitar, bass, or keyboard parts of the song, you will probably need to practice it several times before being able to do well on the Hard or Expert settings. PRO Mode has essentially downgraded me from being a good Hard and mediocre Expert guitarist to being a barely passable Medium guitarist. The PRO Modes of the game won’t teach you how to be a real musician, but they can be a fantastic stepping stone for getting into learning a real instrument, and can actually be a passable way to practice.
Moving on to other areas of the game
The Career Mode has received some significant changes. Specifically, there really isn’t a "Career Mode" anymore. Instead of playing through a pre-set gig and venue-based career progression, the game simply provides you with a series of "Career Goals" that you can complete and unlock at any time – including in Free Play. As you complete these goals, you’ll increase your career score and unlock new clothing and instruments for your characters. So it’s nice that you are always making progress in your career when playing the game. But it’s also bad since you are always making career progress (even if you don’t want to). Each profile only saves one Rock Band 3 file, and you can only have one band in any given save file. So if you have two different groups that you play with, you can’t create two different bands and progress through the career independently without creating a new user account on the console (but then won’t earn Achievements/Trophies on YOUR account). This casual, free-play nature to the career mode also takes away from the narrative feel of the first two games. You lose that sense of development that the first games provided.
If you want a more guided experience, you can still play "Road Challenges" that will require you to play specific songs or setlists similar to the venue gigs from the old career modes. Also, since you are no longer earning money, you actually have to complete the respective goals in order to unlock new customization options and gear. This has the upside of allowing all characters to use any of the unlocked items, but is bad in that you can’t just buy an item to equip your character with it. This might feel unfairly restrictive to some players who may not be good enough to unlock some of the top-tier accessories. Overall, the new Career Mode seems to be a popular feature. Some people may love the more casual approach to the game, while others may hate the lack of a guided, narrated development. It comes down to a matter of personal opinion.
In fact, when all is said and done, I only have three major complaints with this game as a whole. The first is the irritating "All-Instrument Mode." Even though a new instrument was added, Harmonix didn’t bother to add a fifth band-member. Instead, playing with guitar, bass, drums, and keys requires the activation of "All-Instrument Mode" which sets the four players to the instrument controllers and turns the vocal performance into an open-ended, un-scored "Karaoke Mode" where the singing is completely optional. As far as I can tell, while All-Instrument is active, you are unable to set or change the difficulty level of the vocals, can’t deploy vocal overdrive, don’t get scored for singing, and can’t earn any Achievements or Trophies that are attributed to vocalist overdrive or scoring. Why the heck couldn’t they just add a 5th band member? Are they going to claim it was because of the old DLC songs wouldn’t have worked anymore? Well why the heck not? They’ve got new backgrounds anyway, so it’s not like they still do the exact same stage performances. Is Harmonix just getting lazy?
"All instrument mode" puts the singing in "karaoke mode", which detaches singing from any of the band members and removes it from the song's score.
My next complaint is that for songs that don’t support a particular instrument (like all the old RB1, RB2, and DLC songs that don’t include keyboard parts), the person playing that non-existent instrument must drop his or her character out of the game and then sit out of that song. It seems to me like it should have been simple enough to just let the extra player (usually the keys player) play a duplicate of an existing bass or guitar part (easy enough since the keys already allow player to play bass or guitar parts with the keyboard if no bassist or guitarist is present). The vocals already work similar to this, allowing all three singers to sing the same part on songs that do not have harmonies, so why couldn’t a similar feature have been included for the other instruments?
My last major complaint isn’t with the game directly, but rather with the decision by Harmonix and EA to release the game over two months before any of the PRO Mode-compatible guitar controllers have hit the market. Why did they do this? Again?! I’m reminded of the release of the first Rock Band, in which none of the existing PS2 or PS3 controllers were compatible and no second controllers were available for several months, which forced my friends and me to be stuck only playing 3/4ths of the game until the new controllers came out. Well, now we were stuck waiting over a month to get the first guitar controller for PRO Mode, and still have to wait a few months more to get the full, 6-stringed REAL guitar controller (which has been pushed back to March as of the time of this writing). Harmonix, please stop releasing games before you release the peripherals that go with them!
There are a few more minor, nagging complaints. Custom artwork on instruments doesn’t get saved between gameplay sessions (on the PS3 at least). The new DLC scheme is going to require us to buy upgrades for existing songs to include the new PRO Mode support, and you have to buy each PRO guitar upgrade for each song separately (they are not bundled together). And finally, some songs from Rock Band 1 and 2 do NOT import. Why do they have this issue? They knew they were going to allow songs to be carried over to subsequent games, so why didn’t they address that when they did the licensing agreements? Are we going to slowly lose all the on-disc songs as each new game gets released? I guess I shouldn't complain, since Rock Band has probably the most generous and practical DLC policy of any game on the market, but I really liked those songs…
When all is said and done, I absolutely love the new Rock Band 3 package! PRO Mode and the keyboard provide a totally different and much more realistic game experience. It makes the previous versions of Rock Band (1, 2, Beatles Rock Band, and Green Day Rock Band) feel absolutely obsolete and inferior. I truly hope that Harmonix will offer an update for Beatles Rock Band to support the new PRO Guitars and Keyboard because they improve the game that much!