Harmonix has taken a number of steps over the years to ensure that its Rock Band series is viewed as more than just a video game. But for your average fan, a lot of what makes Rock Band stand out are qualities that exist in the abstract, with terms like "business model" and "distribution platform" used to describe the studio's ventures into downloadable content and publicly available authoring software. With Rock Band 3, due in October, Harmonix once again intends to sidestep the constraints of what constitutes a video game--but this time, the result is something far more tangible to the average fan.
The most attention-grabbing new feature comes in the form of Pro Mode. While it's not entirely incorrect to think of it as a new, advanced difficulty mode--it certainly makes the game more challenging--Pro Mode is more aptly described as an alternate method of seeing and playing songs with its own version of easy through expert levels. It essentially replaces the simplified, color-coded note charts that you've been playing in music games for the past half-decade and turns them into, well, the song itself. Guitar parts show fret numbers, drum sequences distinguish between cymbals and toms; thus, you're pretty much playing the songs.
Standing between you and Pro Mode is a notable hardware investment. Depending on how many instruments you want to use with this new feature, you'll need to pick up some combination of the new keyboard peripheral, the officially licensed cymbal attachments for the drums, and/or one of two new guitars. Mad Catz is working on a Fender Mustang with a grid of buttons covering the fret board, while Harmonix is working on a Fender Squier that uses real strings and some nifty technology to decipher the notes and chords you're playing on the fly. The latter definitely has more appeal when you consider that it also functions as a real guitar if you plug it into an amp. Current Rock Band guitars will play the bulk of the game just fine--but not Pro Mode.
Harmonix has worked with Boston's Berklee College of Music to develop instrument and song trainers to ease players into the experience of playing these more advanced musical parts. Instrument trainers teach you not only how to physically play an instrument, but they also teach the musical theory behind the notations. With enough effort, you should be able to graduate from pecking at keys on a keyboard to knowing a full arsenal of chords when the time comes to try your hand at a real piano. At least, that's Harmonix's aim.
Like the dollar investment, there's going to be a bit of a time investment as well. What we saw of the trainers suggested a tool that's going to take some time to really appreciate. For example, the guitar trainers come with their own new visual language to master. Guitar chords come scrolling down the screen in a cluster of 3D bumps looking almost like the hills and mountains of a topographical map. This is actually a type of visual shorthand so you don't have to process the fret number of every finger you have on the neck--the bumps simply read as higher or lower depending on how far from your anchoring index finger your other fingers are on those frets. You're basically asked to develop a familiarity with this visual language to streamline the process of reading chords.
Elements like that are probably going to be daunting to the average fan. But elements like that are also capable of teaching the average fan to play a real instrument. There's no doubt that Pro Mode isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to deny that having that feature tucked away inside an honest-to-goodness video game whenever you work up the nerve to try it is pretty cool.
Fortunately, Harmonix still realizes that even as Rock Band 3 adds more in the way of bigger picture features, it's still a video game at heart. To that end, you'll find things like a more advanced character creator (feel free to morph your face around this time); story-focused cutscenes featuring your band; and new Road Challenges that mix up the standard criteria for success in a given song when just five-starring something doesn't interest you anymore. Every mode in the game, including World Tour, Quick Play, and those aforementioned trainers all feed into the same cumulative career score as well. You can expect the full game to be released on October 26.