It's been two years since the last true Rock Band game, and Harmonix used that time to offer something awesome for those willing to lay down some extra coin. While the core game hasn't changed really at all since Rock Band 1, the new additions of a keyboard and 100-plus button Pro Guitar offer gameplay unlike anything before.
For some, this will be just the same ol' Rock Band. For others, this is the beginning of a whole new way to experience music. It really depends how much you want to put into Rock Band 3. Not just financially (and that is an investment in itself) but also time and effort. Do you want to learn a totally new way to play or would you rather just do the same thing you've done for years? That choice really affects Rock Band 3's overall value. It's either something completely new and challenging or just more tracks to rock out to. Ultimately, the choice is yours to make.
You know how this works. You and your buddies are part of a band. Someone sings. Someone plays guitar. You've got a drummer. Everyone hits the right notes at the right time, you score points, you become rock Gods. No big.
Except now there are some new instruments that flip Rock Band on its head.
First up is the keyboard. This thing is solid and has received the seal of approval from IGN's own resident piano teacher. The only catch is that the keyboard's half-sized. Other than that, you really couldn't ask for a better piece of hardware to change the way you play Rock Band.
There is a really gimped-out version of "easy" keyboard for people. You play with just five keys that are all next to each other, which really amounts to playing guitar without strumming. It's really boring and really not worth the money you spend to get the keyboard. If that's all you want to do, save your money and just keep strumming the guitar.
If you're going to pay this much for a fake guitar... why not spend a little more and buy the real thing?
The value is in playing Pro keys. It ain't easy, but you can straight up play songs note-for-note and even learn a thing or two about playing piano. It's hard at first, but if you dedicate some time, keyboard becomes this really amazing way to experience Rock Band 3. I got this special little feeling the first time my fingers easily found keys for unexpected notes. It was like my hand was learning.
Adding keyboard allowed Harmonix to include songs you'd never think to see in a Rock Band game. Like Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" or Elton John's -- well, anything by Elton John, really. Some songs are just so much fun to play and keyboard completely rewrites the idea of challenge in a Rock Band game.
The one catch is that none of your previous downloaded songs have keyboard support and only 63 of the 83 songs on the disc use keyboards -- and a few of them have some pretty sparse keys. Not exactly the strongest song list for someone who wants to be the next Liberace.
Another option is the pricey Pro Mustang Guitar from Mad Catz. This guitar has more than 100 buttons, which correspond to the strings and frets on a real guitar. You can learn to play guitar using this and Rock Band 3, if you can manage to understand the somewhat insane tablature Harmonix has created.
The numbers and bars on screen tell you how to play every chord. It's a real challenge to read and requires a ton of practicing on each song in order to master them. But you'll be playing much faster than you would if you were just learning guitar on your own or even in a class.
But, ultimately, the Pro Guitar is kind of dumb. If you're going to pay this much for a fake guitar with buttons that make it hard to slide your fingers on, why not spend a little more and buy the real thing? You're just upgrading from one guitar with plastic buttons to another guitar with way more plastic buttons.
A full-stringed guitar is in the works but won't be available at launch. Though Pro Guitar totally changes how you play Rock Band 3, and is brilliant in its implementation, buying it isn't going to get you groupies (why else would you learn guitar?). Get the real deal at this point. Stop living your rock fantasies through cheap plastic toys.
Also available are some additional cymbals for your drums so you can play the true drum parts for songs. It's cool if you're a drummer, but doesn't revolutionize gameplay in the same way as Pro Guitar or Pro Keyboards.
Outside of the new instruments, the biggest change for Rock Band 3 is the career mode.
Remember in the past when you were just moving along a big map, playing required setlists? Forget that completely. Rock Band 3 is all about challenges. And there are dozens of them. There are general challenges as well as ones specific to each instrument. If you have other Rock Band tracks on your hard drive, the game creates challenges from them as well. One of my favorites is the Dave Grohl Band challenge -- beat five songs by any band that has had Dave Grohl as a member.
Completing challenges either as a full band or solo earns you experience points that level you up, unlocking new outfits and new venues. The progression is a lot like in past Rock Band games, where you first get a van, then a tour bus and eventually a private jet to tour the world. But you're never locked into some arbitrary world map with specific setlists to complete.
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Challenges can be completed in any of the modes, so your band's career is built into the entire game -- even the training. There are some band road tours you can go on where you have your choice of three different setlist options at each stop. That might mean choosing between a custom '90s setlist, a random classic rock list or a custom glam rock list, but you at least have options. The twist here is that each leg of a tour includes special challenges, like staying in Overdrive as long as possible. Performing well in songs and tackling these bonus challenges earns you extra points, which in turn completes larger challenges that boost your experience points and unlock more cool stuff.
Oh, and about that cool stuff. Rock Band 3 comes packed with tons of new clothes and accessories to customize your band, new venues to shred in, and lots of cool on-stage theatrics to make you feel like you're a rockstar. Very little has changed in the visual style -- in fact, there's a lot of old clothes and hairdos we've been using since the first Rock Band -- but it still looks good.
On stage, your band seizes the right moments -- going nuts in guitar solos, hamming it up together. Even your keyboardist gets into it like he's saving the world with every note.
For the first time, the series is more satisfying playing solo than in a room packed with friends.
The one thing that's missing is something that, at least for me, made Rock Band special. In past Rock Band games the crowd would start singing with you as you did better and better in a song. That's gone. Why? No idea. Losing that impromptu chorus kills a lot of the rock concert atmosphere the series has pulled off so well in the past.
Of course, what really matters are the songs you're playing on stage. Rock Band 3 supports all of your non-Beatles downloaded content, the AC/DC and Green Day game tracks, and lets you import most of your tracks from the first two games. If you've been a Rock Band fan for years, you're going to have a few hundred songs to choose from.
The new stuff, 83 tracks in all, is an eclectic collection that's a little more pop than metal. There are some real surprises. Amy Winehouse, Huey Lewis and the News, The Flaming Lips -- it's a broad range of songs, capped off by Dio's amazing "Rainbow in the Dark." Sure, a few songs here and there are pretty much trash, but the bulk of the songs are awesome to play. This is easily my favorite setlist from the three main Rock Band games.