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e3 2010

Rock Band 3 Now With Real Guitars

by Matt Miller on Jun 17, 2010 at 10:43 PM

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Rock Band 3 is a gigantic game. At first glance, it doesn't seem like a dramatic change from last year. But just a few minutes in the menus or songs of the game, and it becomes apparent that it's been designed from the ground up to reinvigorate and even reinvent the music game genre. There's a overwhelming amount of content to explore and add on to the on-disc experience. Beyond that, it also happens to be one of the most remarkable innovations in music education in years.

In their communications about the new game, Harmonix is wisely putting the music front and center. Even at this early showing of the game, they've announced over 20 awesome new tracks that show off the breadth of music choices that the new game will be aiming for. The list includes:

Metric, “Combat Baby”
Rilo Kiley, “Portions for Foxes”
Them Crooked Vultures, “Dead End Friends”
The Vines, “Get Free”
The White Stripes, “The Hardest Button to Button”
Phoenix, “Lasso”
Ida Maria, “Oh My God”
Juanes, “Me Enamora”
Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing”
Stone Temple Pilots, “Plush”
Smash Mouth, “Walkin’ on the Sun”
Spacehog, “In the Meantime”
Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark”
Huey Lewis and the News, “The Power of Love”
Joan Jett, “I Love Rock and Roll”
Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”
Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again”
The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Jimi Hendrix, “Crosstown Traffic”
The Doors, “Break On Through”

The list highlights music that until now might have been wasted without the new keyboard peripheral. Now they can be played the way you wanted them to be, with all the parts included. There are nearly 1500 songs currently available in the Rock Band catalog, and Harmonix expects that number to rise to 2000 by the launch of Rock Band 3. All of those songs will be playable in the new game, plus all the new on-disc RB3 tracks.

With so much music, the Rock Band front-end menu has been entirely overhauled to address concerns from earlier games. The game now takes advantage of a special menu for each and every player. This individual menu can be called up at any time from any instrument, allowing players to drop in and out of play in any game mode, even career. The shell menu that is pulled up can completely customize that player's experience, setting difficulty, lefty flip, and even no-fail mode. You can even disable drum pad navigation to ensure that overenthusiastic percussionists don't back you out of the song set you just put together.

A new sorting system lets you navigate the hundreds of thousands of songs in your catalog. You can organize exactly what you want or don't want to see. For instance, you could request short, family-friendly songs from the 1980s, and only those songs would appear in your potential setlist.

You can also now personally rate each and every song. Your rating determines how often that song will show up in random setlists from that point forward, pusing your favorites to the top and dropping your least favorites out of the running. In addition, these ratings will help Harmonix to suggest new songs to you when you head into the Rock Band music store. Highly rate certain songs, and the system will recommend new titles that it thinks you might enjoy.

You can now save setlists you create to play again and again, and you can send those setlists to your friends over your console, or through other social media formats. You can even make setlists online, so you can set up from work the perfect sequence of songs that you want to play when you get home.

There are lots of features that are designed to reach different types of music gamers. A new party shuffle mode throws endless songs at you without any required menu selection. Dropping in and out of play on songs you like, it makes for an ideal party tool. Your personal profile can now follow you through the entire game, tracking your achievements and scores on songs no matter where you play them. New "road challenges" are 2 to 4 hour tours you can attempt, alone or with friends; it makes for the ideal setup for a single gaming night, if you're so inclined. There's also a brand new character creator that Harmonix claims will have a tremendous amount of flexbility.

All these features help to point to a far better core experience to the playability of Rock Band. But what will bring back old players who have tired of the familiar music game formula? The answer lies in the various instrumental pro modes - a whole new layer of difficulty and challenge that has the potential to teach you actual music on real instruments. All of Rock Band 3 can still be played with the existing hardware and through the familiar set of button inputs, so no one should fret about losing what they've loved about the series for years. However, pro modes up the ante by delivering a far more authentic musical experience.

The flagship element of the pro mode experience is the guitar. Players will be able to choose between two new instruments when they are ready for pro mode. The first is the previously announced Mustang Pro Guitar. This instrument has over a hundred buttons along the neck, and six short, sturdy strings across the guitar's body. The six on-screen columns will correspond to these six strings, and each note will indicate a number that dictates the fret button to hold down. On Easy pro mode, this will likely be just one or two buttons. But by Expert mode, you're playing full chords and solos, emulating the actual guitar part of the song in question. The concept is very much like guitar tabulature, for those familiar with that notation system. If that's not authentic enough for you, then Harmonix is offering an even higher end option through their Fender Squier Stratocaster guitar. This is a real Fender guitar with game components added in. Sensors in the neck determine where your fingers are placed. You can connect up to your game console to play the song in Rock Band 3. Or, you can plug into a real amp and play the guitar. The choice is yours.

When playing either the Mustang or the Strat, the onscreen song display is incredibly helpful in communicating what you need to know. As soon as you hold your finger down on a particular fret or string, the game tells you on screen exactly which numbered fret, and which string, that you are holding down. It makes it easy to match to the onscreen display, as that same note comes streaming down the highway towards you. The concept works for either bass or guitar in-game, but there are no current plans to ship an actual bass unit this time around.

The new keyboard peripheral offers a similar level of flexibility. It's a fully MIDI-enabled, two octave keyboard that includes a overdrive trigger button and an effects/sound alteration bar. You can play on a simple, normal mode of play that looks much like old Rock Band parts. Alternately, you can scoot up to pro mode and play along a full spread of two octaves. The color of the note highway onscreen matches a section of the keyboard, helping to nail down where to play next. Black and white notes further delineate the appropriate key to press.

Even the drums have seen major advancements. A new three cymbal add-on kit makes the drumming experience far more realistic. The cymbals are the same colors as existing pads, but in pro mode, the cymbal notes on screen look different from the pad notes. It's a simple way to distinguish the two, and you're suddenly dealing with eight inputs (including pedal) rather than five.

Along with harmony vocals, you can now play with up to seven players at once if so desired. We had the good luck at E3 to play several songs behind closed doors, switching around between instruments and exploring the new options. It's hard to overstate the sense of newness and excitement that the new instrumental options bring to long-time music gamers. The pro mode experience is incredibly challenging, and it's thrilling to feel like you're finally learning the honest-to-goodness true musical parts of all the songs that you're encountering. The game makes good on a directive that Harmonix has had for years, and takes the next logical step. Bring the joy of music creation to musicians and non-musicians alike.

If you're fundamentally tired of the concept of playing music in your games, Rock Band 3 certainly isn't going to bring you back into the fold. But if you've spent the last two years wondering what's next for the genre, you need look no further than Rock Band 3.