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Rock Band 3

You're a star...of the keytar!
Ever since their inception, developer Harmonix has strived to bring music to the masses, especially those who don't really play music. In fact, as big of a hit as the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises have become, most of the detractors are actual musicians, who don't see the point of playing simulated music when people can learn to play the real thing themselves. Well, perhaps Harmonix heard those complaints, or perhaps these past few years of music simulation was simply a way to lead people to this point: A Rock Band game that teaches you how to play real music.

The way the game does this is through the use of a new game mode. Previously, you could play easy, medium, hard, or expert. But even on expert, you were still only hitting five keys on an instrument which was far more complex. In Rock Band 2, you could buy a real electronic drum kit and the claim was that expert drums charts were the real drum parts. But if you were playing guitar or bass, you were stuck with the same basic controller as had been available since the original Guitar Hero.

rock band 3 all pro mode

Rock Band 3 ups the ante with pro mode. Now, instead of color coded button combinations, you'll have to play real notes and real chords. Of course, the old controllers couldn't possibly support this, so Harmonix (in partnership with Mad Catz) has created some new peripherals for your gaming pleasure. The first is a Mustang replica, where every fret has four buttons on it, and instead of a clicking strum bar, it has six strings. In addition, Harmonix has announced an actual Stratocaster with sensors in the fretboard that will allow you to play real life guitar in the game or, you know, in real life. Unfortunately, the Strat is not available yet (otherwise I would have plunked down the cash for it myself), and I wasn't sent a Mustang guitar to test out. However, if you're going to go 9/10th of the way towards actually playing a guitar, why not go the distance and get the real thing? At least then any skills you pick up in the game can be immediately transferred to real world scenarios simply by plugging the guitar into an amp. And at $150, the Mustang isn't exactly an impulse buy. I simply don't know who would opt for this middle ground. Either you're comfortable playing the legacy controllers, or you've decided to take the plunge and want the real thing.

rock band 3 all pro keyboard mode

A much better compromise is the game's other big addition, keyboards. While Harmonix will be releasing a MIDI adapter that allows keyboards with MIDI outs to work in the game, for now the only way to play keyboards is through a smaller keytar peripheral. This, unlike the Mustang, is a much better buy. It's small and portable, but feels sturdy. It also has a touch strip and button to initiate overdrive, as well as all the requisite directional and colored buttons. At $80 it's still a bit pricey, but unlike the Mustang will give you the real experience of playing keyboards, even if it's a truncated amount of keys.

So, with that in mind, the real question is, how is pro mode? Honestly, it's like starting over from scratch. If you remember your initial experience with plastic guitars, getting used to the fingering and developing the coordination necessary to play well, then you'll know what it's like to start in pro mode. Except before it was five keys. Now it's 25 keys for the keytar or over a hundred for the Mustang. It is, in other words, the most demanding and challenging music game ever created. However, the sense of accomplishment you get from slowly developing a familiarity with the new instruments is intensely rewarding, and if you get good enough to play expert in pro mode, you're playing real honest to goodness music. Pro mode isn't for the faint of heart, but for those willing to push themselves, it will give you an experience unparalleled in any other music game, previous Rock Band titles included.

rock band 3 group shot

So what's there to draw in those who don't wish to move on from their trusty collection of plastic instruments? Rock Band 3 is easily the most polished and seamless music game to date. Harmonix has completely redone the menu interface, making the experience feel more interactive. As you create characters, they populate the menu screens, hanging out, practicing, listening to records, etc. And the animations are also more detailed than before. Even if you don't try out pro mode, you're still going to find Rock Band 3 more immersive than anything before it.

The last major change has come in the form of a new "spade scoring" system. In terms of playing a song correctly and acquiring points, Rock Band 3 plays exactly the same as all its predecessors. But now, in addition to stars, you can accrue up to five spades per song, which unlock bonuses (usually new attire for your characters). The interesting thing is that the way you gain spade points differs from set to set. Sometimes it's simply playing accurately like you normally would. Sometimes it's acing specific sections, other times it's how often you activate overdrive, or activating it while at your max multiplier, etc. This is in fact somewhat similar to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, which gave different characters different abilities to try and get more stars. But unlike that game, Rock Band 3 has a set number of stars and spades (five of each per song), so you're never flying blind the way you did in Guitar Hero.

rock band 3 group road challenge mode

The career mode has also been revamped, changed to "Road Challenges" that let you choose from a pre-determined set list, a random setlist, or a setlist of your choosing. In truth, it doesn't feel all that different than the previous game's World Tour mode, except for more detailed animations before and after sets. This is the one area where I feel Rock Band has failed to innovate. A true band career mode could be so much more than what we've seen so far. Imagine being able to book shows in advance, manage a street team for promotion, choose album artwork, release dates, get in rivalries with other bands, and more. For a game that claims to provide the full rock and roll experience, it's still only focused on the music. Of course, the music is Harmonix's bread and butter, and I'd rather not see a band management mode included if it wasn't done well (Lego Rock Band had a half-hearted attempt at including some of these things), but now that the music barrier has been broken perhaps Harmonix can look toward the making the simulator aspect more involved.

Still, that quibble aside, Rock Band 3 is a major step forward for Harmonix and the music game genre in general. The high level of quality that permeates the title is easy to see from the opening animations and the whole experience is just fantastic. And with the new pro mode, Harmonix's dream of teaching music to those who wouldn't normally touch a musical instrument might just be within reach. Video Game Talk Collector Series

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