Harmonix did not invent the modern, peripheral based music/rhythm game. That distinction rightfully belongs to Konami. Instead, Harmonix managed to marry the inherent fun of virtually playing an instrument to a deep love and clear understanding of the accompanying songs, and in the process created an experience that felt less like playing a game and more like actually creating music. The company is single-handedly responsible for every significant innovation the genre has seen since Guitar Hero was first unleashed on an unsuspecting public back in November of 2005: drums, vocals, harmonies, and a massive, constantly updated music store to keep the experience fresh.
Harmonix's previous games now seem like warm-ups for the main act. The company has clearly been honing its chops, working its way up to the main event, and the day has finally come. Rock Band 3 is here, and it is magnificent. Massive in scope, content, and innovation, but always manageable, approachable, and dedicated to player choice, Rock Band 3 is the absolute gold standard in music games. It just doesn't get any better than this.
Game Rant has already given significant coverage to Rock Band 3's new instruments, Road Challenges, pitch correction, and Pro Mode, and anyone who hasn't read up on those features is encouraged to do so.
Rock Band 3 is, by far, the most structurally open of Harmonix's games, and no two players will move though it in quite the same way. Though there are still several modes to choose from (Career Goals, Road Challenges, Quick Play, Training), progress in the game is not tied to any one of them. In fact, Rock Band 3 largely does away with the sort of career mode that has been a staple of the series in the past. Instead, progress is made one song at a time, in absolutely any of the game's modes, and tracked on the Career Goals screen.
Goals are similar to the Challenges from Rock Band 2, and cover everything from calibrating the game to hitting "every note in every song in Rock Band 3." Players can tackle specific goals from within the goals menu, but playing any song in any mode will count toward its goal. In this way, players are always making progress, always earning points, and always accruing fans.
This is not to suggest that custom characters and bands have been left out. The journey from playing lowly basement gigs to packed stadiums is still very much a part of the experience. Player created characters are more customizable, and display more personality, than ever before. Their onstage animation is the best the series has seen. When they're not onstage, custom characters and bands are still onscreen in the background of every menu, hanging out in the rehearsal space, say, or walking along train tracks. When career milestones are hit, brief vignettes kick in showing the band doing everything from taking a quick subway ride to living it up a bit too much at a rooftop after-party. Though Rock Band 3 is not a game people will play for the graphics, it is a clear step up from Rock Band 2, visually.
The ultimate success for any band remains being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Rock Band 3, for the first time, players can truly reach that goal on their own terms. Because the game offers complete freedom in how the song library is tackled, players can make it all the way to the credits without ever enduring a song the just don't want to play. The boost to accessibility this grants Rock Band 3 can not be overstated.
Of course, being inducted into the Hall of Fame is hardly the end of the experience. Working through all the game's goals is a virtually endless endeavor. Thankfully, Road Challenges and Quick Play mode offer ample opportunity to explore all that Rock Band 3 has to offer.
Road Challenges play out like miniature versions of the Career Mode from Rock Band 2. They range from six to twenty songs and are split between a number of venues, each of which offers a choice of setlists. Once again, in Rock Band 3, the player is in charge of the music. Each gig on the road also includes bonus objectives for players to attempt, such as staying in Overdrive for extended periods of time. Successfully completing the bonus objectives awards Spades, which in turn feed back into goals. It's a great system that allows players to have a "complete" experience, no matter how much time they have to play.
Quick Play mode now includes a number of ways to sort content. Songs can be broken out by genre, decade, difficulty, and more. Players can create and save their own playlists, or choose one of the game's built-in setlists. There is even a never ending Party Shuffle, for those times when the music simply must not stop. As in all of Rock Band 3's modes, players can freely drop in or out.
Refinements to the core game's structure are only part of what makes Rock Band 3 so exciting. Keyboards have come to the game for the first time, and harmony vocals have been carried over from The Beatles: Rock Band. Pro Mode makes its debut, along with a pair of pro guitar controllers. Unfortunately, the Fender Mustang PRO-Guitar Controller won't be available until November 16, 2010, and the Rock Band 3 Squier by Fender Stratocaster Guitar Controller currently has no projected release date at all. Furthermore, Game Rant was unable to secure a Rock Band 3 Keyboard for this review, so our Pro Mode discussion will be limited to drums.
Just as in the standard Rock Band 3 modes, Pro Mode is broken into four difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. Anyone should be able to play Pro Mode drums on Easy, while actual drummers are going to love Expert. Drums are the only Rock Band instrument to receive Pro Mode support across all content, meaning that every Rock Band track ever is playable on drums in Pro Mode.
To enable Pro Mode drums in Rock Band 3, whether on the stock Rock Band wireless drum set or on the high-end Ion Drum Rocker, players will need some cymbal pads. The primary distinction of Pro Mode is that drum notes and cymbal notes are separated, and their associated pads are no longer interchangeable. To this end, notes that must be played on the cymbal pads are now represented by cymbal icons on the game's note highway.
Playing the drums in Rock Band has long been held as an example of a music game mechanic that can actually teach real world musical skills. That has never been more true than it is now. Certainly, there are dynamics and nuances not captured by Rock Band 3 Pro Mode Drums on Expert, but frankly, you'd have to be a drummer to notice. Though songs in Pro Mode don't consist of any more notes than they do in standard mode, the separation of cymbals and drums forces gamers to think about their "drum sets" the same way an actual drummer would. For interested players, there is an excellent in-game trainer to help build some proficiency.
As a lifelong drummer, I find playing Pro Mode Drums tremendously satisfying. It brings the game a sense of believability and realism that the series has long flirted with, but never committed to. Note to other drum nerds: songs that feature 16th note hi-hat patterns finally assign those notes to the hi-hat pad, rather than switching them to the snare pad as in all the previous games. Yes!
Back in standard mode, the other instruments are as much fun to play as they've ever been. Guitar difficulty seems to have been given a gentle boost, possibly in reaction to the longtime criticism that Rock Band is less challenging than its competitors. And Harmony Vocals are a surprisingly impactful addition to the game's formula. It's just plain awesome to play bass and chime in with an occasional background vocal. On songs without harmony lines, all available vocalists (up to three) are free to sing lead in unison.
Rock Band 3's extensive on-disc track list is wonderfully diverse, though it seems decidedly short on on the sort of ultra heavy material that became so prevalent near the end of Rock Band 2. Of course, gamers can also import content from previous Rock Band releases (save The Beatles: Rock Band) and purchase still more content from the Rock Band Music Store.
It should say something about Rock Band 3 that, after a solid week of playing the game nonstop, I booted it up to reference while writing this review and ended up playing for hours. It is a joyful, generous game, bursting with goals to accomplish; an ambitious game in genre often accused of stagnancy. It is, in many ways, the game you want it to be, and your experience with Rock Band 3 -- in music selection, in aesthetic, in progression -- will likely be very different from mine. Rock Band 3 may well be the game Harmonix was always trying make, and it is, without question, the best music game available. Highly recommended.
Rock Band 3 will be available October 26, 2010, on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, and DS. Game Rant reviewed the Xbox 360 version of the game.