We have all read about - even been witness to - the slow decline of the rhythm game genre. Frequently blamed for exacerbating the decline of such titles is the often steep monetary investment in necessary peripherals.
Year after year content and games have been released to luke-warm responses and many have speculated that the time of the rhythm game was at an end. Even here we’ve wondered aloud whether the next instalments would replace the drum kit with a dead horse.
Colour me surprised to discover that Harmonix, creator of the Rock Band franchise, has looked into the face of the non believer, thrown up the horns and released a masterpiece that may just be the Sgt. Pepper of the genre.
Rock Band 3’s hook is its new Pro Instruments and Pro Modes. Guitar, drum and keyboard inputs each have a Pro mode feature with the keytar moving from a simple five key-pick-up-and-play to complex chords and riffs. Guitars have two newly available models including a full six-stringed version while the drums have three new symbol attachments.
The drums are the simplest addition and because of both this and the way the parts have been produced, the new drum kit will work with all 2000 songs produced for Rock Band 3. When playing Pro, the additional cymbals are cued visually with a new round symbol. Other than that you smack the things when you are told to, like in previous games.
The keyboard input being designed as a keytar is in itself a master stroke. While you may lump keytars in with strange hats and songs you’ll quite happily sing along to in a pub but never dare listen to at home, rhythm games are as much about what you do on screen as off and being stuck behind a stationary keyboard simply wouldn’t fit the bill.
Play the keytar in normal mode and it feels a bit like playing the original guitar sans strumming but with enough difference that it still requires a slight brain rework - especially on some of the harder tracks. Rocking along to Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’ or Back to the Future’s ‘Power of Love’ is utterly engaging. Add the fact that you’re jabbing away at a proper keyboard and the illusion of involvement is almost perfect.
Playing the keytar is easy enough in normal mode with five key button matching and having your hand in the one position for basic keys means that sight reading is entirely possible. The keytar is not just five keys, mind you, move on up to Pro Mode and you have a two-octave range to come to terms with and though not all songs feature keyboard tracks as time goes by downloadable content with keyboard sections should become more common.
The new Pro Guitars come in two versions, one an actual guitar with strings up the fret and the other which imitates every available note on the fret board with a button, meaning there is a whopping 102 of them.
This latter version feels considerably more realistic than it looks and if you know your way around a guitar it is almost second nature to slide up and down the neck, play chords and pluck from the string box.
The visual cues of old are out the window. When Pro Guitar gaming is in action the simple coloured prompts are replaced by chord names and finger numbers and at times the shape your fingers should be and which string or strings to play. With no real musical background to speak of seeing the mess of shapes scrolling down the screen could cause the hands to simply freeze.
There is a learning curve here that could terrify. Anyone without a rudimentary understanding of playing the guitar might quickly feel overwhelmed. You are, in essence, learning a musical instrument and that is what has so profoundly changed the approach required to play Rock Band 3.
Lucky then that the game features such a large serving of instrument-specific tutorials designed to help teach you the basics of musical theory and challenge you to improve your technique. While these lessons alone will not make you the next Jimi Hendrix, they do offer an impressive range of guides that will set you on the right path.
Be warned that your musical tutor has no room for excuses and you must play through every segment of a song in training mode perfectly before he will allow you to move on to the next.
That demand for perfection carries over to the main game: slightly poor timing and flaws in technique are quickly punished while small mistakes quickly build to ruin your game.
This may seem a little extreme but once you get your head around it you will realise it shouldn’t work any other way. If you want to dance around the room with a generous input window, play the regular game, if you want a challenge and something a little more valuable to invest your time in then Pro Mode is for you.
The Pro instruments drastically increase the potential of the game and though you may occasionally wish to use the new guitar as a club, your time investment will be repaid with skills you’ll be able to use outside of the game. If only the same could be said of the more abstract benefits of 16 hours spent slaying dragons. On the other hand, the new instruments are a serious investment particularly when you could just as easily buy a real guitar and learn Time of Your Life the way normal people do.
Pro mode aside, the regular gaming experience is as expected. Players choose between playing guitar, bass, keyboard, drums or vocals (and vocals now support the three-part harmony function that had its debut in Beatles: Rock Band).
Career Mode has been overhauled. Instead of progressing across a map, or from gig to gig the game instead revolves around your growing fan-base.
Fans and other unlockables are gained through almost everything you do in Rock Band 3. Try to increase your finger dexterity through the much more involved Training Mode and your fame will grow. Fame can also be garnered from Quick Play to Multiplayer or from one of the multitude of Road Challenges, which match relevant tracks together in changing scenarios.
The menu navigation has been updated and now a simple press of buttons can switch out instruments or profiles and you can easily drop in and out of songs and change difficulty mid-show. While multiplayer now has what Harmonix calls an “Overshell” meaning each player has their own menu window, so if one player pauses, others continue playing. It’s these simple touches that improve the game play experience exponentially.
The all important track list is solid and varied with slightly more pop tracks. The introduction of the keyboard lets Rock Band introduce a wider range of songs that are keyboard/piano-driven such as Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night is Alright for Fighting’.
With an eclectic mix of songs from Slipknot to Elton, and fresh downloadable content, Rock Band 3 has already kept many in leather pants over the last couple of months - and will do for some months to come. The tweaks in graphics and menu navigation simply make this game a better experience than its predecessors, or indeed its competitors.
Without the pro instruments Rock Band 3 is a strong rhythm game but nothing extraordinary. With Pro Mode, and the new Pro instruments this game is a shining light in a genre that had become happy with mediocrity.