Game Review: Rock Band 3

It's hard enough to find a game sequel that is dramatically better than the original, and even more difficult to find a third installment that's even better.
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Maybe that's why I was prepared for disappointment with Rock Band 3.

Hopeful? Yes, but I was also ready to be let down.

Fortunately, in all the ways that matter, Rock Band 3 is better than it's predecessors, and if you'll pardon the pun (if you play the game, you'll understand) it delivers in Spades.

Before tackling the much touted 'Pro Mode' and the addition of a new instrument, let's talk about how the original concept has been improved.

Character models, venues, and even the film-like filters used in previous games have been improved.

Not only are animations smoother, and more realistic, but creation of your own custom character has become easier and the options more varied. It's now possible to create a playable rock star that resembles just about anyone you know… including yourself.

The earlier version of Career Mode, World Tour, has been removed entirely, replaced with an integrated set of band goals that carry across all gameplay modes, tracking your accomplishments with each instrument as a group, and separately.

The closest thing to World Tour are the Road Challenges. These are short tours of cities around the world, much like World Tour, but with one huge difference: you aren't limited to a single setlist.

Each venue along a Road Challenge has a pre-selected tracklist to play, or you can select one of two other setlists. The alternate sets are generally custom or random, but with a designed theme. For example, you could be playing in Boston, and you are given the choice between a three song set that is premade, a random set of three 80's songs, or a custom set of three indie songs.

The upshot of this? In earlier RB titles you were required to play a set of predetermined songs to pass a venue, and generally the songs repeated themselves. A lot. Did I mention it was repetitive?

I learned to hate 'Say It Ain't So' that way.

Another major improvement is with leaderboards.

They update nearly instantaneously, keep track of individual scores of each instrument (even when playing with a band), and show far more detail.

Vocal harmonies have been brought across from Green Day and Beatles titles, and when you return from pausing the game in the middle of a song, the game rewinds a few seconds and 'prerolls' the track for you, so pausing doesn't mean you're destined to miss notes.

Okay, Guitar Hero had that incorporated first, as well as the new 'drop in, drop out, anywhere' feature… but it's nice to see those things in a Rock Band game.

Essentially, the Rock Band experience is still what you remember, with a few tweaks to make it even more accessible.

And then there's the keyboard.

This review was delayed a few days because we weren't able to get a pre-release keyboard and decided to wait to make sure we gave the most complete review we could.

The keyboard is friggin' amazing.

Being mostly a guitarist, but able to play any instrument in previous titles on Expert, the keyboard threw me a curve ball.

The regular keyboard mode LOOKS very similar to guitar or bass on the screen, with five colored lanes and the appropriate notes streaming from top to bottom, but make no mistake, it's a different animal.

This is primarily because it requires coordinated use of your right hand for colored buttons and there is no strumming.

To put it in perspective, try playing guitar in current Rock Band games with Lefty Mode turned on, with your right hand on the buttons, and using the smaller buttons during guitar solos (you know, so you don't have to strum).

Now do that with the guitar laying on a table.

It's a completely different muscle memory experience, and that's what makes it fun, that's what makes it challenging.

The other big addition in RB3 is Pro Mode.

For drums, this means any cymbals you may have added to your kit can be tracked separately, effectively giving you up to eight different notes to keep track of (the four colored pads, three cymbals, and a kick pedal).

To keep the interface uncluttered in Pro, the notes are doubled up on the highway.

A yellow bar means to hit the yellow pad, while a yellow cymbal in the same place means you need to hit the corresponding cymbal.

Just like in regular mode, Pro has levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert.

If you're playing Expert Pro Mode, you ARE playing the real drum parts.

If you're looking to learn real drums, or looking for an extra challenge in the game, this is where you'll spend most of your time.

Pro Mode for keyboards gives you two octaves (24 notes) worth of buttons to contend with, and varying degrees of difficulty as well.

Both Pro Modes I've mentioned include training sessions for learning the real instruments, although you're not going to learn overnight. You'll be missing the constant feedback a real instructor, but it's definitely a good place to start.

You won't become a piano virtuoso, but you will become familiar enough with the instrument to immediately sit down with a real keyboard and not embarrass yourself.

You may even earn some extra cash if you set out a tip jar.

The Mad Catz and Squire Pro guitars aren't available yet, meaning we were unable to play Pro Mode guitar for this review. We'll make an addendum as soon as we can get our hands on the hardware.

My few gripes? I've had a few times when the game has locked up, causing me to completely reboot my machine.

It's also not entirely clear how or when you can enable/disable Pitch Correction for vocals. Sometimes it's on, sometimes it's off. Sometimes it's on and the ability to turn it off is greyed out.

And then there's the time my save game was corrupted. Apparently you shouldn't turn off Auto Save while the game is Auto Saving. That's one of the hazards of the new interface, you can adjust options from just about anywhere, at any time… and it doesn't tell you every time that's it's saving in the background.

In the end, if you enjoy rhythm games, you'll find RB3 polishes the formula nicely. Additional songs added to your collection, vocal harmonies, a new instrument, some new achievements/trophies… it's a no-brainer for those of you who already enjoy the genre.

If you are running out of challenges in your music games, it's also an easy decision. Pro Mode is where it's at, especially for mutant drummers who are getting bored with the old games because they are too easy. Once you start on Pro Drums, you'll never go back.

And, in the event you don't like rhythm games at all? You should probably visit a friend who has RB3 and test it out… and then go buy it.

If you're looking to buy the game:
Rock Band 3
Rock Band 3 Wireless Keyboard
Wireless Fender Mustang PRO-Guitar Controller

Related story: PS3 Trophy List for Rock Band 3.

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