Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rock Band 3

My original idea was to have kept a Rock Band 3 diary since the game’s launch, charting my daily exploits with this most anticipated of rhythm-action titles. Although it would have been an exceptionally tedious read, it would have also reflected the sheer breadth of the title, and all the scope for drunken party fun and hours lost to an obsessive single-player structure that the last week has entailed. For Rock Band 3 must surely rank as Harmonix’s crowning achievement, the culmination of close to ten years work of experimenting with music, visual feedback, interactivity and social gaming.

The fundamentals of gameplay remain the same of course, but it’s the small touches and impressive level of detail invested in the overall framework that lift Rock Band 3, and make it an essential purchase for those gamers with even a small interest in the series. For instance, an extension of Guitar Hero 5’s drop-in/drop-out device allows each individual player to tailor such variables as difficulty and their on-screen character on the fly, without breaking continuity. The changes aren’t back-of-box unit shifters, but the fact that you almost forget that they’ve been made suggests they work well.

The method of song selection has also improved, with a wide array of filters helping to streamline what for many will now likely be a vast library of tracks. One of the strengths of the Rock Band series has been its’ sensible approach to exporting music you already own into successive games, so with just the Rock Band 3 disc I now also have access to the music from Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band (which means repeat plays of Ghostbusters), not to mention the excellent DLC support.

Other tweaks to the existing Rock Band model include a revamped career mode, which now takes the form of Road Challenges bracketed loosely by genre in a manner not unlike that used by the most recent Guitar Hero game, Warriors Of Rock (just without the hilarious sub-Games Workshop narrative and, sadly, Rush). As with other areas of Rock Band 3, the Road Challenges have been designed to encourage you to play the game in different ways, and help you unlock one of the very many career goals available. It’s an engaging approach to what is already a very addictive game. Additionally, because your band follows you from these aforementioned challenges to the multiplayer, there’s a pleasing self-contained cohesion to the whole experience.

All these amendments, as well as the ones not discussed at length in this review – such as the ability to rate songs, the enhanced character customisation tools, the excellent set-list – would in themselves be enough to ensure Rock Band 3’s position as one of the best games of 2010. But Harmonix understand that in these tough times for the genre which they had a significant part in creating, ‘mere’ refinement may not be enough to keep the wider audience interested. This is the point keyboards and Pro Mode step into the spotlight.

The keyboard, like the drums, has the advantage of closely replicating its real-life equivalent; there are no abstract coloured buttons to simulate the idea of playing, but actual real keys, and so their appeal – whether using the keyboard on a stand or, hilariously, as a ‘keytar’ – is instant. It’s startling how a small difference in an input device can have such an impact within the familiar template, as you learn to apply the years of playing with a plastic guitar to a new instrument. Some of the songs on Rock Band 3 don’t include keyboard tracks, while there aren’t as many as you’d expect where the keyboard takes central focus, but we anticipate this will change as further DLC is released.

Although the keyboard Pro mode is playable via the standard peripheral, it’s the guitar-based section that has been the subject of keen interest ever since it was announced that Rock Band 3 would, budget and time willing, let you play along using a stringed instrument. The concept is the perfect antidote to every guitar bore who insists that you might as well learn to play a real guitar instead of messing around with a plastic one, but it’s one that we were unfortunately unable to test ourselves as a) Pro guitars aren’t released in the UK until later in 2010 and b) we’re poor. Every report we’ve read about the Pro mode though has been glowing, and the fine work Harmonix have done elsewhere suggest that it really is the mould-breaker we had hoped it would be. Amusingly one of the Pro mode-related trophies, ‘Play A Real Guitar Already!’, is awarded for playing The Hardest Button To Button on Pro guitar (The White Stripes’ Jack White was one of the most vocal aforementioned music bores, who in 2009 said: “It’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that Guitar Hero is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music”).

Even taking Pro mode out of the equation, Rock Band 3 is still an incredible package of almost limitless depth. From playing online one night to jamming with a room full of friends another, from mastering that tricky guitar solo to taking your first Pro keyboard lessons, from naming your band ‘Aids LOL’ to realising that wasn’t the wisest idea; there is so much to do here that I could conceivably still write that fabled Rock Band 3 diary and end up doing something new and different with the game every single day. It wouldn’t exactly be a riveting read, but it would be the most fun I’ll have had with gaming in ages. Still nobody does this better than Harmonix, and with Rock Band 3 they are at the top of their game.

This review of Rock Band 3 was originally published by D+PAD Magazine, link.

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