Rock Band 3 Preview

Rock Band 3 Preview

Format: Xbox 360, DS, PS3, Wii
Release: October 26 (US), October 29 (UK)
Publisher: MTV Games
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems

If you follow the path of Harmonix over the last ten years, through the music games that all but complete its discography, the arrival at Rock Band 3 seems obvious. Beginning in a dark, hypnotic tunnel full of shadowy electronica, it’s a journey towards reality. Frequency becomes Amplitude, the tunnel becomes a wave, and the music a more Earthly landscape of sounds and performers. Then Guitar Hero, a mock-rock-doc with a highway of notes and a toy guitar. Then drums, microphone and Rock Band, the Don’t Look Back to Guitar Hero’s This Is Spinal Tap. You have to wonder: how did we not see the Pro Guitar coming?

Perhaps because a real guitar, or even a close facsimile, would require 102 buttons for one hand and six accurately tuned strings for the other, making Coleco’s infamous Super Action Controller look like a lightswitch in comparison. Perhaps because, with our homes already resembling the boot of a big plastic tour bus, the idea of even more peripherals – more expense – was simply beyond reckoning. Or perhaps we just underestimated the drive of the company which did, after all, sell us those instruments in the first place. Perhaps, by extension, we underestimated ourselves.

For a certain type of Rock Band player, the arrival of Pro controllers – real instruments, more or less – will feel more like a gift than an expense. We mastered the fifth note to get closer to the music – now we can reach out and touch it. Together with added toms and cymbals and a ‘pitch accurate’ two-octave (C3 to C5) keyboard, the launch of Rock Band 3 will add the Squier Mustang Pro Guitar, a full simulation of strings, 17 frets and a hyper-sensitive strum area. Moreover, both it and the keyboard are fully functioning MIDI controllers. Gamers and musicians will, at last, speak the same language, learn the same skills and play the same music. They will, in ways to strike the cynical Jack White dumb, simply become the same. Right, Harmonix?

“Well, we’re not trying to turn people into Joe Satriani with this stuff,” cautions project director Daniel Sussman. “We see Pro as a different experience from the five-button simulation, but not necessarily a track to expertise. We had a debate about whether or not to even include an Expert Pro mode because we didn’t want it framing the whole experience. We have it in there because it shows the potential ceiling of where this can take you. But we certainly don’t expect that many people to do four- or five-star songs on Expert Pro Guitar.”

We’ve heard talk like this from Harmonix before, the words of a company whose every step is a leap of faith. Clearly, the Pro Guitar is designed to bridge the gap between videogame and actual musicianship – but that’s a long bridge. How the average player, still struggling to master Expert mode, will adapt is very much unknown, and it’s to the studio’s delight that we eventually clear the tutorial. We know this, at least: every step of the process feels like the most meaningful tutorial we’ve ever been made to undertake.

“We talk about that all the time,” says Sussman. “The return of investment. We’ve seen players get really, really good at the guitar game. That’s great – I’m glad people are having fun and I’d never want to knock that. On the other hand, there’s nothing you can take away from it outside the console world. The Pro stuff can open doors.” It’s still entertainment, he insists, not edutainment. Just as Easy Drums involve ‘kick, snare, kick, snare’, Easy Pro Guitar will be ‘middle C, middle C’. “But the idea is that, if you put the time in, you can sit down at a piano or with an acoustic guitar and the return of investment is huge, because you’re learning things which are legitimately musical.”

It’s around this time, sat in the ‘Star Chamber’ (demo room) of Harmonix’s Boston studio, that we’re introduced to two frightening things. The first is the ultimate Pro guitar model, which sounds like it’ll launch sometime after the game itself, meaning something of a dilemma for cash-strapped early adopters. The Squier Stratocaster hybrid controller, which as the name suggests is a collaboration between Squier parent Fender and Harmonix, is a guitar. Note the lack of inverted commas. While its outputs, components and internal organs are built with Rock Band in mind, it stops being a ‘controller’ the moment you plug it into an amp.

The second thing is Bryn Bennett, Pro Mode developer and lead guitarist of local band Bang Camaro. He’s not frightening, really, he’s a very lovely man – but he does play a mean guitar. Preparing for E3, though, he did not know how to play The Power Of Love by Huey Lewis And The News or the murderous Rainbow In The Dark by Dio. He does now, thanks entirely to Rock Band 3.

To demonstrate, he blitzes the former on Expert Pro Guitar. The Pro interface is entirely new, instantly terrifying, but easily deciphered once you’ve run through the many tutorials. The button lane highway now depicts six strings rather than five lanes, numbers above the cascading notes telling you where on the fretboard your finger needs to be. Individual notes, in other words, rather than the usual entry point for the campfire noise polluter: strummed chords. Along the top of the screen, a no-frills image of the fretboard leaves you in no doubt of where your fingers are, even when your addled brain leaves you in no fit state to use them.