Harmonix’s journey towards its masterpiece has been one of many highways, each a turn towards the ultimate synthesis of music and videogames. This latest has become known as ‘the one that actually teaches you to play instruments’, but in truth they all are. Even Frequency, which turned the PlayStation pad into a kind of Eno-esque navigator of obscure electronica, is as valid a tutor as this game. The obstacles feel just as tall, the need to climb them as strong. The only difference is that the rewards are so much greater.
Rock Band 3’s flagship, the Pro Guitar, is an unqualified triumph. Though the true hybrid, the Squier, won’t be out until next year, the current version, with its button-based fretboard and phoney ‘strings’, makes an ideal stand-in. It’s durable, desirable, tactile and precise. The buttons pivot just right to let the finger slide across them, coming as close to steel wire as buttons can. There’ll be breakages, of course, and justified hissy fits from the victims, but our Pro experience has been 100 per cent positive.
Our best-case scenario for Pro was that the guitar – and we’ll talk about the keyboard in a moment – would be a hard but effective taskmaster with its own set of rules, sitting comfortably in a vacuum between games and actual musicianship. A bridge, in other words, as suggested in our preview. It’s defied our imagination.
Every aspect of the game is as playable with the ‘classic’ controller as any previous Rock Band. But to those willing to brave the fire, the Pro guitar makes it redundant. Sure, this initial Mustang version is still one step removed from the real thing, but to those starting out it makes no difference. Hour by hour, step by challenging step, it strips away the alienation of the instrument, the stigma of those five coloured buttons, and any lingering doubts of its worth as a videogame device. It’s surely no coincidence that the first track in the tutorial, The Hardest Button To Button, is by the genre’s onetime detractor, The White Stripes.
When it comes to the discovery and democratisation of music, the key figures have often been masters of visual mnemonics, able to see the unlikeliest links between images and memory. The Pro mode notation appreciates that learning aids don’t have to be obvious. The basic plucking is certainly straightforward: a number indicates where along the fretboard to hold, and comes floating down the relevant string on the highway. Chords, though, are defined as ‘shapes’ that look completely alien when they first pop into view, and barre chords are different again. Yet these strange symbols speak clearly to some part of your brain or other, because a few hours later you’re fluent.
The overlap between learning this and a regular game is remarkable, even when the controller features 102 buttons. That it never feels frustrating despite its obvious fearsomeness speaks to the complete success of the new Rock Band experience. There is simply no aspect of this game that isn’t polished to near-perfection. Take, for instance, the ‘Overshell’, the game’s new user interface. To call it a frontend would be misleading, since it genuinely envelops the entire play session. Signing in, browsing available characters, choosing a difficulty and joining your bandmates onstage is like dropping a coin into a slot and hitting a big flashing ‘start’ button. Switching profiles, dropping out and taking control of primary menu navigation are no different. The many dots of modern player management are joined without any one line cutting another. Functions are sometimes barred under specific circumstances, but never without reason.
Just as elegant is the career structure. With all 83 on-disc songs unlocked from the start, Career mode is simply there to add scenery to the learning curve. The game does have another option, Play Now, but they both boil down to the same thing: playing songs, earning fans and unlocking cool stuff. A track chosen on a whim from the Quickplay list can be as profitable as the new Road Challenges, which see your band stumble its way through an often accidental career, your bandmates strutting their stuff on every page of every menu. A shinier band, too, as the game’s shaders have been rewritten to add a careful layer of realism, the customisation modes more powerful and extensive.
On to the keyboard, then, of which there’s little to say beyond it being a very good facsimile of a low-end model, albeit with just two octaves. The worst you can say is that the Overdrive button seems positioned for its use as a keytar, yet Harmonix itself – and indeed the game – seems to baulk at the idea. Your characters don’t play keytar on stage, no one does so unironically in reality, and there’s room above the keys for a more natural placement. As it is, hitting the leftward arm of the instrument takes some getting used to.
When it comes to the instruments generally, you could also argue that, much like The Beatles: Rock Band, RB3 can sometimes feel like a victim of its songs. The keyboard is just one of those instruments that tends to either dominate or fade, hogging almost two minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody but reduced to mere bips and bops elsewhere. This might grate for a solo player already picking favourites from ‘just’ 83 songs, finding themselves staring at a blank highway. But we defy you to find a smarter tracklist than this one, DJ Hero’s included. It’s accessible, it’s cultured, and it isn’t afraid to pick from the carcasses of recent Guitar Hero games.
It all adds up to what is easily the best and most progressive rhythm-action game ever made, if that label even applies any more. It doesn’t, really. Ever since the MTV acquisition and the rebranding, Harmonix has been quite loudly assembling Rock Band as a platform, dropping the Rock Band Network late into Rock Band 2 – and the importance of that is its own story – bolstering the Rock Band store to over 2,000 tracks, doing its best to import old on-disc content into each instalment, and welcoming suggestions for region-specific tunes and more exotic UGC. Rock Band 3 connects those pieces in quite spectacular fashion.
In the time we’ve spent with this game, we’ve played over a hundred tracks from the Rock Band store and marvelled at how so many – Under The Bridge and The Pretender leap to mind – play even better than those on the disc. It’s a new collection for a new kind of enjoyment, and Harmonix has respected that investment despite any and all distractions.
Much the same goes for multiplayer. You’ve bought the instruments, you’ve bought the batteries, and you’re now being sold even more. A world of plastic instruments is out there, and RB3 does its utmost to connect them all, whichever franchise they’re from, wherever they might be. Social networking extensions; custom setlist battles coordinated via RockBand.com; profile publishing; offline support for up to seven players, including three-part harmonies from The Beatles: Rock Band; seamless, visible leaderboards and metadata for every song – the list goes on.
Harmonix now takes its rightful place alongside all who have championed the gift of music, not to mention those who have, just as importantly, kept it in step with technology. Chief among them is the studio’s owner, MTV, whose patience in that role is too easily overlooked. Amid dreadful misadventures into non-music dross and increasingly antiseptic playlists, Rock Band 3 is by far the most profound development in that company’s recent history. For the rest of us, it is simply magnificent.
Rock Band 3 is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.