Inside Pulse 12

Review: Rock Band 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Rock Band 3
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 10/26/2010

I’ve been following Harmonix as a developer since they started out, having bought Frequency and Amplitude back before the company became known for anything, as well as the various Karaoke Revolution games they developed for Konami. When they basically decided to single handedly bring the plastic instrument genre to the US with Guitar Hero, I was on board with them one hundred percent, and when they dropped the franchise to its corporate overlords Activision and left to make Rock Band, I followed along. Harmonix has made a solid, well thought out progression from one game to the next, changing elements here and there as needed to keep the games fresh and exciting while not overwhelming fans or new players along the way, and to say that they’ve made some great games along the way isn’t hyperbole in the least. Rock Band 2 was a strong release, is still one of the better titles in the genre even now, and took top honors for Rhythm Game of the Year in 2008. Rock Band Unplugged won top honors from us in the same category in 2009, and is a solid attempt to bring the rhythm genre to the PSP. Lego Rock Band, The Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band were good additions to the genre in their own way that emphasized appealing to smaller segments of the overall fanbase (children, Beatles fans and Green Day fans, respectively) while still mostly keeping up the quality of the franchise. That said, the franchise is becoming a bit long in the tooth, so to say, as there’s little new that’s been added to the games in the past few years. Between Rock Band 2 and now, we’ve seen vocal harmonies added to the series… and that’s mostly it. Rock Band 3 seeks to remedy this by changing up a lot of the mechanics of the series and adding in a brand new instrument, the keyboard, to really expand the series, and in some respects, it succeeds. However, it also adds its own new problems in addition to retaining many of the old ones, and while it’s still a solid game in its own right, when asking the question “is it worth it?”, the answer is a lot harder to come to.

The gameplay modes in Rock Band 3 have been almost completely revamped from the prior games, and while many things have remained, most have either been changed or excised. The main menu offers five choices: Play Now, Career, Training, Customize, and Get More Songs. Play Now offers the option to jump into Quickplay, where you can choose a song to play, pick a setlist (either built in or created), or find someone on Xbox Live to play with in your band. Road Challenge mode is the new Tour Mode, and aside from being able to find players online here as well, you’ll spend your time here going through a series of challenges. This works similar to World Tour Mode, except that you only play one challenge per venue to move on, and the progression is much more linear. Career lets you track your band’s progress at various goals, which unlock gear to use and such, track song progress across different games and categories, and track your overall rankings versus the rest of the world. Training allows you to practice, learn a song, learn an instrument, or freestyle with the drums. Customize allows you to edit your band and band members as well as create new members from scratch. Get More Songs, uh, lets you buy more songs. You can also press Start to change various options for yourself and the band, including turning on No Fail Mode, enabling speed and audio modifiers, and more. Unpopular modes like the competitive play modes and such have been excised entirely, the Tour mode has been overhauled a good bit, and the end result is a product, mode-wise, that feels streamlined all in all.

The visuals in Rock Band 3 are similar to those of the past several games, though the game engine looks to have been improved a bit, as the characters look more interesting, as do the venues. There are also more clothing and customization options available, as well as new band animations added into the mix, and the game features plenty of interesting visual effects, such as psychedelic backgrounds and weird video filming sessions, as did its predecessors, though the effects are more interesting here. However, the fans look more generic this time around when you’re actually playing, though this is the only noticeable downgrade to the game. On the audio front, well, a rhythm game is only as good as its music, and as such, Rock Band 3 is as good as the rest of the series; the game features eighty three tracks from recognizable artists across numerous decades, and all of the tracks sound quite good. The song choices might baffle some folks, as while songs such as “Heart of Glass” from Blondie, “Space Oddity” from David Bowie, “Rainbow in the Dark” from Dio and “Free Bird” (FINALLY) from Lynyrd Skynyrd are awesome, instantly recognizable songs for most everyone, there are a lot of bands that are going to make players scratch their heads in befuddlement (Echo & the Bunnymen? Golden Earring?) . Also, fans don’t sing along with the songs this time around that I’ve seen, though they’ll continue to sing along with your older songs, which makes the absence of this in the tracks in Rock Band 3 more noticeable, especially considering how many iconic songs are in this game.

Assuming you’ve never played a game like Rock Band 3 before, here’s the deal: you will take on the role of either the drummer, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist or singer in a band, and attempt to sing/play various songs to earn stars and fans, which you will use to move forward in the game in one form or another. Singing works as it does in most karaoke games; a bar moves across the screen, you sing in such a way as to mimic it, if you manage it you get points, and if you don’t you move closer to dropping out. Singers will also have to occasionally bop the top of the mic in time with moving icons, more or less as a way of simulating playing the tambourine or something similar, depending on the song. Some songs also feature “freestyle” singing, IE rapping or speaking parts, which more or less work in the same way, only they’re a lot more generous with their scoring, as they don’t have any actual scoring bars. Guitar and bass playing works identically to other, similar products; you press one or more colored frets on the neck of the guitar and strum the strum bar to play a note; play it right and earn points, play it wrong and move closer to dropping out. You will also see notes with lines trailing behind them, and holding down the appropriate frets after strumming these notes holds the notes, which can then be modified by wiggling the whammy bar up and down. There are also smaller notes that pop up here and there, which can be played simply by pressing the fret, without the need to strum, provided you hit the prior note. Drumming works similar to guitar and bass playing; hit the pad that corresponds to the colored note on the screen to play the note to earn points, miss it and, again, move closer to dropping out. Drummers also have to watch out for long yellow lines that come down along with the notes; these lines represent the foot pedal, and again, require to hit the pedal as they move down to earn points or risk dropping out, as needed. Keyboard playing essentially works like guitar playing without the strum; hit the right key when asked and hold the note when needed and you’re good. Each position in the band can select one of four different difficulties (with Easy being good for inexperienced players and Expert being good for insane supermen/women) to play on, meaning experienced players can play with newer players without one or the other having to adjust their play level.

Beyond all of the above basics, there’s also the matter of Overdrive and Score Multipliers. Each member of the band will have opportunities to earn Overdrive while playing, as various white notes/vocals will pop up; playing/singing these notes successfully adds Overdrive power to the meter below your instrument display. When the Overdrive meter fills up halfway, your Overdrive becomes available for use, and using said Overdrive then boosts your score, either by doubling your Score Multiplier when playing solo, or by adding an additional multiplier per player in Overdrive in multiplay. Guitar/Bass players can activate Overdrive at any time by pressing Select on the guitar, or by tilting the guitar upward, while drummers and vocalists will be provided with freestyle sections that pop up in their instrument displays, allowing them to activate Overdrive if they choose, and Keyboardists will press the button on the handle of the keyboard. Aside from allowing players to achieve higher scores, Overdrive also allows players to save other players who have dropped out, IE failed too many notes and been kicked out of play. By engaging Overdrive, the engaging player saves the player who dropped out, bringing them back into the song for another shot at it (though if you drop out three times, you’re out for good). Now, if you’re playing well, on the other hand, your Score Multiplier goes up, thus boosting the amount of points you earn per note hit. Basically, every note you play without messing up adds to the multiplier, which in turn adds to the amount of points you earn per note played. Each instrument has a different Score Multiplier maximum (Drummers get four, Bassists get six, and so on), meaning that each member in the band has some benefit to being there, which is good considering some songs make more use of certain positions than others (guitarists and drummers get their own solos, which add additional points to the roster, the bassist has the highest score modifier of the lot, the singer gets all the groupies and rats, and the keyboardist… uh… gets the night off a lot? I got nothing).

So, okay, let’s talk about the new stuff.

The big deal this time around is the addition of the keyboard, and for the most part, it works out pretty well. The keyboard uses five keys in normal play, one set to each of the five colors the other instruments use, and can mostly be played with one hand without too much effort. The keyboard itself, amusingly, is actually a functional keyboard, complete with a MIDI port on the side for hooking it up to your music equipment or computer if you want to do this thing, so if you’re really only using it for normal keyboard play in the game, you’ll find it to be kind of a letdown in practice. The other major change to the game is Professional Mode. Guitarists, Bassists, Drummers and Keyboardists now have the option of playing the game in Professional Mode, which, much like regular play, has its own difficulties to choose from. The keyboard comes equipped to do this from the ground up, though drummers will need to acquire the cymbals if they don’t have them already, and guitarists/bassists will have to pick up the professional guitar that’s available. Each required instrument is laid out like, well, a real instrument, and you’ll have to play each and every key, fret and cymbal on those instruments as you progress. The option is excellent for players who’ve found the regular play to be not as challenging as they’d like, as you’ll find having to know your hand position at all times to be very hectic, though the keyboard play feels very natural to learn, for what that’s worth. Vocalists don’t get “Professional” mode, but are offered the Vocal Harmony option from The Beatles: Rock Band, where multiple singers can sing at one time, allowing each singer to take up a particular part as they see fit, which is cute, though it isn’t game changing or anything.

Character creation offers up a bunch of new clothing options, and the categories have changed around a bit, so you’ll see old favorites in new positions and a lot of new options as you peruse the choices. Further, you can now adjust the facial shape and design of your characters, allowing you to change cheeks, jaws, noses, eyes, lips and more to create the rocker who’s right for you. The options aren’t quite as robust as the modern Smackdown vs. Raw titles yet, but they’re getting closer each game, and you’ll find the options here to be a good bit more involved than before, if not as detailed as you might hope just yet. In another big change, you no longer purchase items for your band this time around; instead, clothing, hair and accessories are unlocked by completing various goals in the game for the band as a whole, meaning that any character under that profile has access to all of your accessories right away. As before, your band may change members at any time, meaning you can build multiple characters and have them switch in and out as you get bored of them without a problem, and you can still dictate which characters sub in when no one is filling a spot in the band, meaning that if your actual drummer isn’t there, you can have a character jump in and play anyway instead of some random character (assuming said drummer is saved locally on your console). You’re also not constrained to whatever instrument you create your character with; characters can switch instruments at any time, meaning you can start as a guitarist for the band and switch to drums with no problems, which is good, because you’ll need to if you want to earn all of the band goals.

Road Challenge replaces Tour Mode this time around, and while the two share many similarities, they’re quite different in key respects. You can play Tour Mode alone or with friends, online and off, allowing you to make progress however you see fit, but the objectives are the same regardless. You’ll start off at the bottom, using local transportation to get from set to set, but as you progress you’ll get a van, tour bus, plane and so on until you make it to the top of the charts, so to say, as you’d expect. You can still play the Road Challenges online or off, and when playing online, everyone can still accomplish their own goals, though only the primary player advances their career. Goals, as noted previously, are essentially various challenges you’re tasked to accomplish, such as playing a certain amount of songs on a certain difficulty level or trying to hold Overdrive for a set amount of time or whatever, and by completing these you can earn new clothing and accessory options as well as achievements. Instrument specific goals can be completed in any play mode, as can the song specific goals, though there are also goals associated to various modes and other activities to spread the love around and give you plenty to do across the whole game.

As before, there are also a very large amount of tracks available in Rock Band 3; even if this is your very first experience with the franchise, the game comes loaded with a whopping eighty three tracks right out of the box, which should keep you entertained for a while. For those that love to have more variety, you’re in luck, as Rock Band 3 is compatible with all existing Rock Band DLC, meaning any songs you’ve already downloaded will work, as will any new songs you’re interested in. On top of THAT, you can also install the original Rock Band, Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band track lists to your hard drive (at the cost of a few gigs of storage space and twenty or so dollars for licensing fees), save for a few songs here and there across the various games. You can also delete specific songs from the original game once they are installed on your hard drive, so if you never want to hear a song again, you can trash it and move on with your day. In other words: THERE IS A LOT OF CONTENT AVAILABLE TO YOU. This, too, is pretty sweet, as is the fact that the menu displaying the tracks also displays your scores on each song you’ve played, and allows you to specifically sort the songs you have based on where they come from in addition to the other options, such as band name, song name, difficulty and so on. Again, the little things make all the difference, and in this case, the little things are pretty spiffy.

Unfortunately, for everything Rock Band 3 does right, it still retains many of its predecessors issues. The track list may also not be for everyone, and while it’s fair to say “that’s the way every game of this sort works”, it still bears noting that, for instance, there’s a decent amount of modern and classical rock, but also a ton of modern music and oddball rarities that, at best, aren’t notable, and at worst, are wasting space on the disc. It’s also kind of silly that, while you can use all of your downloaded content, you STILL can’t use your old Rock Band 2 bands and members, especially since all of the content from the first game is IN this game, for the most part. I mean, yes, okay, I get that they want to lock up things you might have otherwise unlocked, and yes, the engine is somewhat redesigned, but still, something that imports the band and a general idea of how the original band members looked would have been nice. The worst complaint about Rock Band 3, though, is the same complaint that can be made about the prior games after Rock Band: it’s really a sixty dollar stand-alone expansion pack. Now, if you loved Rock Band 2 or the other games we’ve mentioned previously, paying sixty dollars for eighty songs, online play, and new character costumes isn’t a bad deal, especially when you can dump the songs from the prior games onto your hard drive and build up a massive library in minutes, but if you were hoping for a little more advancement to the product, you might come away a little disappointed, as there’s not so much different here that it feels like a brand new game.

There’s also the matter of how Rock Band 3 makes some noticeable steps backward from the prior games, which is both astonishing and disappointing. For one thing, Rock Band 3 is the first game in the series to REQUIRE guitar and bass players to use all five frets on all difficulties, no exceptions. The original sliding scale of three for easy, four for normal and five for hard and above has been replaced by requiring five all the time, and while this might be okay for players who are looking to move to hard or new players, it’s annoying, especially when older tracks don’t do this thing and force you to spend an hour re-learning the game. Further, only the person logged in as the profile that owns the band can contribute in any meaningful way to instrument-specific achievements, no exceptions. What this means is that if you want to unlock everything you will either have to use every instrument or have your local friends play under your profile to complete goals. This is… look, this is inane, okay? This is reprehensible. I DO NOT PLAY DRUMS. PERIOD. I DO NOT SEE WHY I HAVE TO SPEND FIVE TIMES THE AMOUNT OF TIME I WOULD NORMALLY SPEND UNLOCKING THINGS ON THIS JUST BECAUSE YOU ASSHOLES DECIDED THAT EVERYONE CANNOT MEANINGFULLY CONTRIBUTE TO THE BAND’S GOAL ACHIEVEMENTS. This immediately removes the “fun” of the game and replaces it with “work”, and hey, I get PAID to go to work, okay? I’m not going to work at your video game, Harmonix. I am not.

It also doesn’t help that the Road Challenge mode is set up in a fashion that essentially offers the player very little input in how they proceed, between the MASSIVE amount of random setlists and the linear progression, nor do the goals the game asks you to achieve per set. I haven’t mentioned those yet because they’re really not a good thing, and I didn’t feel that mentioning them in the sections discussing “good” game mechanics fairly represented their existence. Okay, so, each set you perform asks that you earn a set amount of regular points for playing well as well as a set amount of “spades” for achieving additional goals, such as playing perfectly, deploying Overdrive a lot, and so on. Aside from the fact that this is yet another way to miss the target goal of a section in Road Challenge mode, this adds just shy of absolutely nothing to the game, as it’s basically the game saying either “Hey, you know how you normally try not to miss the notes? Keep doing that,” or “Hey, you know how you normally deploy Overdrive? Either do that the same or do the opposite of that,” depending on how you play, thus making the whole thing annoying on top of pointless. The timing gap that allowed for forgiveness when playing notes, allowing for you to hit a note when you didn’t QUITE hit the note, also looks to have been reduced a bit, and while that’s fine on higher difficulties, it’s not so fine on easier difficulties. Also, the keyboard is really only useful for a fraction of the songs, which essentially leaves the player with an expensive peripheral that they can use on, depending on how long they’ve followed the series and how much DLC they own, possibly as much as a tenth of their song list, leaving it a novelty item you won’t use nearly enough at this time to justify the cost. Oh, and they took out the Cthulhu guitar and bass as far as I can tell, and while that doesn’t directly affect the scoring in any way, it’s not doing the game any favors.

The bottom line is that Rock Band 3 has gone from making too few changes that left the game great, but too familiar, to making too many changes, leaving the game good, but less appealing, and still too familiar in all of the ways that matter. It still looks and plays fabulously, features a strong collection of new songs, and offers a ton of content even if you DON’T own the previous game. It’s a great party game, it’s a fun game to play online, and there have been changes made to streamline the experience that are, in all honesty, not bad. It’s disappointing that you still can’t carry over your old characters and bands from the first game, certainly, and it’s disappointing that many of the changes, such as the linearity and oddball needless challenges that have been added to Road Challenge mode, the inability to complete goals unless the main profile is logged in under the user playing the needed instrument, among other things, aren’t very good. I mean, if you’re a pretty skilled Rock Band player, you’ll get a lot out of the game, of course, and if you’re willing to learn the game you’ll find it to be great fun as well. That said, Rock Band 3 isn’t as easy to recommend as its predecessors, as it takes backward steps and makes concessions that aim at appeasing the hardcore players above anyone else, and the end result is a game that’s still good, but not as good as it could have been.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
So, instead of ending this with a recap of the past seven pages, let’s finish this off with an anecdote, because I’m in that kind of mood.

So, as I always do when a new Rock Band game comes out, I got “the band” back together. Myself, J. Rose and Shawn PC got together and played the game for a few hours to really test out the game and see what we thought of it. After spending several hours playing through the game and really giving it the old what for, and then sitting down and discussing the game with other friends of mine, the end result was that I had essentially un-sold the game to four people.

That is, I convinced people who would have paid money for the game to not do this thing.

Just by telling them everything I told you above.

One friend has a son who doesn’t want to play with No Fail on but can’t play with all five frets. One friend can’t manage all five frets effectively and doesn’t want to learn how to do this thing. One friend doesn’t want to have to play all five instruments to unlock clothing options when just earning cash playing with friends accomplishes this task. One friend just doesn’t like the changes at all and is content with Rock Band 2.

That’s the point I’m getting at here. Is Rock Band 3 a good game? Absolutely. But not a single one of the changes made to the game is going to attract new players. Not. A. One. But many of the changes WILL put off fans of the series, as I discovered when I simply let people play the game and decide that, no, they didn’t want what this game is offering.

I think that says a lot, and none of what it says is very good. Just a thought.

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