I think it's pretty well known that I love Rock Band. I've owned every iteration of Harmonix's fantastic instrument based rhythm game franchise. From Rock Band to Green Day Rock Band, I've pretty much played and loved all of them. When Harmonix kicked the instrument game franchise off in the Western world with Guitar Hero, I knew we were into something special. And then Rock Band came around, implementing the full band which is great at parties. But enough brown nosing Harmonix, Rock Band 3 takes things full circle by not only being as fun as the previous installments, but also providing some educational value in the form of Pro Mode finally putting halt to the naysayers telling us to "pick up a real instrument".
Much of the basics of Rock Band 2 are present in 3. The career mode focuses on taking your band from grotty back street pubs to sold out arenas with all sorts of crazy pyrotechnics. If you pay the license fee, you can import songs from previous Rock Band titles to just play in Rock Band 3. It's definitely worth shelling out, just to have all the songs in one place.
But there's one way in which Rock Band 3 mixes up this formula from Rock Band 2. There's no real distinction between progress on tour and progress made when just picking a song or bunch of songs to play. Any progress made in the game, no matter where, all goes towards the same thing. Earn some fans in the career, and they'll be added alongside any fans earned when just playing songs for fun. It makes progression feel like it's through the entire game and actually gives a reward from playing random songs when you feel like it, other than smashing your friend's score on the song. The career also isn't a World Tour, as before. It takes the form of road challenges. These map a specific region or tour with a number of different options of what to play when in each venue. This is an addition I personally loved because I always had a choice as to what songs I was playing. There is the pre-prepared playlist for that venue, but you can also create your own playlist or get a random one based on a given criteria. It never feels like you're forced at any point to play songs you don't want.
Instrument specific fun is drawn from the series of goals and challenges you complete, each earning you even more fans. These can range from perfect a solo on Expert guitar, or get over 90% on Pro Keys as well as using overdrive so many times in one song (best to do during Free Bird). As I said before, these give you fans, which you also gain from finishing songs and challenges. These fans can then be put towards character customization. Whereas in Rock Band 2, you had to buy the items from money earned in gigs, here it's simply a case of getting enough fans or completing the right tasks and the item is open to you. It's just as deep as in Rock Band 2, with many outfits appearing here, but everything is much more streamlined and the characters themselves just look better too.
But one of the biggest changes with Rock Band 3 is that of the edition of new hardware. At the time of review, only the keyboard was available for me to test out, but the two specific guitars (one with individual buttons for fret and string placement and another which is essentially a make shift Fender Mustang which can work as a regular guitar) have yet to be released. The keyboard itself is enough to get any Rock Band fan salivating though. There are only two octaves worth of keys but it is damn fun to play. It also has a pitch bending ribbon and a button to activate overdrive. You can play it either sitting down or with a strap over your shoulder like a keytar. If playing regular keys, you only need worry about the five colour specific buttons in the middle, but Pro Keys is a whole other learning experience.
Whereas Rock Band before was all about making it feel as if you were playing an instrument, if you dive into Expert Pro mode, you essentially are playing the instrument. With keys, every single note is used just as if you were playing a proper piano. When I started up on Easy Pro mode, it felt like picking up Guitar Hero all those many years ago. I would consider myself settled into the Hard/Expert difficulties on regular guitar and bass but when I picked up Pro Keys, that was a whole different kettle of fish. Luckily, a fantastic training tool is provided to make you feel comfortable with the instrument; taking you through the different scales and so on. Harmonix have promised that, with enough practise, using the Pro Mode should translate into actually playing the song on its respective instrument. Now, hopefully I can learn to play Bohemian Rhapsody on piano in no time....maybe.
Speaking of Bohemian Rhapsody, the song mix here is pretty great. When I first saw the complete setlist, I kind of freaked out a bit solely because it has both The Power of Love and Crosstown Traffic. The rest of the setlist doesn't disappoint either. There are a few which don't support keys, which baffled me a little bit, but the selection is usually pretty fun to play. There are definitely certain songs aimed at certain instruments; Rock Lobster for bass or Rehab for keys, but there are rarely songs which aren't fun to play on most instruments.
Harmonix have kind of reached a peak now. I'm not sure what they can do next. They've brought in most of the standard instruments found in rock bands, they've blurred the lines between gaming and learning with Pro mode and they've created a fantastic party game, which is even better with a new instrument and vocal harmonies. But no doubt, they'll do it again. They always do.