Discussion Review: Rock Band 3

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Rock Band has clearly supplanted Guitar Hero as the favored instrument controller based music game franchise, and this year’s third main installment comes with a lot of hype and a ton of new features. But is Rock Band 3 really all it’s been cracked up to be? Zach and I discuss…

Zach: When I picked up the original Rock Band three years ago, I thought that Harmonix had really knocked the competition out. With the inclusion of drums, vocals, and bass, it had finally gotten everyone included as part of the band. That applied a lot to me too as, while I had dabbled a bit in guitar, my musical background was in keyboards and drums. I could finally apply those years of playing the drumset to a game, and the opposite was true too. I’ve kept up with Rock Band through nearly every iteration (minus the AC/DC and Green Day versions) and have been continually impressed by how tightly they’ve been able to couple the experience with the instruments with the simulation of actually playing.

So far Rock Band 3 has been interesting. Honestly, I’ve had almost two separate experiences with it. Both Matt and I were sent a copy of the game to review (he played it on PS3, I played it on Xbox 360), but none of the Pro instruments. I was able to eventually find one a few weeks after the game’s release, and when I came back to play the game again it was almost completely different.

Let’s talk about just the game first, as both of us have experience with that. If you’ve played any Rock Band game over the past few years, you should already know the basic formula. Play guitar, bass, drums, or sing along with the music (in three part harmony if you desire) and the indicators that are displayed on the screen. While Rock Band 3 is fully compatible with the over 2,000 songs available for purchase online or copying over from a previous Rock Band (minus the Beatles version), I want to focus on the 83 that came with the game. It’s a fairly good mix of both new and classic songs. Surprisingly, except for the Beatles Rock Band, I feel this one has a great variety of songs for just about any musical preference.

What sets this Rock Band apart from the others is how you progress your band from local venues into a world touring musical powerhouse. While all of the songs are available from the beginning, the game provides you with specific goals to accomplish. For example, complete 5, 12, and 20 downloaded songs, or get 5 stars on a Queen track. Others include objectives such as finishing a song with four people, playing through all of the songs on a specific Harmonix approved playlist, etc. There are even objectives for naming your band and customizing your avatar. Additionally, all of the objectives can be completed in any order, and when you finish one you gain more fans, allowing you to travel to more venues. I thought this to be a great improvement from the other iterations in the series.

Matt: With Rock Band 3, Harmonix’s Rock Band franchise is officially no longer just a game; it is a platform all to itself, and, in my honest opinion, one that takes itself far too seriously as a teaching tool instead of just being a video game. Just look at the game’s three main selling points. There is the new keyboard gameplay, which requires the purchase of an $80 keyboard controller. There is the new Pro Guitar mode, which requires the purchase of a $150 Pro Guitar controller. And then there is the catalog of 2,000 DLC add-on tracks, which Harmonix and MTV Games seem to be much more interested in promoting than the 80+ songs that come on the Rock Band 3 disc. That amounts to nearly a $300 investment to be able to get the full Rock Band 3 experience, and that doesn’t include DLC purchases and comes on top of the investment of already having purchased the original instrument bundle. Is one game really worth what amounts to the price of a gaming console?

Personally, I don’t think it is. But the good news is that you don’t need to buy all these extras to participate. If you already have a Rock Band instrument set or even just a single standalone instrument, there is plenty of rockin’ fun to be had by yourself or with friends. I don’t see this game as the be all end all of music games like the mainstream hype machine has suggested — I’ll gladly play Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and even DJ Hero 2 over this any day of the week — but clearly it is the top game in the series and the better of the competition in terms of depth of content and group play.

Like you, my favorite thing about Rock Band 3 is its career mode setup. It doesn’t have a silly fantasy storyline like that of Warriors of Rock (which I happened to think was great), but what it does offer is a seemingly endless list of objectives and goals to achieve in pretty much in order you choose. On top of the objectives you pointed out, I like the tour challenges in which you play different setlists touring around the country, and each stop on the tour has different bonus objectives. As usual, you can earn up to five stars solely based on your scoring performance, but now you can also earn up to five bonus spade emblems for doing secondary objectives like frequently using star power and stringing together note streaks in regular intervals.

There really is so much to do in the career mode, and at first just looking at the menu of goals and challenges is daunting. When I first started playing, I went straight to playing each individual song to play through every track, only to back out and find all of these different tour challenges and other goals waiting for me. I also like how the game is constantly rewarding you. Your performances earn you new fans and sort of level up your band like an RPG, and as you rise up the ranks, you are constantly unlocking new gear to customize your band with.

What I don’t like so much about Rock Band 3 is its track list. In my Warriors of Rock review, I talked about how my actual taste in music has very little to do with my enjoyment of a music game’s soundtrack, and this game further proves my point. In terms of music I would listen to on my own time on my iPod or whatever, Rock Band 3 has a decisive edge, bringing together a broader variety of music than the guitar shredding hard rock of WoR (which I would never listen to on my own time). But to me, that style of music is far more entertaining to play in the context of a video game, where as Rock Band 3’s more mainstream setlist is more entertaining to listen to than to actually play. Like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Marley’s stuff — great songs, but not that fun from a gameplay perspective.

Bear in mind that this is coming from a guitarist’s perspective, as that’s the only instrument I really care to play in these games. Frankly, it felt like many of the songs were slanted towards the keyboard so much that the guitar tracks were treated as an afterthought. Of course, that could also be an aftereffect of the new Pro Guitar mode — like maybe Harmonix put so much effort into Pro Guitar that the standard difficulty modes didn’t get as much tuning time.

Zach: One thing you didn’t mention about the downloadable content (at least the content made available after Rock Band 3’s release) is that if you want to play the Pro Guitar and/or Bass tracks, that will cost you an extra dollar, as the downloadable tracks only come with Pro Keyboard and Drum parts built in. While that works out for me (as I don’t have an interest in the Pro Guitar), others that are willing to put down $150 for the Wireless Fender Mustang Pro Guitar (or the $250 Squier Stratocaster which is a real guitar that doubles as a controller) are looking at having to spend a little extra for new songs that work with their expensive controllers.

As I said earlier, I had almost two separate experiences with this game. When I first got it I just had my original Rock Band controllers, so while my wife (who loves to sing) was having a great time, everything seemed a little easy for me on the drums. After that night we didn’t pick up the game for a few weeks until I was able to find a standalone Pro Keyboard controller. That night we tried the game again and everything got a lot more interesting. You’re right when you say that the game is slanted more towards the keyboards, as suddenly songs like Imagine and The Power of Love were much more interesting to play.

Something that both my wife and I noticed was that in Expert Pro mode you can take what you learn in the game and apply it directly to another piano and it sounds just like what you were playing on the game. We tried this out with both of the songs I mentioned above and it’s uncanny. The only downside is that (unless both the bass and treble clef parts are contained within the two octaves provided on the Rock Band Keyboard), you’re only learning the treble part. Also, about 20 songs that come with the game (not to mention all of the downloadable content available pre Rock Band 3’s release) don’t have keyboard parts. While you have the option to play other non Pro parts, it’s just not the same experience, and sometimes even a bit easier than playing the guitar part on an actual guitar because you don’t have to worry about toggling the strum bar back and forth.

Matt: When you talk about how the game has been like two different experiences before and after using the keyboard, it really hammers home the imbalance found in this game and the fact that you really have to invest a lot into the game to get the most out of it. As you say, not all of the tracks even have keyboard parts, and as I was playing through setlists I received a warning once that a song didn’t have a guitar part. Sure, it was only one song, and I was able to play the bass part all the same. But still, every on-disc track should have parts for every instrument, especially a game like this built around the idea of playing as a full band.

Overall, my experience with Rock Band 3 played out much the same way every other music game has since Guitar Hero II (this year’s Warriors of Rock being the lone exception). I played every track one time through and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process, went back to work on some of the career goals and challenges, got bored playing the same songs over and over again within a week’s time (especially since I didn’t find the soundtrack that compelling in terms of gameplay to begin with), took the disc out of my PS3, and haven’t looked back since.

Rock Band 3 is without question the best Rock Band yet and an entertaining all-around music game. But unless you are adamant about investing in the new instruments or just can’t resist adding the latest collection of songs and modes to your Rock Band arsenal, I think you’re better off renting first before purchasing and possibly regretting it later.

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Pros:
+ Familiar Rock Band gameplay is still plenty of fun
+ Wide variety of music to jam to
+ Deep career mode
+ Constant stream of rewards

Cons:
– Soundtrack has good variety and quality, but doesn’t have many songs that draw you back in
– Difficulties and instrument parts seem imbalanced from song to song
– Far too pricey of an investment to be able to experience the game at its fullest

Zach: You hit the point home right there, Matt. If you’re not willing to invest money into this game (by purchasing some Pro instruments, or the rights to transfer songs from a previous Rock Band, or just some additional downloadable songs) Rock Band 3 will probably let you down. It’s a great game sure, but unless you have the extra cash to expand the experience it doesn’t do enough on its own to separate itself from the other music genre games out there.

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Pros:
– Skills and songs learned on Pro instruments can be applied directly to their real-life counterparts
– All of the best parts of previous Rock Bands (including three-part harmony) plus the new keyboard addition make this the most complete Rock Band yet

Cons:
– If you’re not willing to make a significant monetary investment in addition to simply purchasing the game, you’re likely to be let down
– Not every instrument can be played on every song

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 and Xbox 360, also available on DS and Wii
Publisher: MTV Games
Developer: Harmonix
Release Date: 10/26/2010
Genre: Music/Rhythm
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-7
Source: Review copies provided by publisher. Keyboard controller purchased by reviewer.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!