Harmonix’s devious master plan is finally starting to come into focus. The critically acclaimed music game maker wants us to quit making believe we’re rock stars and become real musicians.
Their scheme started out innocently enough in early games like Frequency and Amplitude, which simply had players tapping out rhythms on a standard controller. Then they went a step further in Guitar Hero and early Rock Band games by providing us with toy instruments that allowed players to pretend they were playing guitars and drums. And now, in Rock Band 3, (Electronic Arts, MTV Games/ Harmonix Music Systems) we are just a hair’s breadth away from moving beyond make believe.
A couple of new instruments play a big role in bringing players closer to a real music-making experience. The first is a wireless keyboard – never before seen in music games. The full-sized keys feel great; just like the real thing. The most telling sign that they’re part of a game controller is that there are only 25 of them. Meanwhile, a radically enhanced wireless guitar with more than 100 fret buttons is arguably an even more authentic recreation of a real instrument. Sadly, I wasn’t provided one of these pricey units (they cost $150 each) for my pre-release evaluation, so I can’t comment on its feel or performance.
Just as important as the new peripherals is a new mode for each instrument – including the existing drum kit – called “Pro.” That’s for “professional,” as in, you’ll basically be one if you can master them. Fittingly, the ambitious players who take on the challenge of learning this new way to play will need to embark on hours-long training sessions. I’ve never studied guitar or percussion, but I did take several years of piano when I was a kid, so I feel like I can comment a little on the authenticity of the Pro Keys mode. The short version: It does a remarkable job of imitating a real keyboard experience.
- The Goods Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii The good: New peripherals are closer to real instruments than any that have come before. Pro mode is so authentic it all but teaches players how to read music. Career mode has been redesigned to let us play the songs and instruments we want to play whenever we want to play them. The bad: Pro mode will likely appeal only to a relatively niche group of highly dedicated players. Older Rock Band songs don’t support the keyboard or Pro mode (except some drum tracks). The verdict: Authentic new instruments and ways to play combine with a completely redesigned Career mode to make Rock Band 3 the only music game you need purchase this year.
Seventeen sets of lessons train players in everything from proper form – such as how to cross over a thumb while scaling – to methods for playing popular chords and arpeggios. You won’t learn how to read music – songs aren’t presented in musical notation but instead as a series of coloured icons that scroll down to a virtual keyboard at the bottom of the screen – but you will nonetheless learn how to play. Plenty of people have figured out how to bang out a mean piano number by ear. In this case it’s simply by eye. I have little doubt that someone who has never played a keyboard before but who becomes a master of Rock Band 3’s Pro Keys mode will be able to do some pretty impressive things on a real instrument with only a little extra practice.
Simply put, it’s a remarkable achievement in music game design. Nothing like this has been done before.
But here’s the catch: It’s really, really hard. If you want to play Pro Keys on expert difficulty you’ll be striking every single note and chord on devilishly difficult keyboard tracks like the one in the Doobie Brothers’ “China Groove.”
I’ve only had a week or so with the game so I can’t say for certain how long it takes to be able to play challenging songs well on the expert difficulty setting in Pro Keys mode, but I’d hazard weeks for many, months for most – close to what it takes to get a handle on a real instrument.
And here’s where things get tricky. Is this intense verisimilitude a good thing? For players who want to feel like they’re really playing each song and are willing to make the necessary time commitment, certainly. Ditto if you’re a real musician who hasn’t much enjoyed previous music games because they haven’t seemed realistic enough. However, if you just want to sit down for a bit of casual fun, then Pro mode by definition probably won’t appeal.