Rock Band, the popular music video game series, litters living rooms with enough plastic guitars and junior-sized drum kits to draw a common criticism: "Why not buy real instruments instead?"
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As a sort of answer to that, though, the series' previous installments have been popular because they get huge groups of players rocking with no barrier to entry. The guitar's five buttons fit on one hand. The drums, at their easiest, pretty much boil down to tapping fingers on a desk. The microphone nudges bad singers with a real-time pitch meter. Though the difficulty rises later, each part takes just minutes to get used to at first, and the song parts play out simply on the screen.
The same can't be said for Rock Band 3, released this week. Its newest, most realistic additions include a 25-button keyboard and a 102-button guitar (yes, one hundred and two). They make up the biggest change to the genre since Guitar Hero's debut five years ago, and they arrive just as fake-rock fatigue sets in—see the critical thrashing Guitar Hero 5 (made by a different developer) took last month for being too staid and formulaic. Do new instruments serve as RB's fountain of youth?
Funny thing: Rock Band 3 neatly dodges the question. Unlike its predecessor, here are two video games combined into one: a five-years-old formula buffed to its sleekest shine ever, and a brutal, head-first dive into real musicianship. Each half serves as the other's perfect foil.
I'll assume you're familiar with the basic RB concept—grab an instrument, pick a famous pop song, play along to colored notes on the screen, repeat. So I'll start with the game's more realistic half, if only to get the "pro" modes' price tags out of the way. Shake that piggy bank: $80 for the new keyboard, $40 for a set of plastic drum cymbals, and $150 for the button-crazy "Mustang" guitar.
No, they're not required to play, and that price covers some solid build quality, at least. The keyboard has a comfortable heft, and its keys are large and responsive. The cymbals attach to a Rock Band drum kit and take a good drumstick beating with pleasant bounce-back (though I had to secure one of mine with wadded paper towels). And for a toy guitar, the Mustang sure feels legit. It's a little bigger than a 3 / 4-sized guitar, split between plastic strings over the bridge and string-thin buttons along the neck, one for each fret. Pushing down on those buttons has the same give as a low-tension guitar string, and sliding fingers up and down the frets feels fluid.
But are they fun in the game? That's almost beside the point. Like the real instruments they emulate so well, the guitar and keyboard require patient practice to nail even the simplest songs. The game's interface drives this point home. With pro keyboards, not all the keys fit on the screen, so a grid shifts between low and high keys as songs go along; you'll need to know your ivories to keep up. And pro guitar sends sideways tablature at the player at high speeds, represented by bumps that look like the following: