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:
Oy. That's a lot of information to parse from a bumpy line at rapid speed; you can't sight-read a full song like the old games allowed. Pro keyboards and guitar don't have that pick-up-and-rock appeal for party play, unless you slide the difficulty to the point where you only tap an eighth of the notes, which, quite frankly, is boring. (Worth noting, the pro drum attachments are an exception and, in my opinion, make fake-drumming easier.)
The "pro" additions haven't been advertised as party-friendly. Of course they take practice. They're just like the real thing! But Rock Band 3's attempts at training new players fall short. The rudimentary "play along" exercises come with text that was written by a musical savant, and I had trouble keeping up with which strings and keys meant which notes, or which way the text wanted me to place my hands. The result seems like a lose-lose: the game's a little too vague for novices, while the obvious audience of intermediate musicians may scoff when they already own real instruments.
I can see the target demographic angrily disagreeing. I can see a lonely pre-teen learning to play real songs with the game's toolset. Slow down David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to half speed, and you can play each section over and over until the game says you have it just right. I would've loved to see the robust keyboard and pro guitar matched with better training tools, especially considering their high cost, but what's here works. After some practice, I made sense of the interface, and my guitar-playing pals picked up on it quite quickly. Non-gamers remarked that it undid their hatred of the candy-colored Guitar Hero controller.
The rest of the game, meanwhile, delivers the finest fake-rock yet. The interface has been tweaked for faster loads and simpler instrument swaps—good for a huge group. Challenges now work all of the time, so players don't have to load a cumbersome "career" mode to, say, work on their "sing every song" goal. Even the little tweaks are impressive. Your in-game characters hang around in menus and overflow with personality. If you hit "pause," the game now rewinds songs a tiny bit so that nobody messes up upon returning. And simplified, 5-button keyboard parts can be played with the old guitar controller after reaching an in-game milestone. (I may have just saved you $80. You're welcome.)
Call me biased, but with keyboards are in the mix, the songs are just plain better. Flaming Lips, Elton John, B-52s, Spacehog, Blondie, and Echo and the Bunnymen are among the many synth- and piano-loving acts to stave off the crappier alternative/metal fare that gluts fake-rock games, and, by golly, their songs rock to play along to. (I was shocked when I enjoyed my parts in Huey Lewis and Doors songs... there goes my cred.)
But the biggest rush here is support for seven players at once: guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and three singers sharing lead and harmony vocals (a feature introduced in last year's vocal-loaded Beatles Rock Band). I filled my living room to the brim, warmed my friends up with a half hour of play, and then loaded Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." The song, as expected, exploded once the choir section sang "for meeeeeee!"
I have my complaints: the aforementioned "pro" training quibbles, the lack of online versus modes, and some very boring keyboard songs (your on-screen avatar comes equipped with a lot of time-killing dance moves for a reason). But they're moot. Because of how the game scales, putting novices side-by-side with meticulous guitar-part memorizers, and because of the 2,000-song selection on Rock Band's online store, and because of the years-in-the-making tweaks that make the game so speedy to load and play, it's hard to think of a better music game, or a better 7-person party game, or a better response to those doubters who say, "Why not buy real instruments?". With this much content, Rock Band 3 is a real instrument.