Hands-on: Rock Band 3

Yes, there is a keytar peripheral (though in the game, it's just called "keys"). Yes, there is a Rock Band Pro mode, complete with its own 102-button guitar, that's more complicated than anything you've ever seen a plastic instrument do. Yes, a full band now consists of seven different instruments: two guitars, three vocalists (harmonies included, thanks to The Beatles), drums and a keyboard. But all of that stuff already reported by USA Today isn't what makes Rock Band 3 worthy of a plus one to the version number.

It's everything else. Harmonix has reimagined their premiere title. They've fixed problems with the game (including the most common problem players have faced), smoothed out the rough edges, and added a ton of little extra features and fun. From the menu screen on, Rock Band 3 is very clearly, as the developers said during a pre-E3 event a few weeks ago, "a clean slate design of Rock Band. Nothing was sacred," they told us. "We decided to build the ultimate music game."
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Get this: the menu screen shows not just some random tattoo graphics, but behind the game's user interface, you can now see your band in action. As you progress through the campaign, your band (all custom avatars) will fill the background, and you'll see them running to gigs, tuning instruments, putting up posters and so on. Even in the background of the first menu you see, your custom band is there in full motion.

Across the bottom of the menu screen is something Harmonix calls "the overshell" -- for every member of your band, there's a little popup menu where players can set, using their own instruments, their login name, their instrument track of choice, their own difficulty setting, lefty mode, and any other options. That's right -- no more will your Rock Band parties feature one awkward person yelling out, "Guys! Don't touch anything! Just let me set it up!" Turns out you're not the only one who's been yelling that -- Harmonix says it's been the biggest issue with their games in the past, and they're aiming to fix it with the overshell.

Everything works seamlessly -- as one person navigates to the right play mode, everyone else sets their own tracks up and chooses their own options. Additionally, the overshell allows drop-in, drop-out anywhere, anytime during the game -- as Harmonix told us, "this isn't a separate team mode or a party play style," it's everywhere in the game.

The menu itself has new and fewer options -- there's a new mode called Career, which is "a goal-based system" where single players can master the game by meeting hundreds of goals like playing medium across all of the instruments or scoring 100% on guitar. As you meet goals, you earn fans, and having certain amounts of fans opens up new features in the game, like the ability to have a band van, or go on tour in a new area. "It's essentially Rock Band your way," said Harmonix. "You can choose how you want to beat Rock Band."

There are also Road Challenges, described as "Band World Tour meets Mario Party." Instead of putting one band together in a long world tour, you can set the length of a multiplayer experience, and then play through it with your band in one evening. You can tour around town through a six-song playlist, or tour around the East Coast in twenty songs, and you'll have to deal with various challenges like a bored crowd (entertained by deploying as much overdrive as you can) or a panel full of judges, who will be watching your chorus accuracy or a how well a certain instrument is being played.

The music choice screen has also vastly improved -- with so many songs in the library, the devs said, just flipping through titles wasn't good enough. So now there's a filter system -- you can choose all songs with five star difficulty for guitars, or all songs from the 80s, or all songs from RBN or Rock Band 2 (RB3 will allow you to import previous games' and downloadable songs, though not all the details are worked out quite yet), or all songs with a certain length or all songs of a certain genre. You can combine filters -- if your party wants to only play songs rated five stars with a short length from Rock Band 1, you can. Once you've chosen a song, a redesigned song info screen has lots of new information, including past performance stats and even your own custom ratings (which will then be used in the game -- if you never want to see a song come up in the random playlists again, rate it badly, or vice versa).

Playlists can now be saved, and once they're saved, you can give them a name and an icon to play again later. You can save your favorite albums, and play through those all at once. You can even share playlists both in the game on RockBand.com, and you can turn them into custom battles, inviting your friends to play the same songs and try to beat your score.

And all of those changes are even before you play a single note of the game. The 80-song list (progressively revealed as we get closer to release) already contains bands like Huey Lewis and the News, Queen (finally, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is in Rock Band, just in time for vocal harmonies), Smash Mouth, and Rilo Kiley, with more songs to be announced later. The keyboard peripheral is cool -- you'll see more of it at E3, along with the Pro mode (which looks exceptionally complicated, but if you're the kind of person that has ever uploaded a full combo video of "Green Grass and High Tides" to YouTube, you'll probably love it). Those are the big changes that will get the press and kick off the message board discussions of whether or not real instruments are better than plastic ones.

But what really gives this game the plus one is everything else -- all of the little UI tweaks, ingenious little features, and gameplay refreshes that Harmonix has apparently crammed away in the various modes and menus. Rock Band 3 isn't just a new song list or a new game mode or even a brand new peripheral, although those things are there. It's really a whole new game.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.