Rock Band 3 review: The only rhythm game you'll ever need

The peripheral-centric rhythm genre seems like it's been around for an eternity, doesn't it? In actuality, the genre went from relative obscurity to complete and utter saturation in just five years. From deep beneath a blanket of fake plastic instruments, it can be difficult to see where the innovation is going to come from next -- or, to put it more efficiently, it can be easy to adopt the opinion that the innovation may never come. Fortunately, Harmonix hasn't capitulated quite so easily.

Though Rock Band 2 could be knocked for its lack of ambition, with its largest changes being focused on improving the user experience on a superficial level, the third generation of Harmonix's music platform has ambition to spare. Not only does it fix the few kinks left unsmoothed by previous entries into the series; it adds an unprecedented amount of new features to the Rock Band experience you, and likely your group of faux-bandmates, have come to know and love. That experience, already a relatively unparalleled source of enjoyment, is exponentially greater by the virtue of these new additions.

To put it less mathematically: Rock Band 3 is the greatest rhythm game ever made, and quite possibly the only rhythm game you need to own.
The Piano, Man

Unsurprisingly, the most noteworthy of the franchise's new features is the addition of an entirely new instrument: The Keyboard, or, as you're likely to call it if you prefer it slung rakishly around your shoulder, the Keytar. Either manner of equipping the instrument is equally valid, whether you're playing the basic "Keys" mode, which only requires you to operate five keys on the basic green, red, yellow, blue and orange scale, or the "Pro Keys," which has you tinkling the controller's full two octaves of ivories.

Rock Band 3 is the greatest rhythm game ever made, and quite possibly the only rhythm game you need to own.

It might be easy to assume that playing the basic Keys wouldn't be particularly engaging, considering playing the Bass and Guitar have always required the player to operate five mutlicolored buttons (while simultaneously strumming, no less). Though the two styles of play may look identical on the screen, the Keys feel entirely different from the game's stringed offerings. Just as the guitar controller emulates plucking and strumming along with a real guitar, the keyboard emulates the satisfying percussion of banging on a real piano -- an entirely different, but equally compelling sensation.

Of course, it emulates that feeling especially well in Pro Keys mode, where all 25 keys (sharps and flats included) must be played. The game breaks down sections of notes on the keyboard into clusters of different colors to help you become acquainted with following along with the track. Still, learning to read this new note chart is like learning to read a new language. though the difficulty makes it all the more satisfying once you finally figure out what your hands are supposed to be doing.

The keyboard quickly surpassed the drums as my instrument of choice while playing the game, even if it suffers from being the only input without any parts in the Rock Band back catalog. Fortunately, you can also use the controller to play the guitar and bass parts, the latter of which translates particularly well to the keyboard peripheral.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Though learning how to sight-read the Pro Keys is an intuitive process that may take a few hours to fully comprehend, Rock Band 3's other new instrument, the Pro Guitar, is a bit less user-friendly. Though your prowess on a real-life piano will almost certainly give you an edge when first trying your hand at the keyboard, any guitar skills you may possess won't give you much help here.

The song chart for Pro Guitar is composed of notes, which are clearly labeled by fret number and string, and chords, which are somewhat less clearly labeled by a numbered bar (the number representing the lowest fret being held down), parts of which are elevated to represent strings that must be held further down on the neck of the guitar. Here's a picture of what one of these chords looks like:

If you're familiar with the guitar, you've probably played thousands upon thousands of G chords in your life -- that's how a G chord looks in Rock Band 3. It's far from intuitive but, at the same time, it's far from impossible to understand. Even if you learn the bizarre language of the Pro Guitar's note charts, you'll have a difficult time sight-reading a song you've never played before. This is a system built for players who will want to go back and master each song individually. This process is made somewhat easier by the "Learn a Song" training option, which breaks songs down to their key riffs and trickiest solos, giving you the option to slow down those sections until you finally perfect them.

This format resulted in an oddly one-sided symbiotic relationship, and my experience with a guitar did me absolutely zero favors when it came time to test out the Pro Guitar. However, after really digging into a few selections from the game's excellent soundtrack, I now possess the ability to play "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," "Rock Lobster" and "Space Oddity" on my very real guitar.

Rock Band 3 contains a metric ton of lessons for complete newcomers to the guitar and keyboard -- things like scales, basic chords, and so on. However, all of these are built upon a system requiring you to understand how to read and follow along with cues like the ones pictured above. I'm not convinced that this is the most practical way to learn how to play a new real-life instrument, but it's certainly capable of teaching intermediate players a few new tunes and tricks, which is, in and of itself, pretty radical.

The Drums, The Drums, The Drums, The Drums (Oh!)

Another, slightly less advertised new feature is the Pro Drums mode, which allows the game to recognize inputs from three additional cymbals and a second pedal, which can be assigned as a second bass drum or a hi-hat pedal. You can mix and match these extra features as you see fit: One cymbal and a second bass? Two cymbals and no extra pedal? The game's soundtrack -- and every track from the entire Rock Band catalog -- will cater to your setup.

It raises the bar so exceptionally high that, once again, it's just about impossible to see where the rhythm genre is going to go from here.

Much like the other Pro modes, these additions do a great deal to bridge the gap between operating a controller and playing a real-life instrument. If you're a proficient Rock Band drummer, the new accessories will feel excellent, but will probably look a little rough. No amount of screw-tightening managed to keep the MadCatz-branded cymbals firmly attached to my Rock Band 2 drum kit, requiring a bit of unsightly duct tape kludging.

So much of the game's soundtrack -- which, it can't be stressed enough, is incredible -- also lends itself to supporting the vocal harmonies first introduced in The Beatles: Rock Band. Though finding three people willing to experiment with harmonizing while playing video games in a group social occasion is probably still as difficult as finding one unicorn, tracks like "Good Vibrations," "In a Big Country," and "Sister Christian" provide some of the most powerful choral interludes ever presented in a video game.

Because I'm Talking About the Road

Progression in the game is measured entirely in "Goals," which the player unlocks by performing various tasks across Rock Band 3's different modes. There's Goals for completing the game's many, many tutorials, and for perfecting certain sets of songs, and for customizing your band, as well as hundreds of other miscellaneous tasks. Each goal rewards a certain number of fans that add to your ranking and make additional Goals available, while some unlock new gear and outfits for your band's members.

There are also Goals for completing each leg of the career, which has been broken down into smaller "Road Challenges" this time around. Each challenge features a number of shows in venues across the globe, where players must complete one of three short setlists of their choosing. These three choices usually include a pre-made setlist (including songs of appropriate difficulty for the player's progress in the career), followed by two random or customizable setlists from different genres or decades.

Bands will still need to shoot for playing as well as they can to earn five stars, but each show also requires players to accomplish a side-goal. These include tasks like keeping the band's Overdrive active for as long as possible, or keeping a note streak going; successfully completing them will add up to an additional five stars to each song's total. At the end of the challenge, the stars from each show are compiled and measured against the challenge's Bronze, Silver and Gold targets, which, in turn, unlock additional Goals, fans and prizes.

This complete change-up of how the game's Career works is pretty complicated, but having it in bite-sized chunks, each with individual side-goals, keeps things pretty fresh. Fortunately, one element of the game underwent an extreme un-complication for the series' third installment: Menu navigation.

Players can jump in and out of the game at any time, thanks to an ever-present menu at the bottom of the screen, accessible with the simple press of the Start button. From this menu, players can choose characters, drop out of the band, join the band or change difficulty. The active Xbox Live Gamertag can even be moved from instrument to instrument with the press of a few buttons. It's a streamlining that's long overdue for the franchise, but it's better late than never.

Choosing songs is a similarly painless process. The platform's 2,000-some-odd catalog can be sorted using a number of metrics, including what instruments they support, what game they're from, difficulty, genre, decade, and so on. You can also instantly rate songs on a scale of one to five after playing them, which provides yet another metric to sort through in the future.

Simply The Best

The "experience" of Rock Band 3 can be summarized by one of the gameplay modifiers that can be activated through the always-accessible user interface. It's called "All Instruments Mode," and it allows the keyboard, two guitars, the drums and three mics to be active at one time. Yes, if you're popular enough, well-equipped with plastic instruments, and if you live in a neighborhood with extremely lax noise regulations, you can play Rock Band 3 with seven people at one time.

Video games -- not just rhythm games, but all video games -- rarely show this much ambition. Even more rare are occasions where developers manage to fulfill the impossibly lofty goals they set before themselves. Rock Band 3 manages both with ease, backing up brilliant ideas with flawless execution. It raises the bar so exceptionally high that, once again, it's just about impossible to see where the rhythm genre is going to go from here.

Though I bet Harmonix has some pretty good ideas.

This review is based on a retail copy of Rock Band 3 for the Xbox 360 provided by Harmonix. The Pro Guitar used for this review was the Mustang -- the MadCatz controller with 102 buttons. The Squier Pro Guitar was not available at the time of this review. For a second opinion on the Mustang, and the Pro Guitar mode as a whole, check out Engadget's review!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.