Much of the critical consensus about last year’s glut of rhythm games is that the genre has reached a saturation point and may be on the decline. This might seem somewhat counter to the prevailing view when The Beatles: Rock Band debuted in 2009, something along the lines of the idea that it was God’s gift to gaming. Actually though, both observations actually kind of dovetail nicely with close analysis of the game and its effect.
The Beatles was a smart move on Harmonix’s part as it reached across typical the traditional demographic lines of video game marketing and legitimately spoke to a cross generational market. Finally, Boomers that previously may have had no real substantial video game experience might want to join in on the already extremely broadly marketed phenomenon of the rhythm game. After all, it’s the Beatles, right? But in addition to providing players a band that is pretty universally admired regardless of the generation listening to them though, the game also worked well because it was more accessible than previous iterations of Rock Band or its dominant competition, the Guitar Hero series. To be perfectly frank, The Beatles is really, pretty easy.
As a result, sing alongs and “play alongs” of “Yellow Submarine” and the like erupted nationally around September of last year with both kiddies and grannies playing along. However, this saturation point, and any saturation point for any marketable good, has its pros and cons. Sure, now everybody gets it, but it also means that everyone has got it at this point. Once the sales are made and those that want it have it, is there much more reason to be hunting up a new rhythm title at this point?
Luckily, Harmonix’s solution in this year featuring a much leaner array of rhythm titles overall seems to be to not try to recreate the phenomenon of reaching out to the broadest base possible with universal musical appeal and ease of use. Their solution was to return to challenge the broad base of fans that they gained the attention of last year.
Unlike Rock Band 2, which largely seemed a repeat of the strong formula of the first game, Rock Band 3 has gone through some legitimate retooling. Simplifying a campaign mode and generally giving players a lot more choice in the songs that they want to tackle as they make their way through that story mode, as well as the addition of some new challenges for scoring, are all part of this retooling business. Songs are now evaluated not only through the five star system familiar to Rock Band players, but bands now also earn “spades” in story mode that are gathered by completing “challenges” (a little bit like the kind of challenges that Guitar Hero 5 featured as a means of unlocking additional content in the game). These challenges consist of things like going into overdrive as often as possible in a song or completing “streaks” when one band member is featured in the spotlight on stage. While not overly involved, the spades also aid in unlocking new venues by gaining more fans for the band but also speak less to the casual player and more to those of us who are also interested in the game portion of Rock Band, those of us who might enjoy playing some songs with everyone in the living room but also want to be challenged by thinking about scoring strategies and such.
Similarly, the addition of pro versions of instrumentation is the chief allure of this version of Rock Band, an addition more likely to appeal to the more hardcore player. The obvious innovation in instrumentation is the addition of the keyboard peripheral, but it isn’t simply a matter of having another musical instrument shaped controller to play with. The keyboard can be played in a casual mode with one hand playing five white keys mapped to the standard colored note capsules on the screen (it should be noted that picking up keyboard is a touch challenging simply because longtime guitar players are likely to find that their brain has mapped the index finger to the green note capsule, so suddenly having to use the thumb to play green and the index for red, etc. takes a little practice), but it can also be played in a manner that is much more similar to actually playing the keyboard. Black keys and white, which can get more than a little complicated.
While I wasn’t ready to immediately launch into a real song with pro level keyboard settings on, the pro tutorials provided here are pretty great in my opinion. With some basic instructions on scales to begin with, the tutorials slowly work the player into more complicated lessons involving how to move the hand efficiently across the keyboard (crossing the thumb under the index finger to move back and forth to different sections of the keys for instance). For someone like me with almost no real experience with musical instruments, the tutorials were quite difficult, but I really didn’t mind spending a great deal of time mastering a particular scale. Following the clear instructions and simply practicing was fun and actually rewarding. I’m becoming a very decent one handed key board player, and I think that I could probably actually play a few things on a real piano now. Again, not exactly correctly (my left hand still knows nothing of the ivories), but I’m grasping some musical concepts in ways that I haven’t before.
I did not have the opportunity to try out the pro guitar or drum peripherals, but if they are anything like the keyboard, there is some real depth, challenge, and a closer approximation to actual playing on tap throughout Rock Band 3. Again, though, the emphasis here is more on challenge than a casual experience. While Rock Band 3 still offers the ability of novices to hop in and get started through the familiar ways of interfacing with the game, anyone without some musical background or practice with the game is probably not going to be hopping in to play “Sister Christian”‘s keyboard line in pro mode. All of which is very much okay with me, these additional modes have introduced me to some new ways of playing the game that very much leave me wanting to keep on playing rather than abandon the genre as many critics were proclaiming earlier this year.
It should be noted that while the track list is pretty strong and diverse on this release (five decades of music are all well represented on the list), there may be some disappointment that not all of the songs contain keyboard parts. It disappointed me at least. Probably over half of the songs do contain some keyboard line to play, but I was somewhat surprised that a title that would launch the peripheral would not be even more dominantly focused on songs that allowed for this new “full band” experience. DLC is, of course, also not supporting keyboard lines for older songs at the moment, which I hope Harmonix might ultimately consider in some way if possible. I’m sitting on tracks like Siouxsie and the Banshees’s “Kiss Them For Me” and now that I have the keyboard bug, I’m dying to try it out.
Nevertheless, this is the strongest mainstream rhythm game release this year. From fine tuning some basic features, to adding some new scoring elements, and especially the addition of these new ways of adding a new level of difficulty and challenge to the overall experience are well worth the price of admission. If the keyboard peripheral intrigues you, you should probably check it out. It is likely to please. But if it is simply a matter for you of finding that this genre has gotten stale, you may find that Rock Band 3 offers legitimate new challenges that will appeal more to the gamer while still keeping the casual player engaged.