I am a trained pianist.
Not classically trained, mind you. And not even a pianist, really. I’m really more of a keyboardist than anything, but thanks to Rock Band 3, I feel like I could hop on my grandmother’s old Steinway and start tickling the ivories. Further blurring the line between entertainment and education, Rock Band 3 builds upon the (now) barebones training modes seen in the franchise’s previous entries, offering a musical learning experience that can only be trumped by expensive private lessons from a living, breathing musician. Now that I think about it — and, having taken some of said lessons when I was a young lad — I think learning via Rock Band 3 may even be a better method for some people.
Although Rock Band 3 sports new “Pro” modes for guitar, drums, and keyboard (complete with lengthy tutorials for each), I chose to spend the majority of my time with the keys. After all, I’ve spent dozens upon dozens of hours strumming plastic axes and pounding on plastic skins over the years, so I wanted to check out this year’s big addition. While I felt that the game occasionally got a bit too jargon-y during lessons — throwing out unexplained terms to explain other terms — the Pro Keys were surprisingly easy to pick up. In a matter of hours, I was playing Pro Keys songs on Medium difficulty without even looking down. No small feat, considering I initially had trouble even getting through the simplest songs on the easiest difficulty. The difference between Pro Keys and standard play is striking, as the standard mode only required me to hit one of five keys, while the Pro Keys incorporated the entire keyboard. Sadly, the list of keyboard-enabled songs is shorter than I would have liked, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get a lot more as downloadable content.
Once I finished playing through the entire catalog of tunes on my keyboard, I decided to give the other two Pro modes a spin. The Pro Drums feel a lot like the drums in the previous Rock Band games, although the addition of cymbals (albeit plastic ones) and a second foot pedal make the proceedings feel much more authentic. The Pro Guitar, on the other hand, didn’t impress — largely due to the fact that the Pro Mustang Guitar (purchased separately) felt flimsy and cheap, a no-no for a $150 piece of electronics. The 102 buttons on the neck were very close together, making it tough to tell just where my fingers were positioned. Personally, I think I’m going to hold out for the more expensive Fender Stratocaster Squier controller, which features real strings and can be used as a proper electric guitar.
Of course, a big part of the gaming population doesn’t care about learning how to properly play keyboard or guitar; they just want to rock. Thankfully, like its predecessors, Rock Band 3 delivers said rock in a big way. Since it features the most diverse track list in the franchise’s history (and allowing for importing of all DLC and songs from Rock Band 1 and 2), it’s got something for everyone. Musical tastes are all relative, of course, but the one thing I think we can all agree on: Being able to find music easily is good. Thanks to the game’s new filtering system, I was able to sort songs using a variety of criteria, from instrument and three-part harmony support, to the decade of release, and the game in which it appeared. When you’re talking about going through literally hundreds of songs, this new feature might be the best of the bunch.
I was surprised by how much I liked the new-and-improved career mode, too. This mode requires you to make your way around the world, earning fans by successfully playing set lists and completing challenges. As I played the game’s quick play mode, however, I noticed that I was working toward said challenges even while not in the proper career mode. Essentially, if I was playing, I was building toward something no matter the mode. It may not seem like much to some, but it was a lot more enjoyable than slogging toward a goal while playing songs I didn’t care about.
My biggest knock against Rock Band 3 really isn’t even about the game itself. Rather, it’s over hardware manufacturer MadCatz’s decision against creating an all-in-one instrument bundle. Rock Band 3 appears to be targeted toward people that already have guitars, drums, and microphones — as the only bundle available is the one featuring the game and a keyboard. Franchise newbies will need to shell out hundreds of dollars for standalone instruments (or purchase a Rock Band 2 bundle and a Rock Band 3 keyboard bundle) to enjoy the complete game. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but it’s also far from ideal.
It remains to be seen whether or not Rock Band 3 will catch on in the musical education world; I’m sure plenty of people don’t think a game could ever replace face-to-face instruction by a trained music teacher. They might be right, but none can deny that it’s a huge step forward.