2010 was a great year for music games, at least in terms of the sheer number of choices available to fans of the genre. We saw the release of Dance Central, Def Jam Rapstar, DJ Hero 2, Just Dance 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the latest versions of Dance Dance Revolution. For me, there was only one game that mattered: Rock Band 3. The latest Rock Band game made huge improvements to the series with the incorporation of multiple vocal lines from the Beatles and Green Day games, addition of keyboards (finally!) and establishment of pro modes so I’m reminded how much I couldn’t cut it as a real musician. The steady accumulation of downloadable content (henceforth abbreviated as dlc) and content exported from the other RB games has allowed Kathy and me to build up a pretty sizable library. Looking at my song list I feel like a karaoke DJ.
Even with tons of dlc, the main game’s song lineup is refreshingly diverse. Highlights for me include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I also have a new appreciation for both Dio and Smash Mouth. Props to Harmonix for including Spanish and German-language songs. While Juanes is not my cup of tea, I realize that the dude is incredibly popular and it is nice to see a music game publisher recognize the diversity of its audience.
Game progression has improved, allowing for more choice and less repetitive grinding. No longer will players have to play a “random difficult drum song,” knowing that it will be “Spoon Man,” “Pinball Wizard,” or “Chop Suey” (if you put a lot of time into Rock Band 2’s World Tour mode, you know what I mean). Goal Progression can be done in Quickplay, Tour Mode, or Career Progression, where players can view their goal lists and directly attack challenges in the game.
One of the features of the Rock Band franchise that has gone underrated in the opportunity to create a band of custom avatars. What changes from the main previous games in the series is the increased emphasis on story. Taking cues from Lego Rock Band, the game inserts your avatars into cutscenes depicting their formation and growth as you complete challenges. You’ll see them get shortchanged at their first gig, play a festival on the West Coast, and arrive in Japan to screaming throngs of fans. It’s really cool to see this motley crew (get it?) that you made acting outside of the main stage as more fully formed characters.
As for the character creator itself, it is just as fabulous as it was in Rock Band 2. There are more customization options for characters’ faces and bodies (almost enough to rival a Sims game). As for outfits, there are not a ton of changes from the previous go-rounds. The money system of acquiring outfits from the previous games has been replaced with an unlock system. Players earn articles of clothing by completing certain goals. This replaces the old tour mode grind and forces players to learn the Rock Band 3 songs, since many of the clothing-related goals are still tied to the core game. I’m resigned to not acquiring some of the items since they are tied to pro mode goals and as I’ve written before, I’m just not going to get that good.
This brings us to some of the disappointments in an otherwise stellar title. First, the game has many bugs. Before it got patched, loading screens would freeze, forcing hard resets. Some characters move weirdly or fade into their clothes in unnatural ways. One time I was playing a two-song setlist and after the first song I got kicked out of the game and sent to my PS3’s main menu. Luckily, my progress was saved. The game’s bugs aren’t deal breakers and the game is 98% playable, but the periodic bugs can be annoying.
Second, multiplayer is difficult for the wrong reasons. Playing a road challenge in the game’s tour mode requires communication among your band to get full completions and unlock more items. In road challenges, players are tasked to not only play songs well, but also fulfill conditions such as sustaining the enhanced-score overdrive, going into overdrive a certain number of times, or hitting a certain number of notes with each player taking turns to hit that number. The problems occur when one player gets designated in a difficult section and they just can’t hit that sequence, or timing overdrive is crucial but vocals and drums have limited control over when they can go into overdrive. Either way, there’s trouble.
Regarding dlc, I would like to see more content beyond music. While you can pay for Doors and Who T-Shirts for your avatars, I have a feeling those items were on the disc and you’re just paying to unlock them. I’d like to see new ensembles come out as often as songs. For more on this, Lisa Foiles has a neat article on Kotaku advocating for more crossover between fashion and gaming. As for the music content, offerings have been solid, but pretty conservative. Can we get something that was recorded in the past ten years? Nonetheless, I hope the Bee Gees dlc may be a sign of things to come.
The game includes a very deep tutorial mode to get players into playing the pro modes which simulate real instrumentation. It’s cool that you can learn to play scales and chords on keyboard and guitar, but the tutorials could be more user-friendly. In Rock Band 2, instrument tutorials included text, illustrations of someone properly playing the instrument, video demonstrations, and a play-through. In Rock Band 3, the only demo video you get is a quick intro to how the pro guitar interface works. The keyboard tutorial is text and playthrough-only, and the text directions for finger placement fail to communicate how a piano is supposed to be properly played. I may complete the tutorial lessons eventually, but I doubt I’ll really learn to play keyboards. Developer Harmonix assumes a level of musicality in their audience that may not always be there. This tutorial system would have been improved through an instruction system that appeals to a variety of learning styles.
Overall, the real value of the game comes from the sheer number of things to do and the opportunities to personalize the experience. The technical problems don’t break the game and can be fixed with future patches. Rock Band 3 is a fantastic experience with tons of music, customization, replay value, and just good times rocking out. It’s my game of the year!