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Courtesy of Harmonix Music Systems
Rock Band 3, which will be released on October 26 in North America, features a new keytar and a more realistic guitar for the game’s “Pro Mode.”
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Harmonix Music Systems’ newest rhythm game releases today. Gamers eagerly awaiting the release of Polka Band will be tragically disappointed to know that the accordion–fest they had hoped for is still a long time coming. In the meantime, they’ll have to make do with the new Rock Band 3.

Rock Band 3 has a lot of exciting new features attached, not least of which is the new “Pro” gameplay mode, which skips the level of abstraction between sheet music and Rock Band note charts and allows players to play through the music just as it was written. Upgrading a song with Pro Mode note charts isn’t free, but considering the cost of sheet music and other training tools, it doesn’t compare that badly — it just means that most players will have to get used to picking and choosing which songs they want to learn most. Although the capability for learning real music via gaming peripherals isn’t unique in rhythm games (Seven45 Studios’ Power Gig: Rise of the Six–String released last week), combining an in–game training infrastructure with the size of Harmonix’s song library means that we might soon be looking at the death of the “Free Bird” heckler and the birth of a lot of cover bands, which is no mean feat. If nothing else, the release of another game that addresses the “it’s not fun if it’s not a real instrument” detractors is a big step forward for rhythm game legitimacy.

As for the game itself, fans of the Rock Band franchise should have a fairly good idea of what to expect. The fundamental gameplay is the same: The player presses buttons or strikes pads in sync with notes coming down a track. Major gameplay changes include functionality for an expanded drum kit, a new keyboard instrument in addition to the guitar/bass/drums/vocals of previous Rock Band games, three–part harmonies for vocalists, and the aforementioned “Pro Mode” for all instruments. Fair warning to those of you with Marty McFly rock god fantasies of jumping right into an epic Pro Mode rendition of “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News: I had the chance to try out the keyboard peripheral in Pro Mode, and my vague proficiency in piano notwithstanding, the fact that it’s a video game doesn’t make sight reading at full speed any easier. I can only assume the same will hold true for guitar aficionados.

Harmonix has also taken the time to make their interaction design more user­­–friendly. Players can now change difficulty as well as drop in and drop out mid–song, which means no more having to put off a bathroom break in the name of getting to your face–melting solo. All 83 songs on the game disc are available straight out of the box, saving Rock Band party hosts the trouble of having to spend thirty seconds on the Internet to look up the cheat code. The game is advertised as having over two thousand songs available at launch, which includes all of the songs from most released Rock Band games (for an export fee), as well as songs available for purchase from the Rock Band music store, but does not include songs from standalone game The Beatles: Rock Band. There also a few extra tweaks to the game, like a party shuffle mode for continuous song flow, a recommendation system that suggests songs based on player–given ratings, and a character customization system that didn’t strike me as particularly necessary but has enough depth to drop the custom–chiseled jaw of even the most well–versed of RPG players.

After getting to play the game, I sat down and talked with Project Lead Daniel Sussman about the development for Rock Band 3. Many of the changes made between Rock Band 2 and Rock Band 3 were intended as “subtle refinements, as opposed to new realizations of gameplay.” As an example, Sussman pointed to the trill lanes for guitar and drums. Trills and rolls for guitar and drums previously required the same degree of precision as everything else, but now have more forgiveness built in, a design decision intended to shift the focus off of rigid game rules and on to more accurately simulating an actual rock band experience — I’m assuming real rock concert audiences don’t boo Queen off the stage for not having perfectly spaced drum rolls.

When asked about the impetus behind instituting Pro Mode, Sussman said that “the genesis starts with Rock Band 1” with the addition of drums to the gameplay from Guitar Hero; the infrastructure for guitar and bass were already present, and the mechanics for the vocal parts were already old hat from Harmonix’s Karaoke Revolution. Regarding the question of how abstract to make the drum note charts, the decision was made to write them as close as possible to the professional drum parts, amid internal concern that the challenge would be too “alienating or scary.” When players responded well, the developers “wanted to apply the same experience to [the other instruments].” Pro Mode instruments were developed by third–party peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz.

Regarding the decision to add three–part vocal harmony and keyboard parts to the Rock Band 3 repertoire, Sussman revealed that they had wanted a new instrument and new gameplay for Rock Band 3 from the start of development. The popularity of three–part harmony in The Beatles: Rock Band paved the way for its inclusion in Rock Band 3, and “the keyboard was the obvious choice” for the new instrument. The mechanics with the most profound impact on gameplay were the keyboard and the Pro Mode guitar play, which “expanded the universe of what was acceptable for a Rock Band soundtrack” to include music like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Doors, and if I were to wager a guess, most of the 80s.

If you’re already familiar with band–based rhythm games, Rock Band 3 will be a welcome release that streamlines most of the minor annoyances with previous games in the series while adding more songs and very compelling gameplay options, provided you can spare the price. Even if you’re new to rhythm games, Rock Band 3 just as accessible to newcomers as the other installments of the franchise. Rock Band 3 releases today for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii ($59.99 for the software only). The keyboard ($79.99, $129.99 bundled w/software), Pro Guitar controller ($149.99), and drum cymbals expansion ($39.99) are also available.