We came. We saw. We rocked (sort of). Given the chance to go hands-on with Rock Band 3 (and the corresponding new instruments), we immediately accepted. It meant a trek down to EA, but for hardcore music game fans, it was well worth the trip. Since we're going to be taking a more in-depth look at Rock Band 3 this week, we'll focus on the experience with the new hardware here.
Picking up the new Fender Mustang controller is a bit overwhelming at first. Sporting 102 distinct fret buttons, the guitar brings a new level of intimidation to casual players. Our first few attempts to do anything with the Mustang were miserable failures, in part because we were new to the controller, but also because playing guitar or bass in pro mode means a completely redesigned note highway. In order to succeed at pro mode, you need to unlearn most everything you ever did on a five-fret plastic guitar.
The 102 buttons on the Mustang are broken down into 17 rows of six buttons each. Each row of six represents one fret, while each of the six buttons in a row represents one string. On the main body of the guitar, replacing the strum bar is a box containing six metal strings. To play a note, you have to hold down the correct fret button and then strum the corresponding string. In short, playing on the Mustang has a lot more in common with a real guitar than the classic controllers ever did.
Since five colored dots cannot accurately represent 17 frets, the note highway is now structured after the individual strings. You see the six strings represented on-screen, and notes are indicated by a number that scrolls down each string. The number corresponds to the fret that you are supposed to play. A zero fret means that you need to strum the string without holding down a fret button. Holding down an extra string button on a particular fret won't result in a miss, so long as you always strum the correct string. Just like a real guitar, notes are only played when a string is pulled.
Slowly but surely, playing pro mode with the Mustang started to make sense. Getting into the groove with all the extra buttons wasn't terribly difficult when playing on easy, but mastering it is likely to be a whole new ball of wax. Gamers who also know how to play a real guitar should have a better time of it, but for those of us who have only ever played on the plastic instruments, it's going to be like starting from scratch. Of course, if going pro ends up being a bit too frustrating, you can always drop back down to the traditional five-fret mode.
Also new to Rock Band 3 was the keytar, which we took for a spin in both standard and pro modes. Playing the keytar in standard mode was a great introduction to the concept without being overly complicated. In short, standard mode keeps the traditional colored fret layout and limits the number of keys you have to press to one hand. You have the option of using two hands, but it is not required. The colored keys are simply duplicated on the board, allowing you to play with whichever set is the most comfortable.
Going pro with the keytar gives you two full octaves to play, and the game isn't shy about using them. Just like with the pro guitar, the note highway takes on a different look when you're in pro mode. For the keytar, the game simply shows the full set of keys and indicates which you are supposed to press by showing black and white keys scrolling down the screen. It is an extremely direct representation, but don't think it is simple. Making the jump from standard mode to pro mode on the keytar is just as difficult as it is to jump from standard to pro on the guitar.
With that said, playing on the keytar adds a new layer of depth, making the game feel fresh all over again. Even on standard mode, using the keytar is a completely new experience, so it is perfect for veteran Rock Band players who think they've seen it all and want a new take on the game.
Aside from the pure challenge of playing in pro mode, jumping in with pro also has the side benefit of teaching you the song. Since both the keytar and pro guitar are designed to mimic real instruments, by the time you get up to expert level play in pro mode, the virtual notes you are hitting are going to be awfully close to the real thing. The developers tell us that someone who learns a song on expert pro mode in Rock Band 3 can usually pick up a real instrument and play it properly. Puts a new twist on piano practice, eh?
Outside of pure game functionality, both the keytar and the Mustang pro guitar offer standard MIDI connections, so they can be used with non-game software. The vast majority of players out there likely won't care about this, but for the bedroom composers out there, it's a nice touch, especially given the suggested retail price of some of these instruments.
Rock Band 3's ultimate success is going to depend on how well it improves on the core gameplay mechanics, but having the new instruments certainly isn't going to hurt. While we were initially apprehensive that Harmonix may have been moving a bit too far into "simulation" with the new hardware, actually going hands-on reassured us that the fun factor has not been forgotten. One round of "Bohemian Rhapsody" with keytar in hand was all it took to hook us on the new toy. Now all we need to do is practice.
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