To me, Rock Band 3 feels like a swan song for a genre that doesn’t quite realize the end has come. It is the veteran quarterback coming to the end of his prime who finally wins the Super Bowl. It is the long struggling writer who finally writes his Great American Novel before fading back to obscurity. It is the best of its kind, and the last great hurrah before the coming fall.
I’ve been playing plastic instruments for about half decade now, and I must admit that Rock Band 3 has long been high on my must-buy list. Now, just more than a week after its release, I am comfortable with my investment, and having a terrific time. It is an outstanding game, quality from top to bottom with an unerring emphasis on fan service. It is the ultimate party game, the music game fully realized.
And yet, I can’t shake the sense that it is the triumphant final note on a rock-opera epic gone on two minutes too long.
As I sit with my new faux-clavier across my lap, the note highway stretches before me like a Nevada backroad as seen on LSD. The song is two minutes in, and background animated models cavort across some downtown dive’s stage, the lead singer making elaborate flourishes with every over-emphasized guttural vowel. As the keyboardist, I’ve played a handful of notes so far, and it’s increasingly clear that this song is not my spotlight. This is my new pretend rock star experience, the underutilized band member who is probably the second cousin of the manager but who is already planning to strike off on his own.
Without question Rock Band 3 is packed with songs like Centerfold, Walk of Life, Power of Love, Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody that embrace the full power of the keyboard at every ivory-tickling turn, but the longer you play Rock Band as a keyboardist the more you realize that only a limited number of styles and eras aggressively employ the instrument. It’s like playing Symphony Hero: French Horn Edition.
And, when you do get your turn at the spotlight, the experience of playing keyboards, particularly in Pro Mode, is very different than the more accommodating five button experiences of the past. Becoming adept at keyboards is a different kind of learning curve, somehow much more unforgiving and less automatically fun than previous instruments. Rock Band 3 wants to teach you how to play music, and there’s a good reason that very few people ever rush through the door at the end of a long day to play scales and arpeggios. The reality is that practice rarely makes you feel like a rock star, and to get good at keyboards demands practice.
As a long time drummer, the Pro Drums mode is much more natural, though with an underpinning of frustration. Adding in the high hat, ride Cymbal and crash somehow doesn't seem like it should be a particular leap in complexity even as it so very obviously is, and drum parts that demand you switch from drums to cymbals and back again can kick even the most experience Rock Band 2 drummer back at least a difficulty level or two, and reminds you of how genuinely far from playing a real instrument you actually are.
I can only imagine, at this point, what the Pro Guitar mode will be like with its hundred-and-something buttons.
I feel like automatically lumping Rock Band 3 into the “just another rhythm game” class is flawed. To me, Rock Band 3 shares more in common with Flight Simulator or any other hardcore simulation experience than its Guitar Hero or DDR roots. Like Flight Simulator, Rock Band 3 isn’t just trying to give you an artificial high based on romantic notions of being a musician so much as it is trying to coax you ever closer to an actual instrument. And like any hardcore simulator, there is no end to the number of gadgets and peripherals you can add to inch toward something like a true representation of the mechanical feel of music making.
I speak not as a casual user, however, who can simply embrace the party nature of the game and leave it happily at the surface level with the Stygian depths unplumbed. My perspective on Rock Band 3 is decidedly skewed, and I admit that my perception is colored by the fact that Harmonix has provided a platform with deep complexity and I can not resist the gauntlet at my feet.
It’s hard to imagine where they go next. There’s really very little need for further refinement, and the market has obviously cooled. I imagine a long, but slowly declining future, of DLC and perhaps a few more tepid band-focused releases, but Rock Band 3 feels very much like the last, best music game I’ll ever need. I admit, strangely, that I am at peace with that.