Don't think for a minute that Harmonix has been resting on its substantial laurels while it gave us Green Day and Beatles Rock Band games. The team has been quietly working on Rock Band 3 for over two and a half years now, with the aim of pushing the music game genre into new territory. Way more ambitious than any Guitar Hero game, RB3 is attempting to bridge the gap between gaming and genuine musicianship. However, this may just be a step too far...
The problem is, there are two main camps. People either play it because they can't play real instruments, or they don't play it and moan about it because it's not as good as the real thing. The number of real musicians who play the game for the authenticity is surely a minority third group by comparison. So Rock Band 3 aims to bridge the gap and give you a wholly authentic musical gaming experience that will please everyone. So let's look at each instrument in turn and see if it can:
The 102-button guitar peripheral
From a guitarist's point of view, the 'one button for every fret for every string' does not play like a real guitar. The PR rep insisted I start on medium or lower, to get the hang of it, but playing reduced notes in such a realistic manner is counter-intuitive, especially on a classic like 20th Century Boy.
Then there's the problem of playing strings that aren't on the note sheet. On real guitar, I often use my left hand to mute strings I don't want to sound, so that I can attack harder with the right. Unable to detect the muted notes, Rock Band thinks I'm trying to play all the strings and so penalises me. It also penalises any kind of embellishment or artistic interpretation. So where at the end of Joan Jet's I Love Rock And Roll I would rake the pick over all six strings on the final chord, it says I'm wrong because it wants a three-string E5 and nothing else will do. Very frustrating.
Likewise, there's no way to bend strings (you can't bend a digital I/O switch)… and when you can't feel the string vibrating under your left hand, you constantly feel like you're picking the wrong string. It's a nice idea, but honestly, I can't help but feel you should either accept it's a video game and play with a standard 5-button Rock Band guitar, or play the real guitar part on a real guitar. Oh, what luck! Look at what we have here...
The Fender Squire Strat guitar peripheral
This baby doesn't have 102 buttons because it's literally an electric guitar (and thus the only peripheral that isn't made by Mad Catz - it's made by Squire to Fender's specifications). The second guitar I ever owned was a Silver Series Squire Fender Strat back in 1993, which I saw as my step up to a professional quality instrument. That means the Rock Band controller is a professional quality instrument too, converted for play on your console. All you need to do is plug in the MIDI converter (platform agnostic and sold separately) and away you go. That's pretty awesome.
Contrary to popular belief, the Squire doesn't use pitch detection when you play – it uses touch sensitivity in the neck that senses where your hands are, then recognises when you play each individual string. If it works, it will be nothing short of amazing. Sadly, to my utter despair, it was 'look, don't touch' for the demo as there are currently only three working prototypes in the world.
The production version will come out in 2011… and will cost 'more' than the button guitar's RRP. Squire Strats retail for around £130 in music shops and that's without all the Rock Band tech in the neck, so I wouldn't be surprised if the final model is somewhere around the £200 mark.
This is the peripheral that the team expects most people to buy with the game (it's £79.99 on its own or £129.99 as a bundle). The great thing about the brand new keyboard peripheral is that it's so advanced, it can be used as a real MIDI keyboard. Just plug it into your PC with MIDI sound software and you can use it to create real music. That really is bridging the gap between gaming and playing for real.
Above: It's a keytar! So you can pretend to be Jean Michel Jarre or some other keytar luminary
You can still play in the traditional five-note style, which is surely going to feel like cheating. I appreciate the point of the game is to let non-musicians feel like they're in a band, but playing five keys on a keyboard is hardly going to make you feel like a pro. It's even worse than those school excuses of 'I only play the white notes'.
That's not to say the unit itself is kiddified. While it only has two octaves spanning C3 to C5, it does feature a pitch shift wheel, velocity-sensitive keys (not to be sniffed at), a headphone port and a socket for the overdrive pedal, which we'll get onto shortly.