Rock Band 3: Now With Totally Rad Keytar

rock band keyboardI’ve mentioned this before, but Harmonix and I go way back.  If it’s a game that involves rhythm, music and orbs flying towards me, chances are I’ll like it.  Thus, it’s probably not a surprise that yesterday the FedEx truck pulled up with a long, thin box containing Rock Band 3 and the new keyboard controller.

My Rock Band setup is kind of a motley assortment.  I’ll be honest – I never got used to the Rock Band guitar controller, so I still use two wireless Guitar Hero 3 controllers.  The drum kit is the Ion setup, the mic is original Rock Band, and now I’ve got the keyboard from the latest iteration.  A little bit of everything.

Naturally, the thing I was most interested in was trying out the keyboard part.  I’ve taken some piano (I played poorly) and I used to love rocking out to Beatmania, so I’ve been waiting for this – particularly the Pro Keys feature – for what felt like forever.   I settled down in front of the 360 immediately.

First impressions: a great improvement over Rock Band 2.  The customizable band is adorable, and the storyline of the struggling band is more interesting – more like Beatles Rock Band.  That being said, seeing the same little cut scenes before each song gets old, fast.

The initial music list feels a little short when you’re used to viewing the massive list comprised of two games and a metric tonne of downloads, but I quite like the variety and mix.  I’m an unabashed 80s pop fan – “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is one of my all-time favorite songs – and this list has songs from The Cure, INXS and even my long-time favorite.  After all, what goes better with keyboard than 80s pop and new wave?

Lest you think it’s an all-80s party, the rest of the list of 83 songs includes Slipknot and Elton John, Marilyn Manson and Queen, Rammstein and Tegan and Sara.  I think most people will be pleased with the mix – and there are always downloads to flesh out your own personal mix.  My personal suggestion for a novelty download?  Let’s get some music from The Mighty Boosh!  “Future Sailors” or “Spider Lovin’,” anyone?

Playing the regular keys setting on Expert is very much like playing guitar on Expert.  It’s all one-handed; some songs are thick with two-and-three-note chords, while others keep your fingers dancing with fast-moving countermelodies.  If you can sightread any level on guitar, you should probably be able to sightread the same level on keys, once you get used to the keyboard.  Fun fact: I’m not left-handed, but years of playing French horn with my left hand has left my left hand slightly more developed than my right – so I feel a little clumsy on the keys, but not enough to do a lefty switch.

Some of the more difficult songs are a blast to sightread, and leave you feeling almost like you’re actually playing the song – in particular, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Imagine.”  But, of course, it’s not actually like playing the part… as the Pro Keys setting demonstrates.

It’s possible, with quite a bit of practice and scales and who knows what else, that one will be able to sightread Pro Keys.  Maybe it’s a piece of cake for those who can actually play piano well.  As for me?  Not so much.  Sure, some parts aren’t all that hard and could be quickly learned in one or two sittings… but sightreading is something else again.  Many of the Pro Keys parts utilize the full range of the keyboard.  Even when they only use half, it’s still a lot of space to cover at full tempo.  I’d only advise turning on Pro Keys in a band setting if it’s a song you’ve already practiced.

As for the other instruments, nothing has changed drastically in play.  Bass and guitar parts aren’t much easier or harder than before; since I have an Ion kit, I’ll have to get an extra cymbal before I try all that out.  Oh, and you can play songs that don’t have keys parts – looks like they might assign the guitar part to the keys as well.  This works relatively well – as I said, the game play is similar – except that when you strum back and forth, you’re essentially using half the energy, right?  Up and down.  Not so on keys, which can make it a bit of a pain when you get into fast, repeated notes.

One thing HAS changed in game play that I love.  When I tried out the Pro Keys setting, I first put it on Expert (might as well go whole-hog, right?).  Well, after a few seconds I’d had more than enough of that, and wanted to try an easier level of difficulty.  So – I paused it, changed the difficulty, and picked up again right where I’d left off!  There’s also an option to restart the song.  How cool is that?  You can also now add an instrument pretty much at any time in the menu – before, you’d have to go back to a certain screen, which was annoying.  Other fun features: no-fail (for rocking out with the whole family, even the non-musical types) and extended and improved ways to learn your instrument (scales!  I’m not joking!).

All in all, I’d say that Rock Band 3 has the same fun and gritty feel we’ve come to love from Harmonix, but the game itself does not feel like “just more of the same.”  I haven’t even delved into the world of pro guitar and bass, but it’s there when I want to get the controller and try it out (and as I don’t know how to play guitar at all, this will truly be alien to me).  Most importantly, I know I have hours of fun awaiting me!

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