Rock Band 3 Review

By Stephen Johnson - Posted Oct 21, 2010

It might not make you into Eddie Van Halen or Rick Wakeman, but Rock Band 3 is a classic music game. It is at once the best party game on earth, a great solo pastime, and a potential entry-point into a lifelong artistic pursuit – how many games can you say that about?

The Pros
  • Basic gameplay is flawless
  • New keyboard peripheral adds variety
  • Pro mode is a new frontier in music gaming
The Cons
  • Although great, Pro-mode's difficulty will break your heart

Rock Band 3 is the best music video game I’ve ever played. It feels like a high-water mark for the entire genre; virtually every aspect of the previous two excellent Rock Band games has been tweaked and improved upon, and major new innovations are introduced to the series (and the music game genre itself) in the form of a keyboard peripheral and the new pro-mode, where would-be musicians can learn to actually play a musical instrument using the game.

While no game can be all things to all people, Rock Band 3 comes close. It is both a great party game and an entirely hardcore music game experience. Up to seven people (three vocalists, keys, guitar, bass and drums) of any skill level can jam at once. Your grandmother could pick up the mic and warble along to Jimmy Buffet’s DLC track “Volcano” or on-disc track Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” without thinking twice, while the hardest core, need-a-challenge gaming maestro can enjoy spending hours working out the pro mode guitar solo to Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” for the benefit of his fans on YouTube.

Hope I Die Before I Get Old...

The most groundbreaking piece of new business in Rock Band 3 is the new instruments – the keyboard and the pro guitar. While you can play the game entirely with your old gear, and it would still be a solid game, you’ll want to have the ivories too, trust me. The keyboard controller features two octaves of black and white plastic keys that can be played either as a keytar (for you Howard Jones fans) or laid on a table for a more traditional vibe. The peripheral is solid, heavy and feels like a real instrument as opposed to a toy. It’s MIDI compatible, so you can plug it into your computer and freestyle if you want. Sadly, freestyle keyboard and guitar is not available through the game, although you can still play freestyle drums.

“Regular” keyboard in Rock Band 3 is played with five color coded buttons, and should be easily picked up by anyone who has played a music game before. Like the plastic guitar, the keyboard gives the feeling of playing keyboard in a band without the complexity. Since keys are a support instrument in most rock songs, you will often find yourself waiting for your part, but Harmonix has chosen a good number of keyboard-centric tunes (Elton John, The Doors) too, so you keys-players will get your moment in the sun eventually. Rock Band’s keyboard experience is as flawless as the game’s guitar experience, with the relative simplicity of the play augmented by more complicated chording. I’ll break down the keyboard’s (and guitar, bass and drums) new pro mode below, but before we move to the more esoteric avenues of Rock Band 3, let’s talk basics.

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Meet The New Boss, Marginally Better Than The Old Boss

I’m sure you’re familiar with the mechanics and gameplay of Rock Band by now – colored bars move down the “note highway” and you press the corresponding buttons on your controller to rock the hell out. For variety, you can customize your avatars, band name, logo, clothes, instruments and more. As you’d probably expect from Harmonix, masters of the music game, the note charts are spot-on and interesting. The Overdrive sections are spaced well, and the overall “flow” of note charts is pitch-perfect. The music itself sounds great, with the right instruments standing out in the mix at the right times, although the pitch-bend on the keytar can be pretty cheesy. It plays right too: whether it’s on easy mode or expert, you will feel like you’re playing music, and you’ll be helped out by the stylized almost-cartoony visuals of your on screen rockers. Short between song animated vignettes show your band traveling, partying and being all rock and roll, although the “plot” is more like seasoning than a main course.

Spot-on note charts and amusing cartoons or not, a music game lives and dies on its playlist, and, while musical tastes are notoriously subjective, Rock Band 3’s song selection is impressive. The inclusion of the keyboard requires a more pop-oriented approach overall, but the on-disc music menu features something for fans of just about every kind of music, from the pure new wave of Blondie to the heavy-as-hell riffs of Rammstein. Overall, the on-disc set list skews older, with a ton of classic tracks in a variety of styles. It’s obvious a lot of thought went into including compelling music that can be enjoyed by fake-musicians, no matter which fake instrument they favor, with substance chosen over flashy, current bands.


The songs on the disc are only a small fraction of the playable Rock Band 3 catalog of course. The game painlessly integrates with the track list from the last two Rock Band games and your DLC, putting all your tracks at your calloused fingertips. With its huge back catalog of both monster hits and interesting underground artists via the Rock Band Network, Rock Band 3’s potential songs seem all but limitless.

Harmonix has improved the players’ individual navigation by giving everyone his or her own customization menu that can be accessed without disturbing the overall game, so your sinister pals will be able to switch to lefty mode without upsetting the rhythm for everyone else, and if you feel overwhelmed, you can change difficulty on-the-fly. While navigation has definitely been improved from the last Rock Band, there’s essentially no way to take a game with this many controllers working at once and make navigation painless. In other words, at a party, you’ll still be yelling “nobody hit any buttons!” more than once before your friends are properly trained.

Traveling Band

The game’s campaign mode is similar to past outings in the Rock Band franchise with a few, notable difference. All the content from past games and downloads could be a bit overwhelming in campaign mode, and to avoid this paralyzed-by-choices scenario, Rock Band 3’s campaign mode allows you to choose from three sets of songs at gigs. Sets are separated in a number of ways, so you might choose to play a set of random New Wave numbers, a set of long songs, or three choose-anything tunes to complete a venue. You can rate tracks you dig, and higher rated numbers are more likely to pop up in random selections. Another distinction from past games: the overall touring “structure” is broken up into smaller road challenges. So if you only have a couple hours or so, you can embark on a leg of a tour with only a few stops, where if you’re down for a marathon, there’s longer challenges to enjoy, including the return of the dreaded Endless Setlist. This variety keeps “the road” interesting, because you sometimes play songs you’re not familiar with, but you can still keep your focus on whatever kind of music you and your band enjoy.


The game’s campaign mode also (finally) allows you to drop in and out of tunes in the middle, so if your keyboard player needs a rest during “Break on Through” by the Doors, he can leave the game without failing the band. Speaking of failing, a band can continue playing a song even after they flunk out. You won’t earn stars, but if you’re having fun with your friends, who cares?

Along with the standard stars you earn for playing songs well, Rock Band 3 also rewards you with spades for in-song actions like keeping overdrive streaks going or playing parts in unison. The game contains hundreds of mini achievements (along with the actual achievements and trophies) called goals. Goals run the range of difficulties from a simple accomplishment for calibrating your system, to the truly insane, like playing every single note in every single song on every single instrument. It’s another added-value feature that will keep OCD-afflicted gamers busy, but isn’t essential to the gameplay or players’ enjoyment thereof.

There’s a lot going on here – stars, spades, road challenges, overdrive, points, goals, achievements – but Rock Band 3 never feels overly complex. You can ignore all of the frills if you want, and just press the buttons/sing the notes at the right time. The game’s layout is ingenious in its simplicity, and in spite of all that’s happening in a given song, even new players won’t feel overwhelmed with options and information as they play.

Songs In The Key Of WTF?

The core gameplay of Rock Band 3 is great enough to earn a five-star review by itself, but the game offers more than an improved version of Rock Band 2. Much more. The pro-mode is something else entirely, and will forever destroy the notion among music game fans that the Rock Band franchise is easy compared to Guitar Hero. With its pro mode, Rock Band 3 provides perhaps the most hardcore, difficult experience ever presented in a video game, plus their tangible, real world rewards for mastering it, but pro mode is so hard, in fact, that it’s not really a game at all.

Rock Band 3 presents the actual charts of songs, which you are asked to duplicate using the keyboard controller, a drum-set with cymbal attachments or the new guitar controller with 102 buttons and six strings. Pro will break a lot of gamers’ hearts. Any guitar game virtuoso who ever thought, “I just five starred ‘Through the Fire and Flames;’ how much harder could it be to really play guitar?” will quickly find that actual musical instruments are infinitely more complex and demanding than their plastic counterparts.  That having been said, I’m sure YouTube will be choked with videos of hardcore gamers five-starring the most complicated tunes a week after Rock Band 3 hits the streets.

Basic tutorials for the different instruments are provided, which are beginner level music lessons, teaching keyboard players basic scales, drummers simple beats, and letting guitarists in on the secrets of power chords, bar chords and soloing, but even with a digital tutors, you’ll have to spend a lot of time practicing to get good.


Pro guitar was, to me, the hardest thing to play. I’m probably intermediate at actual guitar and piano, and I can tell you from experience that pro mode feels like learning a musical instrument. It brings with it all the frustration, time commitment, and satisfaction that wannabe musicians know. Sitting in your room, alone, working out the complicated guitar solo for Phish’s “Lama” or the keyboard part of Yes’s “Roundabout” for hours at a time isn’t “fun” in the sense that playing a game is fun. It’s work. It might be deeply rewarding, life-enhancing work, but it’s work nonetheless.

Sure, you can “play” Pro level at a party, but the complications of playing actual guitar basically require you to have spent a lot of time practicing beforehand. This is not a pick-up and play mode.

Don’t Quit Your Virtual Day Job

As a music learning tool, the Pro Mode has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the plus side, Rock Band 3 will provide aspiring musicians with a tireless backup band available for practice any time they like. Playing with the game’s virtual musicians can provide help with keeping in time, as well as making the exercise of, say, learning a bass part more interesting and exciting – there’s a lot of flashing lights, and video game rewards for playing correctly.

On the negative side, though, as much as you’re learning the basics of fingering and playing from Rock Band, you’re missing out the most crucial aspects of musicianship: you can’t hear yourself. Sure, you’ll hear a busted-string squonk when you don’t get your part right, but you won’t be able to tell how you messed up, so the crucial skill of developing your ear isn’t taking place with Rock Band 3.  This might be alleviated a bit for guitarists when the stringed, game-compatible fender Fender Squire comes out, in that you’ll be able to hear your strings (and feel them under your fingers) but for keyboards and drums, it’s not going to happen. If you are already a musician, though, Rock Band 3 is a great way to learn new tunes -- once you figure out the chords to a guitar song or keyboard line, it will translate directly to your real instrument.

Speaking of real music: This is a minor gripe, but knowing the key of a song would help immensely for anyone with a background in a music, and the option of adding traditional musical notation or guitar tablature would be a godsend for players who would rather go with a time-tested musical representation system as opposed to the (admittedly genius) new method of indicating notes and chords that comes from Rock Band 3.


Musical notation system quibbling aside, perhaps the biggest flaw with using Rock Band 3 to learn to play is a bit abstract, but it involves creativity. While the rote memorization aspects of musicianship will be served by the game’s pro mode, as will the basics of finger dexterity, timing and other building blocks, the higher functions of the mind, the actual music of playing music, is lacking. Basically, creativity is the antithesis of Rock Band 3’s brute force musical philosophy. You won’t be able to “mess up,” and like what you hear enough to do it again and incorporate it into your playing. You won’t find another way to pull off a solo that suits your style a little better. You can’t experiment, and work to make something that is entirely your own. The best pro mode keyboardist is only going to be good at playing the same notes someone else once hit in a recording studio. Whether that’s actually playing music or not depends on your definition of the term, and is a larger discussion than we can fit in a game review, so let’s bring it back around to Rock Band 3: The Video Game as opposed to Rock Band 3: The Learning Tool.


It might not make you into Eddie Van Halen or Rick Wakeman, but Rock Band 3 is a classic music game. It is at once the best party game on earth, a great solo pastime, and a potential entry-point into a lifelong artistic pursuit – how many games can you say that about? Unless they add virtual backstage cocaine binges and groupie peripherals, it’s hard to imagine how Rock Band 4 could significantly improve upon the franchise, but let’s hope Harmonix has something up their sleeves anyway. I live to rock.