Rock Band 3 Preview (PS3)

Back when the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band were just getting going, you'd find yourself searching for previews just to know what the song list was going to be like for each game. Now the included songs are all a bit irrelevant, since you can pretty much buy any song worth playing via DLC, plus gamers can now even create their own tunes and upload them.

I wouldn't want to meet her on a dark night...
No, the reason to check out a preview for Rock Band 3 isn't the songs included - it's the instruments included. The next Rock Band instalment will not only have your standard drums, guitars and microphone, but now also a 'real' guitar and a 'real' keyboard. The question is - just how real are these new instruments, and do they feel like the real things to play?

Let's start with the keyboard, which comprises of 25 keys. The keyboard can be set to regular mode, or pro keys mode. Selecting regular mode throws the familiar 5-coloured highway at you, and uses only 5 keys out of the 25 on the board. It's relatively easy to play in this form, but also not a great deal of fun as you'd expect.

Switch over to the pro keys mode, however, and we're into completely different territory. Harmonix has said that you will potentially be able to learn to play the keyboard using Rock Band 3, and it really looks like the developer will deliver on this promise. Rather than the standard 5 colours scrolling down the screen, you're instead presented with many more, the exact number depending on whichever song you're currently playing.

It's initially quite difficult to get into. The game never uses the entire 25 keys at the same time, and instead the keyboard is split into five different sections, while each song uses just three of these sections. Hence, working out which keys you're actually using can be rather confusing at first!

Once you get going, however, it really is something very impressive and, probably for the first time in a Rock Band, you'll actually feel that you are in fact playing the song. Of course, if you're on Expert mode, you technically are playing the real song! Indeed, learning to play a song in Rock Band on Expert keys will potentially mean you can play the song on a real keyboard too.

The only downside of all this is that you can't choose pro keys mode for every single song. We found that around half of the songs available allowed for pro keys to be turned on, while the other (usually more hard rock) songs could only be used with the 5-coloured highway. Still, it's all very impressive stuff, and we can't wait to get going with the full game and see if we can become piano-playing gods.

Compared to the keyboard, the 'real' guitar is not so slick - although it has nothing to do with the hardware itself. The guitar is really cleverly crafted, with six thin buttons on each fret corresponding to the six strings on a guitar. Apart from holding down one button and plucking it, players can also hold down chords and strum.
You'll be able to have up to seven people at a time
Very impressive stuff, but unfortunately the execution is horribly flawed. Anyone who plays the guitar knows that tabs are presented horizontally, reading from left to right. In Rock Band 3, the vertical highway remains even for pro guitar mode, and causes utter havoc as you try to decipher what the heck you're supposed to be doing!

The highway now shows six strings, and numbers will move down attached to the strings. Here's what the numbers mean: hold that string down on that number fret. So for example, a 6 on the left-hand side of the highway means pluck the top string on your string while holding down the button on the sixth fret at the top.

Maybe this sounds simple to you, maybe is doesn't - but you can be sure that either way, you'll be completely confused when you actually try it for yourself. The problem is that trying to read a vertical tab and translate it to your hands is nigh-on impossible. I play guitar with reasonably decent skill, and even I was having problems with easy mode!

It's rather telling that, when I inquired with the guy at the Rock Band booth about whether horizontal highways would be available from the options, he smiled and shook his head before telling me that numerous people had already asked him that very same question - and even he couldn't believe it wasn't included.

I found chords far easier to understand, but only because I play the guitar already and know what positions to put my hands in. I watched a few people who had never played the guitar before have a bash at the tutorials, and they were all completely overwhelmed and had no idea what they were doing. The big problem is that the game attempts to teach you how to play the guitar Rock Band style, rather than doing the far more simple idea of just teaching you how to actually play the guitar for real!

It's an awful oversight on Harmonix's part, and one which could be easily resolved by simply adding a horizontal highway as an option. You get the impression that no-one on the designing team for the game actually plays the guitar, and hence has no idea what playing the guitar is actually like.

So in summary: The keyboard is going to be a great addition, while the stringed guitar is pants. The most frustrating element is that certain people will have read this and thought 'bah, it's probably that he was just doing it wrong' and buy the new guitar anyway. Indeed, every Rock Band fanatic out there will buy the new guitar just to show they can do it, and many will come away from it feels frustrated and very disappointed.
The pro guitar mode isn't looking so hot
With the game dropping later this month on October 26th, our advice would be to give the new guitar a try in-store or at an expo first before you fork out the cash - you may find that it's really not very fun at all.

Most Anticipated Feature: Getting a whole band of seven people playing at all once. That's right - seven.

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