Pundits say the music-game genre is dying. They may even be right. (Nice work, Activision.) But there’s still room for a flagship rhythm game that shows everyone else how it should be done. As of now, that game is Rock Band 3. With an ever-expanding song catalog boasting 2,000 tunes, the game’s 83 new tracks are less important than the streamlined interface upgrades that improve the experience for everyone, and gameplay additions meant to keep the most dedicated hardcore players enthralled.
To casual players, the differences might seem subtle. There are vocal harmonies imported from Beatles Rock Band, and music tracks that support a keyboard peripheral, but it’s essentially still the same game. Vocal tracks can become karaoke-only, with no scoring, which is ideal for less-sober play sessions. Players can drop in and out of songs on the fly, and difficulty modes are easily changed. The song catalog is more navigable, playlists are easy to make and save, and the career mode offers more options, presented with more elegance, than any previous installment. The options make group and solo play more accessible and pleasant.
The keyboard also opens a Pro Keys mode, and that’s where the big changes come into play. This mode ably straddles the line between game and “real” music, as it asks players to learn a few actual playing skills. Drums get a similar pro treatment, with optional cymbals and a second foot-pedal for the hi-hat. These Pro modes offer new challenges for players who breeze through expert difficulty, without altering the core game.
Pro Guitar is less accessible. It requires an expensive new peripheral ($149) which, armed with six faux strings to strum and more than a hundred buttons (six at each fret), finally prompts the old “Why don’t you just learn to play a real guitar?” question in earnest. For some, mastering the controller will be the ultimate gaming achievement. Others may react poorly to its notable differences from a real instrument—the strings are all the same width, and there’s no tactile feedback when you’ve fretted a chord—and find they make it far harder to play than the real thing. Pro modes are 100 percent optional, however. Even setting them aside, Rock Band 3 is a superbly engineered game that is both the most ambitious and the best the genre has to offer.