The rhythm action genre, then; does anybody still care? Genre fatigue has reared its ugly head, and I for one couldn't give a monkey's about the trivial improvements the latest game has over its predecessors. With little more to differentiate recent titles than the band lending their name to the title (Metallica, The Beatles, Green Day etc), it seems only the most hardcore of plastic guitar shredders are still interested in the genre. Harmonix, creator of Guitar Hero and now Rock Band, isn't fazed. It's confident that Rock Band 3 will silence naysayers with the most refined virtual band experience money can buy. This is all well and good, but surely it'll just offer more of the same, right? Not quite.
As you might expect, the fundamental mechanics underpinning the experience remain exactly the same. You hit buttons on a plastic instrument in time with notes that scroll down a screen. It's been more or less exactly the same since the first Guitar Hero. For the hardcore group I referred to earlier, though, Rock Band 3 is Earth-shatteringly different. This comes in the form of Pro instruments, which attempt to bridge the gap between plastic game peripherals and real musician's equipment. One look at the new Fender Mustang from Mad Catz will show you what I mean; it has a staggering 102 buttons and real strings (where the sound hole would be) which, if you so fancy, can be strummed with a plectrum. More than ever before, you'll feel like a real guitarist as you stand in front of your TV pressing buttons in time to colours on the screen.
In order to play the thing, you'll have to rewire your brain to the game's new notation system. Instead of five strings appearing left to right, the Pro guitar uses six. A number will then scroll down the screen corresponding to a fret. So, say a number 5 scrolls down the third segment of the screen; you'll need to play the fifth fret of the third string. For actual guitarists, this won't prove much of a problem - it's like an interactive sheet of tablature, and to somebody like me who understands it (albeit vaguely - it's been years since I picked up a real guitar) it feels genuinely intuitive. Harmonix considers this an entry point into learning the real guitar, and I'd be inclined to agree with them. We were also shown a Squire at the demonstration we were at; a real guitar, with real strings (the whole way up the neck) and real frets that really works with the game. When asked how, Harmonix refused to elaborate on 'magic voodoo technology', but we'll hopefully learn more soon.
It's not all about guitars, though. Rock Band 3 caters to an all new audience with the introduction of a keyboard. It's actually being manufactured in the same factory as Roland keyboards, and comes fitted with 25 keys and a Midi port. For all intents and purposes, this is a real keyboard. It was the last instrument I played during the course of the demonstration, and took a considerable amount of time to acquaint myself with. The temptation was to use one hand to cover a range of notes, but this quickly leads to problems. A much better idea is to use two hands in two different positions, much like a real pianist might. For those scared off by the 25-key pro mode (which I rather foolishly jumped straight into), there's a more familiar standard mode that simply uses five notes.
That's the big stuff covered, then, but there's still a lot to talk about. Rock Band 3 adds so much more than just new instruments. The UI has been reworked, the graphics tweaked, and a host of new features have been added. The character creation tools have been revamped, too, allowing for far more varied creations than those cobbled together from combinations of stock body parts and clothing. You can mess around with muscle and skin tones, nose shapes and jaw line structures - the kind of things you'd expect to see in something like Mass Effect. There's also an all new narrative driven campaign, tracking your band's journey from crappy club entertainers to headline festival acts. The characters you created at the start of your career will appear in comical video vignettes, bringing your band members to life like never before.
A new goal system offers mini challenges to work on as you plough through the campaign. One might simply ask that you play a downloaded track, another that you play Bohemian Rhapsody with a full band. Then there's the obsessive compulsive goal; an achievement to end all others. To earn said award, you'll need to hit every note from every song in the game, across all four difficulties. This, Harmonix reckons, will take even the most hardcore of players months.
And then, of course, there are the new songs. Rock Band 3 will feature 83 new tracks, including Queen's immortal classic Bohemian Rhapsody, and quite possibly my favourite song of all time, Free Bird. Not only this, Rock Band 3 is compatible with every single song that's ever been released (bar a couple from the original Rock Band) in previous instalments. This means that the game will launch with around 2000 tracks, which really is quite staggering. Thankfully, RB3 implements a new filter system, meaning you can create playlists from exactly the kind of songs you like. For example, you might set up a filter so that it only shows short songs from the 80's that are classic rock. It's a simple addition to the series, but with such a huge database of tracks, vitally important.
To the untrained eye, Rock Band 3 is simply another rhythm action game. It might well have a keyboard and a bevy of new features, but essentially it's just more of the same. Say this to a rhythm action aficionado, however, and he'll probably cave your head in with his drum stool. Pro instruments enforce the fact that Rock Band 3 is the biggest evolution of the formula to date. I have no doubts that the game will be received well critically, but I'm not so hopeful when it comes to predicting commercial success. Rock Band 3 could either be the final nail in the coffin for rhythm action, or rekindle a dying flame. We'll find out this October.
Rockband 3 is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and DS from October 29.