At the MTV Games E3 booth it became immediately clear how far Rock Band has evolved since its inception in 2007. The giant wall displaying each song created over Rock Band Network, the enclosed case featuring realistic instruments complete with strings and cymbals, and the customization all illustrate the evolution of Rock Band. In particular, Rock Band Pro mode which more accurately simulates playing an instrument proved Harmonix are still pioneering the music rhythm genre.
My hands-on time with the game consisted of a few songs played on stage with a group other journalists. We picked songs that featured all instruments (including the new keyboard) to properly get the full band experience. Playing Bohemian Rhapsody in a large, impromptu group of varying skill levels was very entertaining. Being a drummer myself, I decided to check out the Pro Drums first. The high end drum kit had actual cymbals which definitely provided a realistic experience.
Of course, Pro mode works with all instruments. The guitar and keyboard parts require the player to mimic chord progressions and change octaves. It definitely improves your chances of success if you have some grasp of music theory. For instance, guitar players can simply watch the chord names as they appear alongside the notes and keyboard players get cues on when a dramatic change is coming. However, the game does a good job of teaching those unfamiliar with the basics how to follow along. The simple fact of having strings on the guitar goes a long way to creating a more immersive experience.
Harmonix have also implemented several user friendly features to take away some of the frustration from playing. For instance, the drum pads no longer control the menu functions, so that clumsy friend who can't wait to bust out a solo won't screw up the song choice or settings. Players can also rate each track to determine how often it will appear on a random playlist. A zero rating will partially eliminate the song whereas a five will ensure it's played frequently. Overall, it's much easier to reach the content you want.
Rock Band 3 had a very strong showing today at E3. The Harmonix demo even showcased a guitar separately plugged into an amp playing along that Rock Band was able to track. That's right, it's finally happened, you can play a real guitar (a limited type of guitar) and Rock Band will track it. The possibilities of this new found functionality and smart design are very exciting.