Rock Band 3 Pro-Guitar E3 2010 Preview

Harmonix is trying something with Rock Band 3. Along with adding 80-plus on-disc tunes, improving the user interface, and changing up the single-player progression, the developer is attempting to change the landscape of the music game genre entirely.

nope Not only is a keyboard peripheral being added to the game, Harmonix will introduce something called Pro Mode, which will present a realistic experience on each of the game's instruments. On keyboard, the entire peripheral is used. On drums, cymbals must be hit. On guitar and bass, a new peripheral or a real custom guitar must be used to play as a real guitarist might play.

At E3 2010, I was able to go hands-on with both the MadCatz peripheral and a prototype of the Fender Squier Stratocaster, which is a fully-functioning electric guitar. In short, it was the best thing I saw or played at the show. For sure, this appeals to a very niche audience: those wishing to transition from plastic guitar to real guitar and potentially those that already play guitar, but have not enjoyed rhythm games.

For players, like myself, that would like to try his or her hand at learning to play a guitar, Harmonix's combination of hardware and software is sure to be the best opportunity for some self-teaching. There are drills to be completed and every song on the disc can be loaded up and practiced. Furthermore, Harmonix has created different difficulty levels for Pro mode beginning with single notes on Easy, adding chords on Medium and Hard, and finally recreating the song exactly in Expert.

In the training drills, if too many notes are missed in a row, the game will pause and display a fret board at the top of the screen. The game will resume when you correctly pluck the note and it will continue. It is a very effective way to slow things down and let you practice. Hit the sequence properly a few times in a row and the drill will move onto the next set. The drills are simple, but vary in sound and style over a simple drum beat. It's much easier than loading up a DVD or CD to play along with while reading from a book.

For experienced guitar players, I suspect there could be two key draws. The first is the ability to load up any of the songs on disc and practice. On Expert, the song is recreated in full. Players can slow the track down, practice specific segments, or learn tricky solos. The second is to play along with friends during normal play, but utilizing a real instrument. Pro mode is completely playable during normal play with others. Sadly, the back catalog of songs from retail releases and DLC will not support expert guitar or bass, though new DLC should be supported after a certain point.

The peripherals themselves feel great. Obviously, the Squier feels like a real guitar, as it is a real guitar. Fancy circuitry has been placed under the fret board to determine where a string is pressed. It works amazingly well (at my level of skill) and seemed to be accurate while just testing the on-screen feedback. The game will show you what fret is pressed down on each string, which is useful for keeping your eye on the game. It can also be plugged into an amp during gameplay to hear the actual notes alongside the game's interpretation, which will always sound perfect if timed properly.

The Mad Catz guitar doesn't carry the weight of the Squier, but feels good for a game controller. The buttons are well made and roughly the size of strings. The spaces between each button will help novice players, but will likely infuriate real guitarists. What it does do well is eliminate finger fatigue, which should help new players stay motivated through drills. The strings for strumming on the Mad Catz aren't quite as tight as I would have liked, so using a pick is a bit awkward, but it's an effective peripheral for those not willing to dive in with the Squier.

The notation Harmonix is using amounts to vertically streaming tabs, but has the added benefit of conferring exact timing based upon experience with rhythm games. I was not able to figure out the chord notation being used in my short time, but suspect it will come with practice. For real players, the chord name is displayed to the left of the highway at the start of a chord sequence.

For bass, if the bassist used a four-string bass, only four strings will be used on either of the pro guitars. If a five or six string bass was used, expect to use that number of strings in play. The hardware cannot distinguish a down-strum from an up-strum so do not expect any achievements or forced technique in that regard.

Again, this isn't going to appeal to everyone, but it's exactly what I've wanted from Rock Band. It's an evolution of the genre in an attempt to bridge the gap between fake and real guitar. Beyond just the guitar and bass, pro mode on keyboard and drums should help teach, but not on the same level as the guitar.

Rock Band 3 will be released on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and, somehow, Nintendo DS this holiday season. The Mad Catz pro guitar will be $150. Pricing and release date have not been released for the Fender Squier Stratocaster.

[Watch the Shacknews E3 2010 page to follow all our coverage of this year's show. You can also subscribe to it with your favorite RSS reader.]