'Rock Band 3' Gets a Shot in the Arm, But It's Not Quite Enough

Remember when Rock Band sucked? Or at the very least had the life sucked out of it?

After two "core" Rock Band games, a handful of band-branded spinoffs, and Activision's genre-killing insistence on turning the competing Guitar Hero franchise into an Uwe Boll movie, the whole music-game thing got a little stale. Rock Band owners could chug happily along with their old games, but an audience content with buying the odd downloadable track isn't an audience that can keep a series (or a studio, for that matter) alive.

Harmonix needed a gimmick to breathe life back into the genre, something to bring old-school fans back into the lucrative title-buying fold. Something that eats shame and craps thrown devil-horns like their first plastic guitars did back in 2005. Something like—a keytar.

I know, right? On paper, it's perfect. Harmonix popularized the modern music-game concept back when they did the first Guitar Hero. They expanded the concept to integrate vocals and drums with Rock Band. For Harmonix to add a new instrument to Rock Band 3 isn't just natural or expected behavior, it's practically mandatory.

Thank God the damned thing actually works. The Rock Band 3 keytar adds a new dimension to classic Rock Band gameplay while setting up followers for the next stage of the genre's evolution: the Rock Band series as a legitimate teaching tool.

The keytar isn't just another instrument-shaped game controller—it's Baby's First MIDI Instrument. Players can use a modified version of the familiar five-button layout typical of Rock Band games, or they can pair the keytar with RB3's Pro Keys mode and experience the most accurate game-based glimpse to date of what it's really like to use a musical instrument in a simulated performance setting.

That legitimacy goes beyond its use within the Rock Band 3. Players who grow out of the game can use the RB3 keytar as a full-fledged musical instrument. Once connected to a suitable MIDI setup, the keytar serves as a fully serviceable if somewhat Spartan entry-level MIDI controller on par with many other single-use devices in its price range. (That compatibility goes both ways—an adapter that connects MIDI keyboards to consoles will be available by the end of November.)

It's a crucial selling point for the game, coming in at a relatively competitive price ($130 for a keytar-game bundle) while standing on its own as a real instrument. Unfortunately, the keytar is currently the sole new factor bolstering interest in Rock Band 3. The Rock Band formula remains largely unchanged, making the structure of RB3 outside of the keyboard factor dangerously close to humdrum for series vets.

Less desirable still are the upcoming Pro versions of guitar and drums, which will both be more expensive than their keyboard counterpart ($150 and $130 respectively before buying the game) and initially available only in limited quantities long after RB3's launch date. This may be a savvy business move on the part of Harmonix and instrument maker MadCatz to allow their keytar time to build interest in RB3's other Pro modes, but this risks future additions being forgotten in the upcoming holiday deluge.

There's also a lot left to be done on other fronts before Rock Band 3 is as fleshed out as it should be. Decisions have to be made regarding Harmonix's extensive back catalog—a list almost 2,000 songs strong, with none yet updated to take advantage of Rock Band 3's upgrades.

Harmonix's huge library is both a blessing and a curse in the Rock Band 3 world. Lacking the foresight necessary to realize that existing tracks may need revision in the future, Harmonix (and by extension Rock Band 3 players) face the possibility of having to relicense much of the Rock Band Network library if those songs are going to be revamped with Pro Instrument and Keyboard tracks.

Add that to the cross-pollination given by track import options available to owners of the half-dozen or so available Rock Band series discs currently in the wild, and you're left with a ton of potential material that will either be shoehorned into older Rock Band norms, bought twice by increasingly disgruntled customers, or skipped by future Rock Band 3 purists. (Thanks to continued meddling from the Beatles' catalog owners, The Beatles: Rock Band will never have this problem. Apparently, William Shatner can legally sing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," but a random CGI avatar cannot.)

All in all, consider Rock Band 3 a reintroduction to the model. Ironically, the first true music game innovation in years is best suited for new players, specifically those with little previous investment in Harmonix's library, its peripherals, or the idea that little plastic controllers are the last stage in music gaming mastery. Rock Band 3, more than any of its predecessors, is a work in progress, but it also shows the most promise of any game in its genre.

And it's actually fun. Remember that?