Rock Band 3′s Pro mode is hard. Really, really hard. This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who were following along on The Twitters last week, where I mused upon brand-new horizons of difficulty introduced in Pro Guitar — compared to even the hardest five-button songs in any previous game. This is a whole new challenge, and in a sense a whole new game.
But let me back up.
I walked into the stark white meeting room in MTV Games’ booth on Tuesday afternoon, hoping to get a moment to pick up at least one of the two new guitars launching alongside Rock Band 3. I knew the appointment was specifically for hands-on time, but I figured they’d hustle me through keyboard and guitar, and I’d at most get to pound out a couple licks on the seriously buttontastic Mustang controller.
Instead, senior designer Sylvain Dubrofsky pretty much just handed over the stringed Squier the minute I walked into the room, and let me go to town.
Let me tell you about the Squier. First of all, it looks and feels like a real guitar in pretty much every way. Obviously there are some extra buttons on the body; without buttons on the neck, it became necessary to add face buttons to the body of the guitar itself, which are nicely unobtrusive. But aside from that, there’s really only one thing that felt noticeably different to me from holding a real guitar: The neck seems a tad bit on the thick side. I assume this is to accommodate whatever kind of voodoo electronics lurk beneath the surface to detect finger placement. It made the neck feel more like the thick construction of a Les Paul than what you’d normally expect from a Strat, if that means anything to you.
But on to the important thing: How well does the game detect input via the Squier? The answer: really, really well. Press down on the strings and slide your hand up the neck and the game instantly responds, showing the position of your fingers on the neck and in relation to each other.
But perhaps not the way you’d think.
Which brings us to how Pro mode actually plays. Going in, I was expecting the game to simply throw a line of numbers at you; as with tablature, I assumed it would be up to the player to learn over time to recognize what, say, 320033 means. (That’d be a G chord, if you’re curious.) Instead, the game does something a little less immediately obvious but potentially more intuitive — which I realize sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me.
What Rock Band 3 does with chords is show you a shape, almost a waveform, which roughly corresponds to where your fingers go. There’s a number attached, which indicates where your lowest finger (that is, the one closest to the headstock) goes, and then the rest of the “wave” shows the rough relation of your other fingers to it.
But because this information needs to be delivered quickly along a note highway, it’s not a direct one-to-one relationship — you’re not seeing chord “charts” that you might be familiar with from songbooks and such. That means it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to know exactly where to put your fingers the very first time you see the diagram. That’s why I say it’s less immediately obvious.
However, since Harmonix has reduced complex chord information down to a simple shape, once you learn the meaning of that shape it becomes pretty instantly recognizable. For example, even after playing just one song, I recognize that this:
…is a barre chord. In this case, the index finger is on the third fret of the second string, and the next three strings are fretted at the fifth fret. Compare to this:
…which shows most of an open E. In this case, the index finger is on the first fret of the fourth string, and the two lower strings are fretted at the second fret. Notice how the angle next to the “1″ is shallower, signifying that the fingers are closer together: The distance is just a single fret (1 to 2) as opposed to two frets (3 to 5) in the top example.
This may sound unbearably complex, especially if you’ve never picked up a real guitar, but trust me: After seeing it in action and trying it for yourself, it makes perfect sense. As you learn more songs, you’ll learn to recognize the shapes of more chords, and eventually it could become as simple as seeing, say, a Red-Green-Blue chord or HOPO — you’ll learn the “language,” your muscles will learn the movement, your fingers will learn the placement. Will it take more time and work? Oh hell yes. But the system seems to make sense, based on my play time.
One other note about gameplay: I wasn’t able to locate screens illustrating this, but periodically you’ll see a section of the note highway shaded a light blue: This signifies arpeggio sections, where you hold down the last fretted chord and strum individual strings within it. Again — sounds much more complex than it is; basically it’s a sustained chord with extra picking going on.
So let me wrap back around to the hardware. After playing through “I Love Rock n’ Roll” on Pro Hard on the Squier (and scoring 55 percent, ouch), I was asked if I wanted to check out the Mustang as well. As reluctant as I was to put down the “real” guitar, I had to see how the two compared.
The verdict: surprisingly well. There’s definitely a dramatic gap of realism between the Mustang and the Squier, but it was surprisingly easy to finger even complex chords on the Mustang — and I was relieved to discover that chord changes seemed no harder. (Given the many-button configuration of the Mustang, I thought it might be easy to get hung up on intervening buttons, but transitions felt pretty smooth.)
As a sort of field test, I played through the same song again on the Mustang. This time I scored a 60 percent, which I suspect is due more to fast-growing familiarity with the chord shapes than to any material difference between the guitars. All in all, it felt quite solid. It wasn’t the best “fake” guitar I saw at the show, but…well, more on that later this week.
Questions? I’m sure I’ve left something out but I didn’t want to get too technical here. (I see you all rolling your eyes. Shut up.)