My very first impression of Rock Band 3 was surprisingly negative. Liesl, Miranda, and I sat down to play; I’d assumed that we’d go through career mode on Miranda’s band. The game, however, created a band for me and then refused to let us change to one for her. (I didn’t look into it too closely; we’ve since all created bands, hopefully things will go better next time time.) No big deal, we just went into quickplay mode; Miranda wanted to play keyboards, we saw some premade list that mentioned them, so we gave that a try. And then the game told us something about having to go into “all instruments mode”; I don’t understand why it needed us to do that, and it threw us for a loop momentarily, but after a bit, we decided that that seemed harmless enough, so we started playing.

Which was fun, but then the set list we’d chosen proved to be a mistake: the first few songs were fine, but the difficulty ramped up too quickly for a keyboard novice. So we backed out, and went into the general quick play mode; that, however, confronted us with something like 360 songs. (And that’s before exporting the Rock Band 2 tracks!) Fortunately, they have a good filtering system in place, so we could get the game to only show us songs with keyboard parts, and sort them by difficulty; and we had a lot of fun starting on the resulting list. And, in fact, all instruments mode (with its associated karaoke vocals) ended up being an actively good thing: it was nice to be able to see the lyrics even though we weren’t singing, and when Imagine came along (which doesn’t have a guitar part), I could just drop out (which Rock Band 3 lets you do on the fly) and sing to it. It would have been annoying if we’d had a guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, and singer, all of whom wanted their score to count, though (and I still don’t understand why the game doesn’t allow that—it’s still only four controllers), but we weren’t in that situation, so it was okay.

Liesl and I poked around a little more later on in the evening. It’s a pity that you can’t import your Rock Band 2 band/characters, but creating new ones is fun enough. (Good facial hair options; Rock Band 2 had a much better top hat, though, if I’m remembering correctly, and to get the jacket I want, I’ll have to somehow earn 5,000,000 points with vocal harmonies…) It also doesn’t know which DLC you’ve played in previous versions of the game, so at some point soon we should go back to Rock Band 2 to find out which songs we haven’t yet played through; that’s reasonable enough, certainly. The career mode has been somewhat modified, but the new version seems pleasant enough, and I like the range of alternate band goals the game provides. And I’ve enjoyed what little of the the music I’ve played so far; not everything was to my taste, and perhaps the focus on vocal harmonies and keyboards has diluted the guitar play a bit, but it was good stuff, sometimes surprisingly so. (I’d never heard of Maná before, but Oye Mi Amor was a lot of fun to play; and while I certainly had heard The Power of Love before, I wasn’t expecting much out of it, but it turns out to be a lot of fun to play on (expert non-pro) guitar.) Nice usability tweaks, too—being able to drop in and out on the fly is useful, if you fail you can continue from the place in the game where you failed; and you can also change difficulty on the fly.

That was last night; today, I gave the keyboard a try myself. On pro keys; as one of my coworkers had warned me, trying to sight-read was kind of odd. I’m competent at reading traditional piano notation; that doesn’t transfer at all to the notation that Rock Band 3 uses, so I had to do a lot more thinking than I would have liked figuring out which key to play when something shows up on screen.

Fortunately, some amount of general musical knowledge does come through. Playing up and down melody lines felt pretty natural: once I found the initial note, I didn’t have to do too much thinking to find the notes after that. Chords were harder, but not infrequently, they’d click, and my hands would happily shift from chord to chord.

Which doesn’t mean that everything went swimmingly: I got lost pretty often. Just starting a song made me nervous: not having perfect pitch and not having played these songs before, I would have no idea where on the keyboard the first notes would be, and what notes I’d end up using! (Given that the tutorial has you go through various different scales, it might be nice for the game to tell you what key you were playing in, so you could prepare better?)

I started off on medium; the easiest songs have very little keyboard in them, though, so that was really boring, and I moved up to hard. Which was a good choice; so far, I’ve made it through the three-star songs without too many mishaps. Chord sections definitely give me a lot more trouble than melodic sections: sometimes they’ll click, and even if they don’t, if the chords are repeating, I can figure it out quickly enough, but if I get lost and chords are moving around quickly, it’s hard to orient. (I have to wonder how much harder the four-note chords that expert gives you will be.)

At first, even orienting myself on the melodic sections was hard, too, but my reading ability is already improving. The color coding of the regions of the keyboard is sensible enough; and I found that using the black keys to keep track of where in a section of the keyboard a note is works pretty well. (So, ironically, songs in C major turned out to be rather more difficult than songs in keys with a handful of accidentals.) It’s definitely a work in progress, though: I don’t see any reason why I won’t eventually able to directly translate between the distance of keys on the screen and the distance of keys on the keyboard, and I’m already better at that than I was when I started, but I’m certainly not there yet.

And it’s still the case that, when things go wrong, I have a surprisingly hard time getting back on track. Some of that is just the nature of the beast, but some of that is the relative lack of feedback that the game provides. You don’t hear the wrong note you played (just a clink sound followed by silence), so it’s possible to miss notes without realizing it at all, and it’s also surprisingly easy to not be sure whether you played the wrong note or the right note at the wrong time. And you also can’t use sound as feedback for how far you need to adjust your mistakes up or down, you have to resort to logic or visuals or touch.

The keyboard itself was pleasant as an instrument. My main quibble is that the pivot point for the keys isn’t very far back, so if your fingers are up on the keys, there’s not a lot of depth. At first, turning on star power was tough, but then I realized that there’s rarely much point in using both hands while playing keyboard, given that the game will only have you playing from a range of just over an octave at any given point, so my left hand ended up mostly free. The keytar handle had the downside that Zippy was lying next to my left leg, and would periodically bonk his head against it when he tried to look up and, but we solved that by moving Zippy. And it works just fine sitting on your lap, I have no desire for a separate keyboard stand.

Good stuff. There are tweaks I’d make—show what key you’re playing in, in particular—and the game’s in-song visuals have gone quite a bit too far into distraction. But still: it’s Rock Band! With keyboards! Where you can play more than five notes! I gave Bohemian Rhapsody a try on hard, and was feeling pretty smug through the opening section; I fell apart soon enough, though, but I’ll be a lot happier putting in the time to really learn it than I ever was with a song in previous iterations of the game.

Incidentally, Rock Band 3 is this week’s VGHVI game; chime in on that post if you’re free Thursday evening and want to join us!

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