Harmonix knows full well that people have been playing the same music rhythm games for years now, and that there are only so many songs that can offer complex enough note charts to challenge seasoned players. So the studio is branching out to more realistic pastures with Rock Band 3, offering real instruments alongside the traditional abstract controllers already on the market.
When they say real, they really mean it. The new instrument - the keyboard - is actually a MIDI keyboard that can be plugged into a regular computer to create music, and the game will also support existing MIDI keyboards if you already own one. As well as a traditional five-lane mode as seen with standard Rock Band guitars, the Pro mode extends play to all the keys, giving them individual lines on the screen and zooms in for keyboard solos. They're also colour-coded into groups so players know where to play their hands, and black keys are used for songs that require support.
While bringing a keyboard to the game is a logical and perhaps straightforward step, the game now offers true guitar play, with strings and frets. On release, Madcatz will offer a guitar that has strings at the base and physical buttons all the way along the neck where the strings would be, with a proper stringed option provided by Fender launching early next year.
The way in which it is represented on screen is the line of strings as if you are looking down on it, left to right, with numbered icons along each string pointing out which fret to hold. Like guitar in previous editions, holding down a fret will highlight it on screen to show you're positioning correctly. Harmonix says that there is room for slight error with the system, not only so that it is easier to break into, but that real guitar players are rarely perfect. As a complete guitar novice trying out an easy song, it was very difficult to get used to but did seem like the most logical way of displaying what to press.
Both modes, as well as Pro drums (which adds cymbals, shown as spheres on the existing four note tracks), have extensive trainers to break you in, to the extent that you are playing open notes to begin with, all the way to power chords, and on Expert, actually playing songs note for note. The idea for these new instruments is not to add more difficulty but to provide something different for experienced players to learn, and that would truly translate to real-life instrument playing, which only the drums have even come close to previously.
Of course, all existing instruments can be used for the 83 songs in the game, so if you are just looking for another disc full of tracks then that's here also. Harmonix was keen to stress that while it wants players to use the keyboard, the instrument variety will be balanced, as well as varied and genre agonistic as previous Rock Band releases. For those who don't want to pick up the keyboard, then guitars can play the five-note track versions instead, offering a compliment to lead and bass.
All existing downloadable content is supported, as well as important from earlier games, and drop-in drop-out play alongside difficulty changes mid-track is now offered, making it more accessible and far-ranging than previous editions. While UK launch pricing is uncertain, on launch Harmonix hopes to bundle the game and wireless keyboard together (as well as a software-only option) although with the new instruments available separately. It's easily the biggest step for a rhythm game since the introduction of band play, and it'll be fascinating to see it evolve as a learning tool and how players will respond to it.
Rock Band 3 will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from October 26.