Rock your f**kin socks off
Rock Band 3 was a revolutionary title that changed the way we thought about rhythm videogames. While the founding franchise Guitar Hero and the original Rock Band merged music with interactive gaming successfully, it always treated the experience in a superficial way. They were about timing and coordination but they had little consideration towards actual musical ability. Sure you were holding a guitar shaped controller, but at the end of the day you were pushing five colored buttons down like a five year old plays with MySimon.
Rock Band 3 evolved this simplified approach and opened the doors to an evolved form of the music-oriented videogame. While the default package allowed anyone to pick up and jam, it had the potential via Pro Instruments to add a whole new dimension to the game. With a Pro Guitar, Pro Keyboard, or Pro Drumkit, Rock Band 3 evolved from your basic rhythm game into a fully-interactive musical learning tool. And more importantly, it was still fun.
Personally, I can’t think of a more important transition for a videogame. How many other videogames teach you skills that can be applied to real life, or even a profession? Sure, knowing Johnny Cage’s Oscar trophy fatality in Mortal Kombat might come in handy one day, but Rock Band 3 can potentially teach people to play a real life instrument.
As a guitarist (I've been playing for over 15 years now), I was curious to see how it works, so I got my hands on the Mad Catz Wireless Fender Mustang Pro Guitar Controller for Rock Band 3. Although not the 100% realistic Fender Squier Stratocaster controller (complete with touch-sensitive fretboard that was released last year), this thing is still a plastic equivalent of a real electric guitar.
The MadCatz Pro Guitar features a daunting 102 buttons, all of which appear on the fret board in place of strings. Each fret has 6 buttons (representing the E,A,D,G,B,e strings of a guitar) and there are 17 frets (6 x 17 = 102).
Essentially, each button on the fretboard is a note, allowing players to create scales, riffs and even chords by holding down multiple buttons at once. The feel of the MadCatz Pro Guitar is obviously different to its stringed real-life counterpart, but holding down chords and even running your fingers up and down the buttoned fretboard isn’t that far from an actual guitar.
Rather than the original single-bar of the common Guitar Hero / Rock Band guitars, the MadCatz Pro Guitar has 6 ‘fake’ strings, or threads coming from the pseudo-bridge of the controller. Naturally each one of these is designed to mimic an actual string and - apart from them all being the same thickness (normal guitar strings have different gauges running from thick to thin) - they feel relatively natural when playing. Thankfully they’re designed to take a battering (ie: Rammstein’s hammering of power chords) but also sensitive enough to handle individual picking (ie: Jimi Hendrix’s mesmerizing solos).
Rounding off the controls are your standard PS3 or Xbox 360 face buttons, and a cleverly designed upside down navigational D-pad, to allow you to interface with the game without an additional controller. An indicator light informs you as to what player number the controller is set to, and finally you have the Start, Select / Back, and Home buttons all at your disposal. The controller also features a detachable neck and head for packaging or transportation purposes.
Overall, it’s a solid attempt at creating a Mustang guitar for a videogame. It’s smaller than the real version (by about 15%) and obviously a lot lighter, with no wood and only a few metal parts weighing it down. But although the body size is slightly different, the neck size, fretboard and string distances are all kept relatively intact.
The included strap is comfortable and the guitar is adjustable for left and right handed players. When strumming the instrument, the noise is audible but still a lot less irritating than the clatter of the normal controller’s toggle bar. The controller comes packaged with three medium-gauge Fender picks as well.
Playing on Easy removes a large number of notes, meaning players can become familiar with the fretboard layout, string positioning, and also learn the song. Cranking up the difficulty adds extra notes and chord structures until eventually, at Expert mode, they’re playing 99% the real thing.
Just like with the basic controllers, players can play Pro Bass or Pro Guitar with the same controller (and ignore the last two strings / bottom two rows of buttons along the fretboard).
When playing a track, the flowing coloured indicators still stream down the screen, except this time you are presented with a wider, six-columned track. Each column represents a string and the fret numbers (or positions) are indicated on each.
Personally, I recommend opening up the Options menu (just press Start during a track) and selecting the extra setting of ‘Individual Fret Numbers’. This extra information comes in handy with new songs or unusual chords that require complicated finger positions.
Just like with the normal game, players must have their finger(s) on the right buttons and hit the right string(s) when the indicator arrives at the bottom of the screen.
However it’s not all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (in fact it’s none of them... it’s a videogame, people!) The main problem with the engine of Pro Guitar in Rock Band 3 is that it is static and built around preset patterns, rather than musical tone. Any guitarist knows that there are dozens of ways to produce the same note using different strings and different fret positions (after all, the guitar is structured around repeating scales.) Even tuning a guitar uses the knowledge that the 5th fret of the low E string is an A, the same as just striking the second string down without holding a fret.
Therefore guitarists may have different ways of forming chords, or different finger positionings when playing riffs. Pro Guitar in Rock Band 3 ignores all of this tonal flexibility and demands you play it the way it wants - even if what you’re playing would sound the same to anyone listening.
A perfect example is Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground by the White Stripes. I learnt to play this song years ago and, all modesty aside, when I play it, it sounds every bit the same as the original recording. However I found myself having to re-learn the song to satisfy Rock Band 3, which demanded I play chords differently, ie: using standard chord structures rather than bar chords and vice versa. The same went for No-one Knows by Queens of the Stone Age (it adjusts for their C tuning, but then forces you to play solos in the way they prescribe).
Obviously the problem is the Pro Guitar doesn’t send notes or tones to Rock Band 3, it simply sends coordinates and button codes. Fail to match them and it doesn’t register, regardless of whether the human ear could tell the difference.
The other annoying gripe is there appears to be no rhyme or reason as to which tracks in the Rock Band library have Pro support. Some artists like Them Crooked Vultures have one track with and the other without. Even tracks that are just screaming for some Pro guitar goodness go unnoticed.
Naturally the Rock Band support team would need to manually input this extra data in, but considering the market and the price per track - I am disappointed at the slow growth in the Pro updates. There are currently 273 tracks with Pro Guitar / Bass support out of a total of 3622 tracks in the Rock Band database. That’s just a measly 7.5% of tracks.
No ‘All My Life’ by the Foo Fighters, no ‘Testify’ by Rage Against the Machine, and “I Got Mine” by the Black Keys... denied! But the fact that the Pro Guitar support has you lusting for more shred-worthy tracks is a credit in its own right.
The concern I have is, with Rock Band 3 already past its ‘use by date’, will the Pro support peter off more and more, leaving players frustrated by missed opportunities? Perhaps the only way to help the cause is to start buying Pro tracks and show that there is a market for it.
So if you’re a guitarist who enjoys Rock Band, or someone who wants to learn to play in the comfort of their living room and to tracks they love - look out for a Pro Guitar in selected stores. JB Hi-Fi and MightyApe.co.nz both stock them, and they range from between $150 (on sale!) all the way up to $399, so definitely compare prices before you buy. Be prepared to have some cash in your PSN or XBLA wallets too as you’ll want to stock up your library too.
For the full list of Rock Band tracks, you can visit:
Users can filter by Pro instrument support using the drop-down box.