Break on through to the other side of rhythm gaming.
Rock Band 3 is the next evolution of rhythm gaming. It doesn't earn that title by reinventing the entire genre, or changing the core mechanics. Rather, it achieves that title by refining the idea of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games into a sweet, wonderfully designed package.
The core of the new additions is the keyboard controller and Pro Mode. The keyboards, which are playable in 63 of the game's 83 songs, are a lot of fun to play in the regular mode and Pro Mode. Unfortunately, not every song features constant keyboard parts, making some of those songs pretty boring on the instrument. Still, the ones that do feature the keyboards are excellent.
While I wasn't able to fully test all of Pro Mode, I am impressed by how it works for the keyboards and guitar. There is a full-fledged tutorial that goes over numerous lessons for each instrument. For the first time in a rhythm game, you can legitimately learn how to play a real-life instrument, which is very cool.
Adding even more complexity than Pro Keyboards is the Pro Guitar mode, where the Fender Mustang Pro Guitar has a button for every string at every fret. The interface for Pro Guitar is terrific, with an on-screen overlay showing you what buttons are pressed down and by how much, negating the need to look down at the instrument to see if you're in the right place. The instant feedback of where your fingers are and the correspondence with the track on screen makes it easy to follow, yet the difference with regular guitar is great enough that it's a new challenge, and you'll find yourself learning to play all over again from the easiest songs. Replacing the strum bar with separate strings alleviates fatigue, so long sessions are much more comfortable, and feel closer to playing a real guitar than the older instruments.
Outside of those two additions, there are also a lot of nice refinements to the main game. Gone are the separate World Tour and Challenge modes from prior games. Instead, your created band is more like your profile for the game, and everything you do adds to the band's legacy. There are tons of different goals, which are trackable achievements that unlock more fans, items, and Road Challenges. Road Challenges are a string of customizable set lists that feature challenges. Reminiscent of the challenges in recent Guitar Hero games, they reward you for using overdrive at certain points and keeping up a streak.
Rock Band 3 also riffs on Guitar Hero's Party Play mode, adding its take on that through a really nice 'overshell' that appears in the lower part of the screen when you're in the menus. You can also drop-in-and-out of a song at any point. It's nothing revolutionary, but it makes the experience so much smoother.
The vocal harmonies, introduced in The Beatles: Rock Band, are awesome, adding a new wrinkle to vocals and also allowing three vocalists on each song. If you're keeping score, that means seven people can play Rock Band at once in the new party-friendly "All Instruments" mode, which reduces on-screen clutter by not requiring the vocals to have a dedicated controller.
In my opinion, the set list is amazing, featuring some of my own personal favorite songs in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The songs are an eclectic mix, and there is a lot of variety, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes. Even if you don't like the set list, there are about 2,000 other songs to choose from in the game's music store.
My only gripe with the game is that the Wii version is graphically lacking. While it doesn't affect the gameplay that much, it's just a bad-looking game. However, it does appear to be feature complete with the other versions, including downloadable content and song transfer from Rock Band 2.
Rock Band 3 is the ultimate rhythm game experience. It takes the groundwork laid by past games and makes it extraordinary. If you never cared for rhythm games, you might be swayed to check this game out because of the excellent Pro Mode. If you've fallen off the rhythm game horse, then this might be your chance to jump back in. And you should, because this game is spectacular.